Music and song were very important in Elizabethan times as it has been throughout history.
Shakespeare’s plays feature over one hundred songs (some in full, some are alluded to). Many of these songs would have been well known to the groundlings and equally to the gentry in the audience.
More educated members of his audience would be able read music and play an instrument, they would be familiar with many of the Elizabethan music such as madrigals and ballads of the time.
How Shakespeare Uses Song
Shakespeare uses songs to mark significant occasions be they joyous or sombre. He also uses music to evoke sentiments or allude to aspects of a character’s nature. For example, Ophelia is heard distractedly singing a folk song, this song would have been recognised by an Elizabethan audience as a folk song from their childhood and would therefore reinforce Ophelia’s vulnerability and pave the way for her decent into madness:
By Gis, and by Saint Charity,
Alack, and fie for shame!
Young men will do’t if they come to’t
By Cock they are to blame.
Quoth she ‘Before you tumbled me,
You promised me to wed.’
So would I ‘a’ done by yonder sun,
An thou hadst not come to my bed.
(Ophelia in Hamlet, Act 4 Scene 5)
King Claudius recognises Ophelia’s behaviour marked by her singing as the start of her madness: “How long hath she been thus?” (Act 4, Scene 5).
In the Tempest, Stefano sings for comfort, while drinking himself in to a stupor:
The master, the swabber, the boatswain, and I,
The gunner and his mate,
Loved Mall, Meg and Marian, and Margery,
But none of us cared for Kate.
For she had a tongue with a tang,
Would cry to a sailor ‘Go hang!’
She loved not the savour of tar nor of pitch,
Yet a tailor might scratch her where’er she did itch.
Then to sea boys, and let her go hang!
Then to sea etc.
(Stefano in The Tempest, Act 2, Scene 2)
This bawdy ditty serves to shock, make the audience laugh (The Tempest is a comedy after all) but also exposes Stefano’s character as the drunken subordinate that he is.
Shakespeare also uses song as a device to move the narrative along.
In the following song, Ariel warns Gonzalo of a conspiracy against him. Song is used in order that Ariel remains ethereal, but at the same time is still able to affect the narrative and inspire action:
While you here do snoring lie,
His time doth take.
If of life you keep a care,
Shake off slumber and beware.
(Ariel in The Tempest, Act 2, Scene 1)
Song as Innuendo
In Cymbeline, Shakespeare uses the idea of music and the playing of musical instruments as innuendo:
I would this music would come. I am advised to give her music o’ mornings; they say it will penetrate...
Come on, tune. If you can penetrate her with your fingering so; we’ll try her tongue too.
(Cloten in Cymbeline, Act 2, Scene 3)
Twelfth Night ends with a song sung by Feste. This is an unsettling song about a boy who grows up to learn of life’s cruelty. It is melancholy, Twelfth Night is a feast and feasts and festivities all come to an end, as does childhood. Feste’s song leaves us with an uneasy feeling despite the play being a comedy and despite celebrating the lovers coming together, we are left with a question as to what will happen next?
When That I was and a little tiny boy,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
A foolish thing was but a toy,
For the rain it raineth every day...
(Feste in Twelfth Night, Act 5, Scene 1)
In The Merchant of Venice, Lorenzo highlights the importance of music and song:
The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils.
The motions of his spirit are dull as night,
And his affections dark as Erebus.
Let no such man be trusted. Mark the music.
(The Merchant of Venice, Act 5, Scene 1)