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Shakespeare's Dramatic Use of Songs

H. B. Lathrop. Modern Language Notes. Vol. 23

In the great majority of Shakespeare's plays there is some singing; and the exceptions are mainly those plays which are at least his, or are least characteristic of his genius. There is, if nothing more, a scrap of a ballad, or a stage direction for a song in every comedy but the Comedy of Errors, and in all the tragedies which are associated with the name of Shakespeare but Titus Andronicus, Timon of Athens, Coriolanus, and as I believe, the true text of Macbeth, — in a word, the most stern and drastic of the plays.

In the historical dramas, being of peculiar genesis and nature, there are songs only in the two parts of Henry IV, and in Henry VIII. As poems, these songs have roused delight and a delicate affection in the hearts of generations. Where is there any one with the least feeling for poetry to whom the mere repetition of the first line of "Where the bee sucks, there suck I," or "Hark! hark! the lark," or "Under the greenwood tree," is not as the breath of a spring breeze? As words for music, they have inspired literally hundreds of composers, some of them to compositions of entrancing beauty. They have been made the subject of much laudation and critical analysis. But there seems to be no general treatment of their dramatic function; — their part in the plays and their relation to the characters singing them. It is the purpose of the present paper to discuss these topics.

The great number of the songs — some forty that are more than fragments, besides stage directions for six more, and about fifty snatches of ballads — impresses a modern reader as unnatural; but as the first pages of Chappell's Popular Melodies of the Olden Time show, singing was universal in England in Elizabethan times. The meadow, the street, the barber-shop, rang with popular melodies. It is also, of course, well known that the standard of vocal accomplishment in those days was not high. We have authentic records of the much later introduction into England of the Italian art of singing. With the advance of the art, singing has become more and more the business of specialists, who sing much better than anybody in Shakespeare's England, but who make ordinary people ashamed to sing for their own or others' pleasure in company.

The stage of the present day, as a consequence, will not tolerate a song not sung with a finish and skill unknown to the actors of the Globe and the Curtain. When every gentleman, nay, every tinker and carter, sang to kill time, having neither tobacco nor newspaper, the stage naturally reflected the customs of the day. Again, as there was neither regular concert nor vaudeville in those days, the legitimate theatre was the only place where public singing could be heard; and hence an actor who sang agreeably was listened to with a patience such as no modern audience would show. The abundance of music in Shakespeare's and other Elizabethan plays is nothing individual, but was the most natural thing in the world, when England was still vocal and merry.

As to the personages into whose mouths the songs are put, Mr. G. Bernard Shaw said once, at a meeting of the Browning Society in London, when someone had quoted the hackneyed lines from Twelfth Night, so often pressed into service to prove Shakespeare' s surpassing love for music, that he should not like to sit down to dinner with the singers in Shakespeare. Complete songs are sung by fools, by pert pages, by men in liquor, by servants; by Autolycus the rogue, Caliban the monster, Iago the demi-devil; by Pandarus and Proteus; by Ariel and the fairies; by Ophelia, when mad, by Desdemona. In the company there is but one respectable man, Amiens, a mere walking gentleman, and but one noble woman in full possession of her intellect. Snatches of song are sung by such people as Falstaff, Petruchio, Mercutio, old Evans in the Merry Wives, the grave-digger in Hamlet, and Edgar when simulating insanity.

The snatches and scraps of song, as they interrupt the play least and are most like conversation, are the easiest of explanation. A frequent form taken by a trivial contest of wit in Shakespeare is the pert application of bits of familiar songs. Thus Rosaline in Love's Labors Lost (iv, 1: 129) sings jestingly to Boyet:
"Thou canst not hit it, hit it;
Thou canst not hit it, my good man."
and Boyet replies:
"An I cannot, cannot, cannot,
An I cannot, another can."
The free and easy wit, Mercutio, points his conversation (R. J., ii, 4; 140, 151) with bits of verse, in which popular songs or improvisations to familiar tunes are employed as quips and jeers. The clown in All's Well (i, 3; 63, 73) is merely pert. Touchstone's farewell to the priest (A. Y. L. iii, 3, 101) is more like Mercutio' s farewell to the Nurse in Rorneo and Juliet. Men of vacant minds at ease troll snatches of song, as the grave-digger in Hamlet, Petruchio, when he sits down at home and is drawing off his boots (T. S., iv, 1, 143, 148), and Falstaff taking his ease in his inn (H. IV, Pt. 2, ii, 4, 36). Evans, in the Merry Wives (iii, 1, 16), covers his fear by singing. Men who are exhilarated by drinking sing snatches of song. The most exquisite example is Silence (H. IV, Pt. 2, v, 3). He caps every speech with an irrelevant line or two from a ballad: "Be merry, be merry!" "Fill the cup and let it come!" Falstaff says: "Why now you have done me right."
"Silence. Do me right
And dub me knight,
Is't not so!
"Falstaff. 'Tis so.
"Silence. Why, then, say an old man can do some-
The fine scene with Sir Toby Belch, Sir Andrew Aguecheek and the Clown in Twelfth Night (ii, 3) will be recurred to later. Fools, who will be spoken of again, and mad persons betray their lightheadedness by irrelevant scraps of melody. Under this disguise the hysterical tenderness of the Fool in Lear is hidden; his shafts of keen but loving satiric wit are couched in the form of improvisations and parodies of popular songs, sung to familiar tunes. Edgar in his pretence of madness sings scraps of song, Ophelia does like-wise, and it is in the scene where Hamlet confirms in the mind of Polonius the belief in his madness that Hamlet repeats, or as I think more likely, sings, a line or two of an old song. In fine, the singing of snatches of melody is, on Shakespeare's stage at best undignified, and usually unbalanced.

The complete songs present a more attractive and a more complicated problem. A few are mere epilogues, as is the song "When that I was and a little tiny boy," at the end of Twelfth Night. The actor who first played the part was a favorite singer, and an Elizabethan audience was glad of the opportunity to hear him sing a popular song — it is not by Shakespeare — after the play was over. The two songs with which Love's Labors Lost closes are in effect epilogues. Unlike the epilogue of Twelfth Night, they must be by Shakespeare. No other writer combined such vividness of concrete phrase, humor, and refined sweetness of diction as are present in these two songs. Yet they are mere tags to the play.

Other songs have a mechanical or technical function. They help to shift a scene or to bring in an aside. For example, in As You Like It, two people go out. It is desired to bring them on the stage again almost immediately, two hours or more being supposed to pass in the interval. A song is interpolated (iv, 2) between the two appearances, a lively song with a lot of bustle on the stage, — "What shall he have that kills the deer?" Dr. Johnson complained that this "noisy scene," in which nothing was transacted, was supposed to occupy two hours. So it did to the imagination. It took up the mind for the moment, broke the current of thought completely, and when the next scene opened, the auditor only felt that an indefinitely long space of time had elapsed since the personages then on the stage had left it. We must remember that there was no curtain closing off the whole stage, and no such decisive change of the scenery as is possible now.

Or again, where Proteus sings Thurio's song to Sylvia (T. G. iv, 2, 31), Julia is enabled to catch the proof of his faithlessness more easily and with less appearance of spying than if she listened to speech addressed to Sylvia alone. Likewise in Much Ado (ii, 3, 64), Balthazar's song, "Sigh no more, ladies," gives the opportunity to make Benedick's hiding and detection more effective.

But these are after all superficial effects, mere accidents of the playwright's trade, having little to do with the fundamentally dramatic elements in the plays. Can we not find in Shakespeare's employment of songs a finer art than is exhibited in these tricks and devices?

A drama is an action; a connected sequence of human deeds. These deeds of the characters proceed from their will, or unconsciously reveal their characters. An action, then, brings together the two worlds, the world within us and the world without. A deed is dramatic, as Freytag tells us, if it is the result of an inward struggle, reaching a decisive determination, with consequences in the outer world; an event is dramatic if it acts on the inner life and affects the character. Will, then, is the supremely dramatic element of human nature. Further, an act to be dramatic must be part of a transaction, of a plot. Thus the appearance of the ghost in Hamlet is dramatic; it affects the action of Hamlet's mind, and has consequences psychological and material. Hamlet's mental struggles are dramatic; they affect the decision of his will, and determine the fortunes of others. Hamlet is a dramatic character: we see in him an effort to adjust the outer and the inner world. Ophelia is not in the same degree dramatic. In her case we deal not so much with acts and consequences as with fixed emotional conditions.

Melody, it is obvious, is in some respects the opposite of dramatic. It is the index and the natural result of definite emotional conditions with vague results in the world of action. It looks to no consequences, it is complete in its own paradise. Its seed is in itself, like the fruit tree created by divine power in the beginning of the world. A song sung naturally gives us a picture, not an incident; is static, not progressive. Thus in an Italian opera the conspicuous scenes are points of emotional overwelling, — joy, aspiration, retrospect, — in which the mood of a single figure dominates the stage. The aria is finished, the story is moved on by a quasi-conversation, and a new emotional picture is given. "Arsace returns — I rejoice"; "Margherita! how beautiful you look in the jewels"; "Ah, what a fright I had last night!" The melodies of the Elizabethan age were gentle and closed in short space, and were therefore frequently recurrent. They are accordingly conspicuously incompatible with decided action and forward movement of the plot.

Songs, and especially such songs, are fit for one class of scenes above all — convivial scenes. Joy is its own justification. It looks neither forward nor backward, but simply bubbles out in ecstatic song, dance, and frolic. Song is the absolute ideal expression of joy, in real life as on the stage. Naturally, every convivial scene in Shakespeare contains snatches of singing, more often than not accompanying a complete song. There are five notable passages of bacchanalian gaiety in Shakespeare's plays: the one in Henry IV, Pt. 2, already referred to, in which Silence gradually gets drunk as an accompaniment to fragments of a dozen ballads; the scene in Othello (ii, 31) in which Iago tempts Cassio, and sings a pair of jolly songs; the scene in Antony and Cleopatra (iii, 2) in which Pompey entertains the triumvirs, and the boy sings "Come, thou monarch of the vine"; the scene in the Tempest (ii, 2), in which Stephano and Caliban sing; and the scenes in Twelfth Night (ii, 1 and 3), in which the musical fool entertains the two knights, and Sir Toby afterwards becomes irrepressibly vocal.
The central song of the last passage, "O mistress mine," completely and purely expresses delight in living, but in it there is nothing dramatic, not so much as special appropriateness to the character of the singer. It is, of course, something to cause reflection that such words should be put into the mouth of a professional entertainer singing to two old sinners. We know Elizabethan England could provide plenty of ribald songs; but testimony of the most irrefutable nature assures us that the sympathies of the time were sufficiently pure for very ordinary fellows, boors even, to delight in such strains as these. Several of the drinking songs are designed to be in keeping with the characters who sing them, — for example, Stephano's vulgar tavern songs, and Caliban's grotesque canticle of freedom; and no doubt the drinking song in Antony and Cleopatra is designedly classical in its allusions.

The central function of Shakespeare's songs, however, the function of the songs most loved and best remembered, is to give a tone, usually a glamor and a sense of romance, to a whole play. Proteus's song to Sylvia, the only song in Shakespeare actually sung by a lover to his mistress, and by him under pretense of acting as a deputy, is the song of a faithless lover, and its substance has no peculiar fitness to the situation. Only the age and time and place wherein such songs are sung is raised and ideal. In Cymbeline it is Cloten who causes to be sung the "hunt's-up," — "Hark! hark! the lark"; but the charm of the song makes the whole play beautiful with the light of morning, while the song of the two boys by "fair Fidele's grassy tomb" perfumes it as with the breath of violets.

It is in the woodland romances that this effect is most plain; as is natural from the traditions of Elizabethan song. It is largely, if not mainly, pastoral in spirit. The pastoral form has never taken firm hold in English literature, but the pastoral spirit has been vital there as in few literatures, a spirit of delight in rural life, felt by people near enough to enjoy it, far enough to appreciate it, and sophisticated enough to idealize it. In the pastoral romances, elegant and refined shepherdesses, or princesses disguised as such, are wooed by elegant and chivalrous shepherds; and both of them fill every pause with song. When the hero is sad, he sings; when hopeful, he sings; when he has nothing to do, he sings; when he is going to do something, he sings; and when he has done something, he sings.

We are told what passion his songs display, but when we read the verses the passion seems to have evaporated, leaving usually a caput mortuum, but sometimes a delicate savor of gentle and romantic beauty, and a strange and sweet union of sincerity and artificiality. Such are the songs and pastorals of Breton, the successful songs of Lodge and Greene, and such in the drama are the golden songs of Peele, and Lyly's "Cupid and my Campaspe." Arcadia is a kind of fairyland, and Cupid and other delicate mythological fancies from the gardens of Alexandria are not unfit associates for the princesses of curds and cream who dwell there. The appropriateness of such songs to the forest of Arden is evident, even though a clearer air blows in it than in the sometimes "musky alleys" of Arcadian groves. Without "Under the greenwood tree," "Hey, ding-a-ding," and "Blow, blow, thou winter wind," how much even of the charm of Rosalind would be lost.

Fairies and sweet spirits of course sing. One might think song would be their natural speech; but this is not the case. Fairies and witches speak in a special metre, but they speak. Yet the incantations of fairyland are often sung:
"Ye spotted snakes, with double tongue,
Thorny hedge-hogs, be not seen;
Newts and blind worms, do no wrong;
Come not near our fairy queen."
At the end of A Midsummer Night's Dream, a stage direction calls for a song and dance of the fairies to hallow the house; and the pretended fairies in The Merry Wives play their pranks with a song, reminding us how in Lyly's plays no mischief of page or fairy but is performed to singing. The scenes in Macbeth containing stage directions for a song are generally regarded as spurious, and while the witches must intone "Double, double," or deliver it in recitative, the metrical structure of the verses which accompany this refrain seem to make a regular tune for the words very unlikely. Ariel is a creature of song. His element is even more ethereal than that of the fairies, and he is represented nearly always as exercising his magic influence, or as in an ecstasy beyond expression except through song. Hence he sings always.

Fools are all singers. They are professional entertainers, they are emotionally unbalanced, hysterical, and excitable, and song, whether fragmentary or complete, is appropriate in their mouths. Rogues also sing. Like fools, they make a business of entertaining; and their irresponsibility is marked by their giving themselves up to impulse, instead of looking to the remote consequences of action. Illustrations are Falstaff, Pandarus, Autolycus. Rogues and fools are generally but two species of the same genus in Shakespeare, and both alike are usually given something of the golden charm of Arcadian life such as pervades the atmosphere of As You Like It. Autolycus in particular through his songs expresses the delights of irresponsible living sweetly and perfectly.

Effective men do not sing in Shakespeare, Iago may seem to be an exception; but Iago sings not to sing but to seduce. He sings as a dramatic act, with purpose and with effect in the plot. He assumes the appearance of unthinking good-fellowship, and in doing so displays another of the gifts which his creator lavished upon him. We may be sure he was a creditable vocalist as well as a ready improvisator.

A station of dignity is incompatible with singing, on the stage of Shakespeare, either by man or woman. Hence great personages who desire to hear music call for it, and the actual singing is performed by a servant or attendant, usually a young person. Here, of course, the influence of practical exigencies in determining the assignment of roles must be recognized. Singing parts would naturally be taken by the best vocalist in the company; and a company would be strangely fortunate in which the best vocalist possessed also the abilities qualifying him for the nobler roles. In principle, Hamlet as a complete gentleman should be a musician; but Hamlets who can rise to the part are not so common that the choice should be limited by adding dispensable requirements to the absolute necessities of the part. Often, indeed, the singer might not have histrionic talent for even humble roles.

Hence, the playwright, except where assured of uncommon powers possessed by the singing actor, could safely offer him only a colorless part, or at best one of little variety, in which he could be coached. Yet, after all allowances and abatements are made, it is plain that like all other wise artists, like the painter in oil who "feels his medium," or the architect who is aware that the same ideas cannot be expressed in marble, iron, and brick, Shakespeare has by accepting the limitations of his art, made them the means of characteristic effects. It is to be observed that even the noble personages who care for music in Shakespeare are in general a little soft. It is the love-sick duke in Twelfth Night who is consoled by listening to Feste and finds "music the moody food of love." Brutus asks the boy Lucius for a song, and the emotional tenderness of Brutus, hidden under his mask of stoicism, is often suggested.

The melancholy Jaques, who beweeps the deer, calls for Amiens' first song; and though the banished duke asks for the second, he does not listen, but talks to Orlando. The songs at the ladies' windows, "Hark! hark! the lark," and "Who is Sylvia?" are conventional compliments, and indicate no interest in music on the part of either Cloten or Thurio. It is a trait of the character of Othello, a man of action, that he "does not greatly care to hear music," and of Benedick that he says, "A horn for my money I" To be sure, Benedick tries to sing when he is in love; but he makes himself ridiculous in the attempt.

Among women, the forsaken and unhappy lady is solaced by song. Mariana in her moated grange hears her page sing "Take, oh, take those lips away." Queen Katharine in Henry VIII listens to "Orpheus with his lute," — the convention is the same whether the scene be Shakespeare's or not. The reason why decent, effective, and dignified men do not sing or appear to care much for song in Shakespeare is that they are responsible persons in the world of action: it is the passive characters in tragedy who sing or are comforted by song. It is the pathetic situation of the woman, a passive character, overcome by fate not deserved, the satellite of the active characters, which is thus accentuated, — pathetic, I say, not tragic, overcoming by pity, not associated with terror. Ophelia's songs are of this nature, and Desdemona's song of "Willow, Willow," owes its dramatic effect to the same sentiment. It is a curious illustration of the difficulty felt in the Shakespearean drama of combining external dignity with the act of singing that the one lady should be mad when she sings, and that the other should be in the utmost privacy of her home, and overcome by melancholy sentiment.

In reading Shakespeare's dramas for the purposes of this study, I have been surprised to observe how many scenes, whether musical or not, are mainly contributory to the atmosphere and background, instead of the action, of the plays. The intenser scenes are in this way provided with foils, and the attention is not jaded by too constant excitement. Thus to some of the most active plays are given serenity and gentleness, qualities which predominate in the personal impression left by Shakespeare.

How to cite this article:
Lathrop, H. B. Shakespeare's Dramatic Use of Songs. Modern Language Notes. Vol. 23. 1 Jan. 1908. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2013. < >.


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