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Music in the plays

The two stringed instruments in the picture are viol da gamba, and a smaller "fiddle," or early violin; the wind instrument is a recorder. Courtesy Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Music sets a mood in many of Shakespeare's plays, both comedies and tragedies. Music on the lute*, recorder, or viol was courtly, refined: Hamlet calls for a recorder to put Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in their place*.

Oboes (hautboys) were more mysterious*, like their ancestor, the older shawm*, which was a rustic instrument by Shakespeare's time; in Beaumont's play The Knight of the Burning Pestle, the boorish Citizen scorns the recorders that provide refined music, and calls for the band of shawms ("waits") of the neighbouring Southwark district.

A song from The Tempest, played on recorders.*

The trumpet, drum and fife were warlike and royal. Trumpet "sennets" sounded to announce the king; and Benedick is horrified by Claudio's change in taste in music as he changes from soldier to lover*.

In his Diary, Philip Henslowe records some instruments owned by the company:

Item, iii trumpets and a drum, and a treble viol, a bass viol, a bandore [an instrument rather like a bass guitar--the name became corrupted to "banjo"], a cithern [an early form of the regular guitar]. . .

A page of links to sites about early music.

Footnotes

  1. Lutes dancing

    The piece you will hear if you click here is a dance for lute by Francis Cutting, a contemporary of Shakespeare's. Click for more on lutes.

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  2. Hamlet and the recorders

    Hamlet: Will you play upon this pipe?
    Guildenstern: My Lord, I cannot. . .
    Hamlet: It is as easy as lying. Govern these ventages [holes] with your fingers and thumb, give it breath with your mouth, and it will discourse most eloquent music. . .
    (3. 2. 356-67)

    Listen to some recorder music (the melody is Robert Johnson's setting of the song from The Tempest, "Where the Bee Sucks"; a version for voice is also available from this page):

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  3. Mysterious music

    In Antony and Cleopatra there is a moment towards the end when a number of unidentified soldiers are keeping guard outside Antony's camp. The stage direction reads: "Music of the hautboys is heard under the stage" (4. 3. 11). The soldiers speculate that it is "the god Hercules whom Antony loved, now leaves him."

  4. Screaming shawms

    Listen to the electronic recreation of the bagpipe-like sound of shawms (midi files) in two arrangements of popular dances by Curtis Clarke: a "Volte" by Michael Praetorius

    [[ Resource not found ]]

    and an anonymous Pavane.

    [[ Resource not found ]]

  5. A song from The Tempest

    The song available from these links, "Where the bee sucks," was set by Robert Johnson, a contemporary of Shakespeare. In this performance, the singer is accompanied by recorder and lute.

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    Alternately, you may download the MP3 file for playback in an external media player.

  6. Soldier to lover

    I have known when there was no music with him but the drum and the fife; and now had he rather hear the tabour and the pipe.
    (Much Ado About Nothing, 2. 3. 12-14)

    The tabour and pipe were instruments suitable for clowns and dancing--see the woodcut of William Kempe).