Internet Shakespeare Editions


The music of the spheres

From Robert Fludd, Utrisque comsmi... historia (1617-19). By permission of Duke University Library.

When writers of the Renaissance speak of the harmony of ideal order and creation, they are not thinking of the terms just as a metaphor.

This illustration represents one way of ordering the heavens* and earth in musical harmony: the mystic threes begin with God, whose hand is visible at the top, and descend in groups of three as "Diapasons" (harmonic scales) through the spheres to the earth. Cosmic order was seen in both music* and dance*.

Iago's discord

As Othello kisses Desdemona, Iago picks up his metaphor of domestic harmony, turning it to one of discord and disorder:

Othello: And this, and this, the greatest discords be
That e'er our hearts shall make.
Iago: [Aside] O, you are well tuned now!
But I'll set down the pegs that make this music,
As honest as I am.


  1. Star-gazing

    Sit, Jessica. Look how the floor of heaven
    Is thick inlaid with patens [tiles] of bright gold.
    There's not the smallest orb which thou behold'st
    But in his motion like an angel sings,
    Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubins;
    Such harmony is in immortal souls,
    But while this muddy vesture of decay [our bodies]
    Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.
    (The Merchant of Venice, 5. 1. 58-65)

  2. Spherical music

    Each scale or "mode" in medieval music was associated with a particular sphere or planet (seven scales, seven planets), and each had a characteristic meaning and mood (much as do the two common remaining scales today, major and minor).

    Plainsong chants, simple and graceful in melody, were followed by the glorious church music of the high Renaissance (hear a mass by William Byrd), still written in the ancient modes.

    Listen to:

    • Part of a mass by William Byrd
    • [[ Resource not found ]]
    • A plainsong chant.
    • [[ Resource not found ]]
  3. Spherical dancing

    [[ Resource not found ]]