Some Shakespearean References to Music and Musicians

by Joseph Chiaravalloti

The works of William Shakespeare (1564-1616) are replete with musical references which attest to the bard’s thorough knowledge of contemporary music. It is a commonplace that music and theatre were closely linked because there was music before the plays, at intermezzos, and, very probably, during the plays, when called for. For the song lyric "O Mistresse Mine" in Twelth Night there exists a contemporary setting by Thomas Morley, (1557 - 1602) although it cannot be proved that Shakespeare knew it or used it in performance. There is a great deal of music in Midsummer Night’s Dream and it is possible to fit most of it to contemporary song tunes and instumental consorts, although all such settings are conjectural. For example the "Ousel Cock" song by Bottom fits a tune called "The Old Mole" like a glove and the lyrical "Now until the break of day" in the last act fits very well to Dowland’s "Frogg Galliard" from Morley’s Consort Lessons. There is also a setting by Morley for "It was a lover and his lass" from As You Like It.


Shakespeare’s word play often makes use of musical imagery or the technical vocabulary of music making. Of the famous musicians of the day, however, Shakespeare refers to only one by name.

John Dowland(1562 - 1626), noted composer and lutenist

Verse VIII, The Passionate Pilgrim.

              If music and sweet poetry agree,
As they must needs, the sister and the brother,
Then must the love be great 'twixt thee and me,
Because thou lovest the one, and I the other.
Dowland to thee is dear, whose heavenly touch
Upon the lute doth ravish human sense;
Spenser to me, whose deep conceit is such
As, passing all conceit, needs no defence.
Thou lovest to hear the sweet melodious sound
That Phoebus' lute, the queen of music, makes;
And I in deep delight am chiefly drown'd
When as himself to singing he betakes.
One god is god of both, as poets feign;
One knight loves both, and both in thee remain.
 References to music notation including the scale and the prick-song.

The two systems of music notation in use were the staff and the tablature. Both survive to this day, although tablature is now seen mainly in sheet music as the guitar or ukulele part. In tablature the lines represent strings, the numbers, frets or fingerings, and the notes, rhythm. Historically, tablature has been very valuable in reconstructing the capabilities and tunings of old instruments. Entablatured music was said to be "pricked out" and the songs so pricked out were called "prick songs". Since "prick" has so many connotations, including the modern one, besides its meaning in musical notation, one is never quite sure when a sexual pun is intended. Certainly, some of the bawdy songs of the period left no doubt, but Shakespeare was more delicate.

Staff notation dates from the 11th century and is credited to Guido d’Arrezo. It is essentially the modern system, although Guido used only four lines to the staff and bar lines were a much later development. The musical staff represents both pitches and rhythm, and the notes have names. Names are either of the do-re-mi (gamut) variety or the absolute names, such as B, C, D. In one dialogue from Taming of the Shrew, Shakespeare conveys a message from a suitor in the guise of a music lesson.

A symbolic music lesson.

The Taming of the Shrew.

Act 3, Scene 1

BIANCA Why, gentlemen, you do me double wrong,
To strive for that which resteth in my choice:
I am no breeching scholar in the schools;
I'll not be tied to hours nor 'pointed times,
But learn my lessons as I please myself.
And, to cut off all strife, here sit we down:
Take you your instrument, play you the whiles;
His lecture will be done ere you have tuned.

LUCENTIO That will be never: tune your instrument.

HORTENSIO Madam, before you touch the instrument,
To learn the order of my fingering,
I must begin with rudiments of art;
To teach you gamut in a briefer sort,
More pleasant, pithy and effectual,
Than hath been taught by any of my trade:
And there it is in writing, fairly drawn.

BIANCA Why, I am past my gamut long ago.

HORTENSIO Yet read the gamut of Hortensio.

BIANCA [Reads] ''Gamut' I am, the ground of all accord,
'A re,' to Plead Hortensio's passion;
'B mi,' Bianca, take him for thy lord,
'C fa ut,' that loves with all affection:
'D sol re,' one clef, two notes have I:
'E la mi,' show pity, or I die.'
Call you this gamut? tut, I like it not:
Old fashions please me best; I am not so nice,
To change true rules for old inventions.

Note that "e-la" is famous to crossword puzzlers as "Guido’s high note".

It would appear that Hortensio’s music lesson was not much of a success. In this aftermath the frets of a stringed instrument are played aginst "fretting and fuming" and while he is teaching the lute, a courtly, even maidenly instrument, the shrew belittles him a mere fiddler.

Act 2, Scene 1

HORTENSIO Why, no; for she hath broke the lute to me.
I did but tell her she mistook her frets,
And bow'd her hand to teach her fingering;
When, with a most impatient devilish spirit,
'Frets, call you these?' quoth she; 'I'll fume
with them:'
And, with that word, she struck me on the head,
And through the instrument my pate made way;
And there I stood amazed for a while,
As on a pillory, looking through the lute;
While she did call me rascal fiddler
And twangling Jack; with twenty such vile terms,
As had she studied to misuse me so.

In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare compares sword fighting to the singing of the prick-song mixing the imagery of fencing and musical rhythm. The minim rest takes the value of a half note in the British system where the note values range from the breve (a double whole note) throughthe semibreve, minim, crotchet, quaver, semiquaver, demisemiquaver, to the sixty-fourth note, the hemidemisemiquaver Romeo and Juliet

Act 2, Scene 4

MERCUTIO More than prince of cats, I can tell you. O, he is
the courageous captain of compliments. He fights as
you sing prick-song, keeps time, distance, and
proportion; rests me his minim rest, one, two, and
the third in your bosom: the very butcher of a silk
button, a duellist, a duellist; a gentleman of the
very first house, of the first and second cause:
ah, the immortal passado! the punto reverso! the

In As You Like It Rosalindmakes it clear that playing false is a musical trope. Act 4, Scene 3

ROSALIND Do you pity him? no, he deserves no pity. Wilt
thou love such a woman? What, to make thee an
instrument and play false strains upon thee! not to
be endured! Well, go your way to her, for I see
love hath made thee a tame snake, and say this to
her: that if she love me, I charge her to love
thee; if she will not, I will never have her unless
thou entreat for her. If you be a true lover,
hence, and not a word; for here comes more company.

Hamlet, speaking with his usual brilliance, refers to stops, which can refer to the organ or to the fingering of the viol (the double stop is bowing two strings at once to sound a chord). Act 3, Scene 2

HAMLET Why, look you now, how unworthy a thing you make of
me! You would play upon me; you would seem to know
my stops; you would pluck out the heart of my
mystery; you would sound me from my lowest note to
the top of my compass: and there is much music,
excellent voice, in this little organ; yet cannot
you make it speak. 'Sblood, do you think I am
easier to be played on than a pipe? Call me what
instrument you will, though you can fret me, yet you
cannot play upon me.

The Consort of Instruments.

A consort was a group musicians playing together (consorting, as it were). Besides church and liturgical music, art music was written for a closed consort of viols. There are pieces for up to seven viols in such genres as the In Nomine, the fancy, and the Felix Namque. The first and last were based upon quotations from liturgical works: the In Nomine being from the Missa Gloria Tibi Trinitas by Thomas Tallis (c1510-1585). The fancy was the fantasia, a free-form composition.

The Cittern

Broken consorts were mixed bands, but the one associated with Elizabethan theatre was the broken consort described in Thomas Morley’s First Book of Consort Lessons which specifed the instrumentation in detail: treble viol, bass viol, recorder, lute, pandora, and cittern.

Bass Viol (Gamba)

The effect of this combination is magical and must be heard to be appreciated: the sound is one of the utmost delicacy with the ability to penetrate without ever sounding loudly. Of the plucked instruments the steel strung pandora (bandora) and the cittern were used for chordal effect and the lute was allowed to run free with elaborate embellishments. The viols and recorder played the polyphonic lines.

The Julian Bream Consort conveys this sound to perfection on a CD recording still in print: $12.51 BREAM CONSORT*JULIAN -- FANTASIES AYRES & DANCES BMG7801 10/88 BMG.

Julian Bream with Lute

Shakespeare must have worked with these musicians and could not resist a good jibe, since all of his references to broken music and the consort are jocular. Watch how late-night television hosts treat their orchestra leaders and you will see that la plus que change, la plus que mê me chose.

Henry V (V,ii)

Come, your answer in broken music; for
thy voice is music and thy English broken.
As You Like It Act 1, Scene 2


But is there any else longs to see this broken music
in his sides? is there yet another dotes upon
rib-breaking? Shall we see this wrestling, cousin?

Troilus and Cressida Act III

Scene I


Dear lord, you are full of fair words.


You speak your fair pleasure, sweet queen. Fair
prince, here is good broken music.


You have broke it, cousin: and, by my life, you
shall make it whole again; you shall piece it out
with a piece of your performance. Nell, he is full
of harmony.

Broken music was of course played by a broken consort. No respect for the band here!
           Romeo and Juliet

Act 3, Scene 1
MERCUTIO Consort! what, dost thou make us minstrels? an
thou make minstrels of us, look to hear nothing but
discords: here's my fiddlestick; here's that shall
make you dance. 'Zounds, consort!
Down in The Dumps

According to the Harvard Anthology of Music, the oldest extant piece of keyboard music printed in England is a haunting tune with an ostinato bass called My Lady Carey’s Dompe. The Dompe or Dump appears to presage the modern expression "down in the dumps". It means simply, "the blues" and Shakespeare’s characters experienced them often.

The Taming of the Shrew

Act 2, Scene 1

BAPTISTA Why, how now, daughter Katharina! in your dumps?

Much Ado About Nothing

Act 2, Scene 3

BALTHASAR Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more,
Men were deceivers ever,
One foot in sea and one on shore,
To one thing constant never:
Then sigh not so, but let them go,
And be you blithe and bonny,
Converting all your sounds of woe
Into Hey nonny, nonny.
Sing no more ditties, sing no moe,
Of dumps so dull and heavy;
The fraud of men was ever so,
Since summer first was leafy:
Then sigh not so, &c.

Titus Andronicus

Act 1, Scene 1

MARCUS ANDRONICUS My lord, to step out of these dreary dumps,
How comes it that the subtle Queen of Goths
Is of a sudden thus advanced in Rome?

Romeo and Juliet

Act 4, Scene 5 See musicians’ scene, below.

The Rape of Lucrece

Stanza 161

'You mocking-birds,' quoth she, 'your tunes entomb
Within your hollow-swelling feather'd breasts,
And in my hearing be you mute and dumb:
My restless discord loves no stops nor rests;
A woeful hostess brooks not merry guests:
Relish your nimble notes to pleasing ears;
Distress likes dumps when time is kept with tears.

The by play of the musicians in Romeo and Juliet not only have dumps, but merry dumps. There is also a lot of musical word-play and a request for the musicians to play a popular song. In this passage depicting comical musicians Shakespeare recapitulates all the musical puns and adds new ones, pulling out all the stops, as it were. Romeo and Juliet: Act 4, Scene 5

First Musician: Faith, we may put up our pipes, and be gone.
Nurse: Honest good fellows, ah, put up, put up;
For, well you know, this is a pitiful case.

[Exit.]  First Musician: Ay, by my troth, the case may be amended.

Enter PETER.

PETER: Musicians, O, musicians, 'Heart's ease, Heart's
ease:' O, an you will have me live, play 'Heart's ease.'

First Musician: Why 'Heart's ease?'

PETER: O, musicians, because my heart itself plays 'My heart
is full of woe:' O, play me some merry dump, to comfort me.

First Musician: Not a dump we; 'tis no time to play now.

PETER: You will not, then?

First Musician: No.

PETER: I will then give it you soundly.

First Musician: What will you give us?

PETER: No money, on my faith, but the gleek;

I will give you the minstrel.

First Musician: Then I will give you the serving-creature.

PETER: Then will I lay the serving-creature's dagger on
your pate. I will carry no crotchets: I'll re you, I'll fa you; [a crotchet is a quarter note]
do you note me ?

First Musician: An you re us and fa us, you note us.

Second Musician: Pray you, put up your dagger, and put out your wit.

PETER: Then have at you with my wit! I will dry-beat you
with an iron wit, and put up my iron dagger. Answer
me like men:

'When griping grief the heart doth wound,
And doleful dumps the mind oppress,
Then music with her silver sound'--

why 'silver sound'? why 'music with her silver
sound'? What say you, Simon Catling?

Musician: Marry, sir, because silver hath a sweet sound.

PETER: Pretty! What say you, Hugh Rebeck? [A rebec is a primitive fiddle.]

Second Musician: I say 'silver sound,' because musicians sound for silver.

PETER: Pretty too! What say you, James Soundpost? [A soundpost is a structural element of violins and viols.]

Third Musician: Faith, I know not what to say.

PETER: O, I cry you mercy; you are the singer: I will say
for you. It is 'music with her silver sound,'
because musicians have no gold for sounding:
'Then music with her silver sound
With speedy help doth lend redress.'

Finally, a song without a burden and a reference to the popular madrigal. As You Like It.

Act 3, Scene 2

CELIA I would sing my song without a burden: thou bringest
me out of tune. [the burden is a bass accompaniment: Celia would rather sing solo.]

This famous verse by Marlowe, reply by Sir Walter Raleigh pays homage to the madrigal. Shakespeare quotes it humorously in The Merry Wives of Windsor, Act 3, Scene 1. The Passionate Pilgrim  Verse XX.

Live with me, and be my love,
And we will all the pleasures prove
That hills and valleys, dales and fields,
And all the craggy mountains yields.
There will we sit upon the rocks,
And see the shepherds feed their flocks,
By shallow rivers, by whose falls
Melodious birds sing madrigals.

There will I make thee a bed of roses,
With a thousand fragrant posies,
A cap of flowers, and a kirtle
Embroider'd all with leaves of myrtle.
A belt of straw and ivy buds,
with coral clasps and amber studs;
And if these pleasures may thee move,
Then live with me and be my love.


If that the world and love were young,
And truth in every shepherd's tongue,
These pretty pleasures might me move
To live with thee and be thy love.