His Music


All’s Well That Ends Well, Shakespeare & Company, 2008

Directed by Tina Packer.  Music by Bill Barclay.

I have long been fascinated with what I have come to call the many musics of Shakespeare.  Were one to specialize in “Shakespeare’s music,” where might you begin?  Studying the 51 songs of the play that have lyrics, and compiling their original sources?  Ross W. Duffin has done that magnificently in Shakespeare’s Songbook.  Does the interested scholar look to the dances?  To the history of rounds, catches, ballads, madrigals, and hymns?  To the heritage of Elizabethan and English song as a whole and what we learn of it through Shakespeare?  Perhaps the poetry itself appears musical to the writer, and she wishes to expound upon meter, rhyme, and poetic devices.  There is an entire codex to be built of all of Shakespeare’s musical metaphors – nearly one a scene throughout the whole canon.  And surely a doctoral thesis or two could be spun from all the song references in Shakespeare’s plays – the tunes and lyrics everyone knew so well that one single half-line could hint the outcome of the plot by referencing at an entire other story (used most cleverly as a foreshadowing device in The Winter’s Tale and Othello, notably).  How about the music theory of the day – pre-Bach and uniquely polyphonic, spun out in mass after mass heralding a Renaissance of English music.  And still there are the musical instruments of the day to consider, and the instruments used on stage.  There is the acoustics of his performance space, when the musicians played, where they might have played from in the space, what they wore, and what kind of presence they were – active?  laughing?  invisible mostly?  improvisatory?   Did actors play instruments?  Does it make it better if they do?

Both my problem and my calling is that I am deeply curious about all of these things.  The more I look the more I see how multifaceted the issue of music is with respect to Shakespeare’s works.  His writing is so interdisciplinary in this way; though one should note that is a deeply retrospective point of view.  The fact is the further we go into the past, the closer the performing arts actually were to each other – all the way back to primitive man and song, rhythm, fire, story, ritual, and maybe even some paint.  Shakespeare’s day saw the creation of the modern theatre, and it was not just a theatre, but a concert hall and dance venue.  The actors pursued crafts of all kinds, including sword fighting and costuming.  They built props, and worked together.  Many were shareholders, or the playwright.  Music was just as much a part of the magic as any single other element, if only because they were all more deeply and inextricably linked together than we experience them today.

My plan to read the whole canon aloud was born from a desire to get a dedicated pass through it to trace Shakespeare’s various musicalities.  I am following and noting as much as I can and hope at the end of my journey that I am able to say something not only relevant to Shakespeare and his many fans, but to lovers of theatre and music today.  A man with a musical wit, who intended for his choicest language to somehow mingle compellingly with its delivery, who was passionate about music, song, and dance, and who had poetry flowing through his entire soul should be able to remind us, among so many other things, that there is communion to be found in collaboration.