Playing Shakespeare: the music of the Bard

NightWatch_FromBardToVerse_RGBweb2Surrounded by music, William Shakespeare used it to create moments of comedy and light relief; tension and menace; tragedy and tenderness. He incorporated songs about fortune and fairies, love and loss, going mad and growing up; together with jigs, masques and Queen Elizabeth I’s favourite dance. Yet in today’s productions, the songs he included, clearly indicated by “sing” in the script, are often said as if they were spoken verse, or set to a new tune when the historical melody is there to be sung. This short article gives a little background to a select few of Shakespeare’s songs and tunes to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death in 1616, including videos of It was a lover and his lass; Holde thy peace / Three merry men; and When that I was and a little tiny boy.

With the establishment of the new indoor Globe theatre in 1599, William Shakespeare had a much more diverse musical soundworld to draw on than previously possible. No longer was he tied to using loud instruments to carry outdoors: he could utilise the full range musical emotional expression as a dramatic device.

Ophelia’s songs

And so it is in Hamlet, c.1600, that the 1603 First Quarto text reads, “Enter Ofelia playing on a Lute, and her haire downe singing”. Ophelia, lovesick for Hamlet, is caught in the web of him feigning madness so that he can reveal the guilt of his uncle Claudius and not be suspected: uncle Claudius has murdered his own brother, King Hamlet, Prince Hamlet’s father, in order to marry Gertrude, Prince Hamlet’s mother.

So when Hamlet wants to distance Ophelia so that he can more safely uncover evidence of Claudius’ plot, he tells her to “get thee to a nunnery” and declares, “I say we will have no more marriages”. Ophelia is bewildered, heartbroken, and convinced that Hamlet is insane. Hamlet makes matters even worse for Ophelia during The Mousetrap, a play within the play, making lewd and suggestive remarks to her while consumed with rage that his father is dead, his mother married to the murderer, and the villain not yet caught. That night Hamlet meets privately with his mother. In a rage, he strikes out with his sword through an arras (a hung tapestry) when he hears a man speak from behind it. Hamlet kills him, thinking it is uncle Claudius. Instead, he has killed Polonius, Ophelia’s father.

Ophelia Before The King and Queen by Benjamin West, 1792.

So by the time “Ofelia [enters] playing on a Lute, and her haire downe singing”, she has mentally fallen over the precipice. She speaks and sings to the queen, trying to get a message to her through singing a song about pilgrimage to Walsingham:

How should I your true love know from another one?
By his cockle hat and staff and his sandal shoon.

He is dead and gone, lady, he is dead and gone;
At his head a grass-green turf, at his heels a stone.

The implied reference is clear to the audience, but not to the queen: Ophelia’s loved father “is dead and gone”, killed by Hamlet.

Ophelia follows it with two bawdy songs, reflecting the inappropriate behaviour of Hamlet at The Mousetrap and his rejection of her:

Tomorrow is Saint Valentine’s day, all in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window, to be your Valentine.

Then up he rose, and donn’d his clothes, and dupp’d the chamber-door;
Let in the maid, that out a maid never departed more.

By Gis and by Saint Charity, alack, and fie for shame!
Young men will do’t, if they come to’t, by cock, they are to blame.

Quoth she, ‘Before you tumbled me, You promised me to wed.’
‘So would I ha’ done, by yonder sun, an thou hadst not come to my bed.’

The man in the song invites in his eager Valentine, has his will with her, and then rejects her for assenting to it. The emotional impact of such heartless rejection was the same as that felt by Ophelia. Since music is always a dramatic device in Shakespeare’s plays, it is sensible to assume that all of Ophelia’s songs were well-known to the audience, and that the emotional importance and relevance of the songs was a key factor in giving meaning to Ophelia’s distress.

It was a lover and his lass

It was a lover and his lass is from The First Book of Airs to Sing and Play to the Lute with the Base Viol (1600) by Thomas Morley. For a time, Morley lived in the same parish as Shakespeare, giving rise to speculation that the two men may have worked together, though there is no concrete evidence for this.

The song appears in its entirety in As You Like It, Act 5, Scene 3, sung by the Second Page, with one word change: Morley’s “country fools” becomes Shakespeare’s “country folks”. As You Like It was written 1599 or 1600, so Shakespeare may have incorporated the song as a personal favourite from the Morley book of the same year, or he may have wanted to include a song already popular with the public. In the days before copyright, when authors and musicians freely ‘borrowed’ from each others’ work, it is not inconceivable that Shakespeare wrote the words and Morley the music specifically for the play, but since Shakespeare receives no credit in Morley’s book, this is unlikely.

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The Night Watch: It was a lover and his lass (Thomas Morley).

The music of Twelfth Night

Some of the most well-known music in Shakespeare comes from one of his most musically-referenced and joy-filled plays, Twelfth Night, c. 1600-1601. The play was written as a Twelfth Night entertainment to close the Christmas season, with the musical interludes and high spirits expected of that occasion. The twelfth night after Christmas Day, called the Eve of the Feast of Epiphany, was a Roman Catholic holiday which had become a day of revelry and role reversals by Shakespeare’s day, with servants dressing as their masters and men as women, giving Shakespeare the inspiration for his comedy plot of cross-dressing and mistaken identity.

Act 2, Scene 3, in particular is full of music, thanks to the drunkard, Sir Toby Belch, encouraged by Sir Andrew and Feste the clown. The setting is Olivia’s house, in which we hear sung Thomas Morley’s O mistress mine; and the anonymous/traditional songs, Hold thy peace; There dwelt a man in Babylon; and O the twelfth day of December. There are also spoken references to Peg-a-Ramsey and Three merry men be we; and verses spoken in jest of the song, Farewell, dear heart, since I must needs be gone (which appeared in print as the lute song Farewell, dear love by Robert Jones).

Two of these songs are sung by The Night Watch in the video below. Hold thy peace is a catch which later appeared in Thomas Ravenscroft’s Deuteromelia, 1609. Ravenscroft was clearly not the composer since Twelfth Night predates Deuteromelia by nearly a decade and he would have been only 10 or 11 years old when Twelfth Night was written. Its words, as you’ll hear, are an early modern way of saying ‘Shut up, you rotter’!

Besides being in Twelfth Night, the words of Three merry men be we are quoted or sung in other contemporaneous plays: The Old Wives’ Tale by George Peele, 1595; Westward Hoe by Thomas Dekker and John Webster, 1607; The Knight of the Burning Pestle by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, 1607; Ram-alley, or Merry Tricks by Lording Barry, 1611; and Rollo Duke of Normandy, also known as The Bloody Brother, by John Fletcher, Philip Massinger, Ben Jonson and George Chapman, c.1612– 24. It is also cited in an anonymous tract of 1605 (by C.T.), Laugh and Lie Down, so the song was clearly very well-known and widely sung. It seems odd, then, or just back luck for music historians, that the tune of Three merry men is extant in only one source and that only one verse survives. The source is a 17th century commonplace book, date unknown, in the handwriting of the same John Playford who compiled and published The Dancing Master from 1651 onwards. Since there is only verse and it is not written as a catch, it seems likely that this is a fragment of a longer song, now lost. The Night Watch have made it into a catch, regardless, as you’ll hear.

The Night Watch: Holde thy peace / Three merry men. Click picture to play – opens in new window.
Click picture to play video – opens in new window.
The Night Watch: Holde thy peace / Three merry men.

Twelfth Night ends with a song from Feste the clown, When that I was and a little tiny boy. It is from Feste that we also hear the songs O Mistress Mine; Come Away, Death; and I Am Gone, Sir.

I’ve been unable to trace the source of the melody of When that I was. William Chappell’s Popular Music Of The Olden Time, c. 1860, states that the “Fool’s song which forms the Epilogue to Twelfth Night is still sung on the stage to this tune. It has no other authority than theatrical tradition.” That’s good enough for me: it is also theatrical tradition that preserves the melody of the gravedigger’s song in Hamlet, and that turns out to be Rogero, a late 16th century melody attested in many lute manuscripts of the time. William Chappell goes on to observe that a “song of the same description [of When that I was], and with the same burden, is sung by the Fool, in King Lear, act iii., sc. 2 — “He that has a little tiny wit, With a heigh ho! the wind and the rain, Must make content with his fortunes fit, For the rain it raineth every day.””

Feste’s song is about growth and endings: the boy is allowed to be foolish, but he has to grow up to take responsibility for his safety, and to marry, and as one gets older life gets tougher with “the wind and the rain”. But still one can find escape occasionally with “toss-pots”, i.e. drunkards (who have to keep getting up to pee in the pot, so it fills and has to be tossed). The play itself is a kind of escape, too, that ‘strives to please you every day’. And the lifetime of the play and of a man and of the world are tied together at the end of the song – the theatre was, after all, called The Globe. The final lines are, “A great while ago the world begun … But that’s all one, our play is done”: “that’s all one” meaning it’s all the same, it makes no difference, i.e. a man’s life, the play, the world or globe, all come to an end.

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Ian Pittaway performs When that I was and a little tiny boy.

© Ian Pittaway. Not to be reproduced in any form without permission. All rights reserved.

One thought on “Playing Shakespeare: the music of the Bard

  • 14th April 2017 at 8:40 pm

    Shakespeare’s music is so often passed over. Thank you for writing.


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