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Shakespeare’s Use of Songs – Part 2

By Frank Behrens
ART TIMES November/ December 2010

a lute

Having begun to take a look at songs in Shakespeare’s plays, we find many that set a mood but add little or nothing to the plot. Even in the more song-filled plays, they serve merely an atmospheric purpose. Will the playwright ever put a song to DRAMATIC use?

“As You Like It” contains several songs. “Under the greenwood tree” (II, v) sets both the mood and the philosophy of the exiled lords, while Jacques’ parody of it shows his cynical character; and indeed the entire scene could be cut out without any feeling of discontinuity of plot, but much of the theme would be lost. In II, vii, “Blow, blow, thou winter wind” merely gives Orlando a chance to give the Duke a synopsis of the events up to that point without the audience having to hear it all again.

Act IV, ii simply covers the time between the two meetings of Orlando and Rosalind and consists of ten lines of dialogue and a hunting song, “What shall he have that killed the deer?” It is often dropped from performances. At the very end of the play, the appearance of the god Hymen (or is it a mortal in disguise?) merely calls for a wedding song and a dance. And so Shakespeare’s happiest pastoral comedy makes no dramatic use of song!

There are plenty of songs sung by the woodland sprites in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” However, as lovely as they are as poetry, and one can wonder the melodies to which they were originally sung, they create, yet again, only atmosphere. Yes, one of them puts the besotted Bottom to sleep, but one can scarcely call that furthering the plot.

“Much Ado About Nothing” has only two songs. “Pardon, goddess of the night” (V, ii) is merely an expression of grief for one only thought to be dead. The scene in the garden (II, iii) includes “Sigh no more, ladies,” the sentiments of which are designed to trick Benedick into admitting his true feelings for Beatrice. It seems to work, especially when reinforced by the jokesters’ remarks about Beatrice loving him. But it is the dialogue, not the song, that really pushes Benedick into action.

“Twelfth Night” has Feste singing mood-setting songs at someone’s request. However, the snatches of song bellowed by the drunken Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, Maria, and Feste does incur the wrath of the Puritan Malvolio, which leads to him being gulled into thinking his ladyship loves him—and so on—and here at last is a song that gets things moving!
Later in his career, Shakespeare began to experiment with songs that show the state of mind of the character who sings the song. And, interestingly enough, they are found in the tragedies.

For example, utterly confused concerning her husband’s hostility toward her, Desdemona is getting ready for bed and recalls that her mother once had a maid named Barbary, who had gone mad when her lover forsook her. She then sings the maid’s song of “Willow.” The words are a perfect reflection of her mood and filled with unintentional irony. By now Shakespeare has learned how to use a song to enhance the complexity of a character.

Even more revealing are the songs sung by the mad Ophelia in “Hamlet” (IV, v). “And will he not come again” is both a lament for her dead father, Polonius, and possibly for her lost love, Hamlet. More to the point is her singing the bawdy “To-morrow is Saint Valentine‘s Day,” expressing ideas that “good girls” of her time were never supposed either to feel or even to know about. In Gertrude’s report of Ophelia’s death, it is significant that “she chanted snatches of old tunes” as her garments grew heavy with water.

So it is not the dramatic use of songs in his later plays that makes Shakespeare the wonder that he is but his psychological use of songs to reveal the hidden thoughts of characters. I feel it a shame that there are so few examples to draw upon.

For those interested in hearing the lyrics as they might have been heard in Shakespeare’s theater, I can recommend Ross W. Duffin’s Shakespeare’s Songbook (Norton, 2004). It includes two CDs with the first stanza of every song in the book and should prove valuable to scholars as well as theatre groups who wish to stage the plays with the earliest settings of the songs that have survived over the centuries.

Frank Behrens can be reached at