Music in Shakespeare

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 11

Rebecca Sheir, host of our Shakespeare Unlimited series, interviews Ross W. Duffin, professor at Case Western University, about musical hints in Shakespeare that have been flying over the heads of most audiences and readers for 400 years.

Duffin is the author of the award-winning Shakespeare's Songbook (2004), a title that only suggests the book's broader story. Duffin includes the songs performed within Shakespeare's plays—but also those that are not sung, but simply alluded to. Familiar to audiences of the day, these songs' words or phrases added meaning to the plays—long-lost implications and suggestions that his book seeks to restore. 

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From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. © September 24, 2014. Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, "That Old and Antique Song We Heard Last Night," was written and produced for the Folger Shakespeare Library by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is associate producer. Edited by Esther Ferington and Gail Kern Paster. We had help gathering material for this podcast series from Amy Arden.

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MICHAEL WITMORE: From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger's director. This podcast is called, "That Old and Antique Song We Heard Last Night."

It was not that long ago when you could ask "Where’s the beef?" or make reference to the Hayes Office, or floy floy, or a dogface, and be confident that others would get the reference. You knew people would understand, because those phrases were in the common parlance, put there by commercials, cartoons, movies, or songs.

This is a tradition that apparently goes back a long way, at least as far back as Shakespeare’s time, or so we learned in 2004 when Ross Duffin, a professor at Case Western Reserve University, released Shakespeare’s Songbook, a title that gives only a hint of the book's subject. This isn’t only a book about the songs in Shakespeare’s plays, it’s also about songs that aren’t in Shakespeare’s plays, but can nevertheless help the plays make more sense, if you know the song. It seems there are musical hints in the plays that were flying over the heads of most audiences 400 years later, that is, until Ross pulled back the veil.

He explains all that now in a conversation with Rebecca Sheir.


SHEIR: So, Ross, as we get started here, I want you to share an anecdote, because I really think it drives home the significance of what you've discovered. When you first submitted your manuscript for Shakespeare’s Songbook to W.W. Norton, what was it that the editor told you?

DUFFIN: Well, at first, I didn't hear anything at all, and I understood that, in a way, because major publishers would rarely accept an unsolicited manuscript anyway, and I realized that, who knew there was anything new to be said about songs in Shakespeare after 400 years.

SHEIR: But there was one researcher in the 1960s, Peter Seng, who seemed to have found everything there was to find.

DUFFIN: Right, yes, and Peter Seng's book is really valuable, was a really valuable tool for me. He talked about 70 songs in the plays of Shakespeare and really wrote up everything that was known about the original songs and tunes, and the settings over the centuries, since Shakespeare’s day as well.

SHEIR: Now, as I understand it, Ross, you learned later from an insider at the publishing company about the reaction when people over there actually did read your manuscript. Can you tell us about that?

DUFFIN: Right, when I finally got permission to send my manuscript in, I found out subsequently that the Shakespeare editor, the music editor, and the poetry editor were all dancing around the editorial office.

SHEIR: [LAUGHS] And why was that? Why were they literally dancing?

DUFFIN: Well, it's because what I had discovered is that there was this web of allusions to songs, popular songs, not just the featured songs in the plays, but popular songs in ballads and rounds and things, that were connected to the plots of the plays at these various times, and no one really had noticed this before, and so people were really excited.

SHEIR: And in a sense what Shakespeare was doing, then, was tying these people's experience of the song into the meaning of the play.

DUFFIN: Absolutely, yes, I mean Shakespeare was counting on the fact that everybody knew these popular songs, and when he would cite them or quote them, the audience members would know the song and would draw their experience of the song, and their understanding of the entire song lyrics, into their experience of the play.

SHEIR: Hmm, so now when we're talking about these songs, I just want to be clear here. We're not talking about the songs that appear in Shakespeare’s plays as songs, you know, where someone stops and actually sings. We're talking about references to songs that appear as lines, spoken by the characters, right?

DUFFIN: Right, that's right, there are about three dozen songs or so that appear in Shakespeare’s plays and that are labeled "Song" in the First Folio, and usually their text is in italics, set off from the other text. So, we know that those are songs, but what I was mostly interested in were these passing allusions to songs, not the featured songs in the plays, but rather just little quotes and references.

SHEIR: Right, now, can you have us, can you give us an example of this? Walk us... For example, the first instance where you discovered this.

DUFFIN: I noticed this first, I was reading Winter's Tale, and there’s a line, "The news, Rogero?" and this character is speaking to another character named Rogero, and asking what the news is, and it’s odd because Rogero sounds like a name, but it’s also the title of a tune, a very famous ballad tune.

[CLIP from "The Torment of a Jealous Mind":]

All such as lead a jealous life,
    as bad as pains of hell,
Bend down attentive ears to this
    which I shall briefly tell

DUFFIN: And I thought, you know, that’s a really funny coincidence, that Shakespeare would use this name Rogero for a character, and he never uses it again anywhere else in his plays, and he never uses it again even in Winter's Tale. And then, the next line was, "Such a deal of wonder is broken out ... that ballad makers should not be able to express it."

Then I was really intrigued, because here was Shakespeare citing a ballad tune title, and then immediately drawing attention to it with this "ballad makers" reference. And so, I went hunting, and found that there was a ballad, set to the tune Rogero, that had a plot that paralleled the plot of The Winter's Tale at that point. It was about, it’s called "The Torment of a Jealous Mind," and it’s about a jealous husband who suspects his innocent wife and her supposed lover, and that’s exactly what was going on with Leontes suspecting Hermione and Polixenes.

[CLIP from "The Torment of a Jealous Mind":]

And, thereby, learn to live content,
     in quiet peace and rest,
And harbor not suspicious thoughts
     within a troubled breast.

DUFFIN: The ballad ends badly. He murders the two, his wife and her lover, and then commits suicide, and I thought, "Okay. I mean, here is Shakespeare’s audience, they know this ballad. It’s very famous, the tune is very famous. They are going to think that the play is going to end badly as well, because the ballad ends badly, and Shakespeare has just cited it and drawn the experience of the ballad into The Winter's Tale."

And it was like light bulbs were going on all over the place in my head, because I thought, you know, we're not getting these references, we don’t know these songs, and so I wonder how many other instances there are like this in Shakespeare’s plays, and so that’s what started me on the project in the first place.

SHEIR: Well, you say in your book that sometimes, I’m quoting here, "sometimes only the title of a tune is cited" in a play, and that would invite "the audience to make a connection between the scene of the play and some popular song set to that tune." Can you give an example of that? For example, The Taming of the Shrew, Petruchio saying "Good morrow to my bride."

DUFFIN: Right, yeah, that’s an interesting reference, because "The Bride's Good-Morrow" is a ballad about Griselda, and Griselda, of course, had been known since Bocaccio...

SHEIR: That she's a wife, whose husband torments her, and she submits to his will.

DUFFIN: Right, that’s right, there was a play of Patient Grissel, as they called her, that was published in the 1560s, that would have been known to Shakespeare’s theater audience, and so... a ballad about Griselda.

When Petruchio says, I’m going to say "good morrow to my bride," people are going to realize, "Uh oh, this is going to be submitting Kate to all sorts of tests of her mettle and her patience, and everything else," and in fact, Petruchio had earlier said, "she will prove a second Grissel." In other words, she will prove to be a second Griselda, and so that furthers that connection between Griselda and Kate, and so, if you don’t know that "The Bride's Good-Morrow" is a ballad about "patient Griselda," you don’t get the reference.

[CLIP from "The Bride's Good-Morrow":]

A noble marquess as he did ride on hunting
    hard by a forest side;
A proper maiden, as she did sit a spinning,
    his gentle eyes had spied.

SHEIR: Then there’s also a song in Twelfth Night  that you mention in your book, and in this case in the script. There’s a song that’s called for, but I understand, for 400 years, no one knew the tune, but you think you found it. Can you talk to us about that?

DUFFIN: Right, that, in fact, is one of the three dozen featured songs in the plays, "Come Away, Come Away Death." And what I had decided, was that maybe the reason we didn’t have these songs as lute songs, or, you know, formal songs, was because they never had formal tunes... That the actors in the plays of Shakespeare, confronted by a song text, they would simply set it to a tune that worked well with the text. And so I made a database for myself of the song texts, with the number of lines in a stanza, the number of feet in a line, the rhyme scheme, and all kinds of things like that. And so I was trying to find a tune that would work with "Come Away, Come Away Death," because it’s a very unusual versification. And I found one, and I thought, "Okay, well, that could work," and then I noticed that Orsino, a few lines before the song, says to Cesario, well, "If ever thou shalt love, / In the sweet pangs of it," and "The Pangs of Love" was the official title of the original setting of that very tune that I had found.

[CLIP from "Come Away, Come Away Death":]

Come away, come away, death,
     And in sad cypress let me be laid.
Fly away, fly away, breath,
     I am slain by a fair cruel maid.
My shroud of white, stuck all with yew,

DUFFIN: What I had done was not to make a conjectural reconstruction of a song, but rather to recover the tune that had been used originally in the song, and it was because there was this clue that Shakespeare had embedded in the text.

[CLIP from "Come Away, Come Away Death":]

Not a flower, not a flower sweet
    On my black coffin let there be strown;
Not a friend, not a friend greet
    My poor corpse where my bones shall be thrown.
A thousand thousand sighs to save,
    Lay me, O, where
Sad true lover never find my grave
    To weep there.  

SHEIR: This whole sort of Easter egg planting, these clues, was this a common device at the time, or is it something only Shakespeare did?

DUFFIN: Well, I’m interested to explore other playwrights, but it’s something that, on my initial review, is not nearly so much apparent in these other playwrights, you know, Jonson and Dekker and Marston and Fletcher and people like that. They often use songs in their plays, but they don’t use this same kind of web of allusion that Shakespeare does. It seems to be unique to him.

SHEIR: As you're talking about all these examples in Shakespeare, I’m trying to think of whether there’s a contemporary parallel for this. I mean I can think of a few instances in movies, where someone will mention a song lyric.

[CLIP of movie dialogue:]

Isn't it ironic? Don't you think?

[CLIP from Die Hard with a Vengeance:]

BRUCE WILLIS as JOHN MCCLANE: I was working on a nice fat suspension, smoking cigarettes and watching Captain Kangaroo.

[CLIP from The Other Guys:]

MICHAEL KEATON as CAPT. GENE MAUCH: Do me a favor; don't go chasing waterfalls.
WILL FERRELL as ALLEN GAMBLE: Was that accidental, or were you trying to quote TLC on purpose?

SHEIR: Is this the same thing that Shakespeare was doing?

DUFFIN: Well, yeah, in a way, although I think it’s very difficult for playwrights today to do something similar. I was telling someone recently that I had gone to see Book of Mormon with my wife and had noticed in the midst of it, that there was an allusion to a song from The Sound of Music, and I wondered how many people in the theater would have got it. But, of course, anyone who knows The Sound of Music would have heard this connection to that tune, and they would have drawn that experience into their experience of The Book of Mormon.

And, as I thought about it, I realized that it’s very difficult for playwrights today to do something similar. In Shakespeare’s day, everybody knew these ballads, everybody knew these popular songs, everybody from the monarch down to the lowliest groundling, because it was the entertainment of the time. They would go to the pub and listen to a ballad being sung. It was their movies, it was their sitcoms, it was their dramas on TV. That was the entertainment, and everybody knew the latest ballad and the song, the tune that went with it.

And so, when a playwright like Shakespeare could then cite one of these songs, everybody would get it. There’s a moment in Hamlet, where Hamlet starts reciting a song called "Jephthah, Judge of Israel," which is about Jephthah and his daughter, who he sacrifices, because he makes an oath to sacrifice the first person or thing that he sees, and he’s leading Polonius through it. Polonius doesn’t know the song, but everybody else would have known the song, and they would have found it just hysterical that Polonius, this stuck-up old guy, didn’t know this ballad.

SHEIR: So, in a sense, then, are you suggesting that there was more of a universal culture back then, as opposed to today?

DUFFIN: Yes, absolutely, and I think... You know, the reason that we know that the court knew it, is because the tunes for many of these survive in manuscripts that were written for the court by the top court musicians, like William Byrd, as a keyboard player, who did variations on these ballad tunes, and John Dowland, as a lutenist, who did variations for lute of these very ballad tunes. So, we know that they knew these tunes, and presumably the ballad texts that went with them.

SHEIR: So, if you think about rehearsals for, say, a musical today. An actor will get the script and it has the words to the song, but then you get the music, and it's sketched out with staves and musical notes and so forth. So, would actors have gotten that in Shakespeare’s time?

DUFFIN: Well, it’s a little bit unclear. There’s an English scholar named Tiffany Stern, who’s done a lot of work on surviving parts of Shakespeare’s plays, and she makes a good case that the players would have received a script, or maybe even just the partial script of their own lines, and, separately, they would have received a sheaf of papers that had the songs on them. Not even the text of the songs might have been in the play script at that time.

But the point I was trying to make is that I think that a lot of times they didn’t specify tunes, that the playwrights were writing song lyrics, or they were taking song lyrics that existed, and plugging them into the plays as appropriate. But then, it was up to the player to fit it to a song tune that worked well with the song text and I think that they were all so musical, they were entertainers in a way that... You know, we are more specialized today, that actors, Shakespearean actors, tend not to be musical actors, but in those days they were, we know that they were. The company, the new Globe, sharers in the new Globe, actors that are named in the First Folio as being Shakespeare actors, they toured the continent as entertainers, as tumblers, instrumentalists, song-and-dance men. And so we know that there was a very high level of musicality among players at the time, and so it would have been no problem, I think, for them to have just chosen a tune and sung the song to the tune.

SHEIR: So, how is it that these play scripts that the actors created with these songs, why did they not make it down through history?

DUFFIN: Well, initially, I think that the acting companies were jealous of their productions. They didn’t want to let these things out, and so they just, they didn’t get released. And when the plays were published, they just saw the music as something that was just done on the spur of the moment, and so it wasn’t part of the play, in the same way that the lines of dialogue and the poetry were.

SHEIR: And is that why we've lost our knowledge of what the original songs were, or at least part of why?

DUFFIN: I think so, yeah. I mean the idea that players are improvising tunes to these songs suggests that [LAUGH] an improvised art doesn’t survive in the same way that a written art does.

SHEIR: Are there songs that Shakespeare wrote himself?

DUFFIN: Ah, that’s a good question. My guess is that he wrote the lyrics to some of these songs as a way of creating a certain dramatic effect, but I’m betting that he didn’t also write the tunes. As I say, I think it was something that was left to the performers, up to the actors, to do.

SHEIR: So, I want to talk about going from Elizabethan times to today. And nowadays you often see this push and pull in Shakespeare between people who want performances to be quote/unquote "traditional," and people who think the settings and the costumes should be more contemporary. And as we get further and further away from the Elizabethan era, did that kind of tension ever arise around the music. I mean, were there people who wanted the tunes to be traditional, however they defined that, and then people who wanted the tunes to be ones that contemporary audiences knew and could relate to?

DUFFIN: Oh, well sure, and when my book first came out, there were people that said to me, "Oh well, now you've found all these original tunes to the songs in Shakespeare, no one will ever have to do anything else." And I said, "Well, that's certainly not going to happen."

I mean, one of the problems with having no tunes to the songs in Shakespeare is that the tradition grew up that Shakespeare companies had music directors, who were composers. Because, if you wanted to have music for certain songs, you had to have somebody compose it, and either you were going to pay somebody else to compose it, or the music director was going to compose his or her own setting, and, of course, composers, the music that they want to hear most of all is their own music. And so that’s been true of Shakespeare companies for most of the last several decades, and so they don’t really know or care that we now know the original tunes to some of these Shakespeare songs.

And, besides which, you know, I’m not convinced that using the original tunes is always in the best dramatic interest anyway. I mean, maybe I shouldn’t be saying that, but directors are often at pains to show the universality of Shakespeare’s plots and characters and situations by setting it in unusual time periods and places. You might get a play set in 1930s Chicago, in Gangster Land, and if you’re doing that, it doesn’t make any sense to use Renaissance tunes, you ought to be using jazz, or something like that, that fits with the aesthetic of the play as it's set.

SHEIR: So, in a sense, you know, you found these songs and they are for people who want to use them, is that what you’re saying?

DUFFIN: The new Globe, Shakespeare’s Globe in London, often tries to do performances that are historically based, with costumes and original music, and they use adult male actors to do the female roles, and things like that. And I know the people who have been in charge of the music, and they've told me that they've used my book for several of those productions, so for people who have that goal, I know that my book is useful, but not everybody does.

SHEIR: Ross, I have one last question based on a question that you raise in your book. Why did Shakespeare cite these popular songs in his plays?

DUFFIN: Well, I think it was because doing so allowed him to create a layer of meaning that was unavailable any other way. The idea that if you’re going to cite a song about a jealous husband who murders his wife and her lover, and then commits suicide, in a play which features a king who is violently jealous of his wife and a friend of his, then the audience is going to draw the experience of that song into the play. As soon as he mentions it, they're going to say, "Oh yeah, that song, and it has the same plot. Ooh wow, so maybe the play is going to end badly, because the song ends badly." And so that is an experience that Shakespeare’s audience had, because they knew these songs that Shakespeare was citing. And the problem for us, as a modern audience, is that we don’t know the same repertoire of songs, and so we've lost that layer of meaning. And really, that’s what I was trying to do in writing this book, was to restore that repertoire of songs, so that people would get Shakespeare’s jokes and allusions.

SHEIR: Well, Ross, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today.

DUFFIN: Oh, it’s a pleasure.


WITMORE: Ross Duffin is a professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. He was interviewed by Rebecca Sheir. The book they were discussing, Shakespeare’s Songbook, is published by W.W. Norton.

"That Old and Antique Song We Heard Last Night" was recorded and produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington.

Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folgers Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.