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David S K Henson

Actor, director, lecturer and voice coach

Shakespeare and his use of music in language

As I sit at my desk contemplating the task in hand I reach out to a book that has distracted me from my purpose and has occupied much of my thought during the past few weeks. The book is entitled - a more disconnected theme and subject to Shakespeare and his use of Music I cannot begin to consider. However, as I opened the book I began to read the Introduction as yet a part of the book that had escaped my attention for whatever reason. I was fascinated to discover his frustrations as a writer and so easily empathise with his struggles. Then I fell on a passage that read as follows:

Because I write by ear, I had to develop a typography that would work as

musical notation. I believe all the sense are involved in our experiences, so the

way a story ‘looks’ on the page is important. Forcing the eye to move an extra

space will provide the ear with the necessary musical effect.’

Selby then continues to write about ‘dialog’ and the ‘music of speech’ – I am hooked and at last just by chance another writer has given me a ‘way in’ to the article I am planning. In a way giving me permission to write about something that I have always considered fascinating but never been able to express adequately in words. I will have to leave the reader to decide whether I have succeeded or not!

However, what transpired through this reading was a writer talking about all the things that I consider important and yet the struggle to find his voice was clearly evident. Later in the same introduction he writes about characters ‘losing control’ and how he used this in the book. Sometimes I feel that Shakespeare also appreciated this aspect of writing – his characters were not immoral they were losing control – so easily observed within the character of Lear who by being King has the power to do what he wants. But by dividing the land to his daughters he then gives away his power, which is then taken so savagely by his two daughters Goneril and Regan, and yet in the eyes of the Fool, Edgar and Kent we still perceive Lear as a King. The play rips the power of Lear asunder and presents an incredible problem for the Elizabethans who believe in the ordained right of kings but if they then witness the King dispensing with his land and power – what is then to be understood by this action?

 It seems to me that when these elements, known or unknown, conscious or

unconscious, mesh perfectly an overtone is produced, a synchronicity created,

that sings off the page and becomes a ‘work of art’ rather than simple

authorship.’ (Selby, page xiv)

This was beginning to make sense to me in terms of my article and then I finally read….

I knew why every word was where it was, every comma, every space, every

dropped line. Each and every word was engraved in stone, I struggled so hard

to find exactly the right one. I also had to make the book sound as if it came off

the top of my head, as if no thought had gone into it.’ (Selby, page xv)

Out of respect I returned to the chapter where I had left off and finished the book before even considering the task in hand. I was convinced that the form of the writing was as clear and precise as the musical form of the same century and the music within the text was as explicit as an operatic score.

Then to distract me further I was given a copy of the recently published book entitled ‘Shakespeare’s advice to the Players’ by Peter Hall. I read the Prologue carefully and as each word sinks in I began to realise the enormity of my task and begin to question who am I to even begin to write about Shakespeare and his use of Music. Two writers from very different perspectives were making a connection with me and I was disturbed and yet exhilarated by the connections being made.

Peter Hall compares the study of Shakespeare and related performance practice as similar to the works of the Baroque. He suggests that ‘…if we understand the author’s formal demands, we have some chance of representing them in modern terms.’

Peter Hall goes on to suggest that as there is little known about the practice of verse speaking itself there are constant flaws in the objectivity of those listening – good and bad reviews of the same performance. Some choosing to hate, and others to love the manners through which the speech is delivered. I firmly believe that rhythm has much power and is at the centre of this argument. It is this point that I feel should be addressed in some way in order to clarify how Shakespeare uses music within his writing and how in turn this response will encourage others to realise that the words may die, change or become obsolete but the underlying rhythm and feeling will not. Providing that the structure, form and content of the writing are honoured in the translation and the editing of academics within the following centuries. As in the identified key of a piece and the position of each note within the score so the words of Shakespeare are as carefully chosen and worked in order to identify a desired structure. In the words of Peter Hall: ‘First comes the form and second comes the feeling.’

If we are to make a useful comparison between the writing of Shakespeare and a musical score then we have to accept the devices of composition and rhetoric to be of some purpose. The repetition of an idea to support an argument equates to the use of a simple binary form where the main theme is perhaps repeated but in the dominant key – the pushing of the argument forward for an eventual resolution in the tonic key. (I recall the words of the politician stating: Education! Education! Education! This equates in some way to the reinforcement of the argument in the overture of Mozart’s The Magic Flute.)

This is why we have to observe the details within the writing and pick up on the ideas as part of the form just in the same way that we would listen to music of the Baroque period – or any other period of music for that matter. It is expected of the musician and so it should be the job of the actor also.

Of course when we consider the world of twentieth century in both dramatic literature and music we listen to the breakdown of tonality and yet the constant references to phrases and moments are still to be heard if we listen carefully enough. The tyranny of the bar line – is a matter where battles have been fought within the twentieth century and yet this was an important feature of early music and the madrigals of Shakespeare’s day. Different voices projecting the same thoughts and pictures that overlay each other in perfect counterpoint and yet hold on to the same rhythmic phrasing within the statement and section of the composition.

Even the songs that Shakespeare employed within his own plays display aspects of this breakdown in metrical phrasing and so we must respect the shape and form to be the crucial element within the writing of Shakespeare and this encourages me to believe that we will never lose sight of the intentions of this writer in just the same way as we will continue to preserve the intentions and nuances of a Bach fugue – no matter in what century it will be performed.

The words and the manner in which Shakespeare’s words are communicated in the manuscript create for us a very clear picture of intention and shape – that is if we are to agree upon the First Folio as the source for our exciting journey. Just in the same way as we have the music of Bach appear in manuscript paper and a variety of editions might indicate different elements of fingering or even phrasing the actual boundaries of the musical melody are clear for us all to see and without very great justification would we dare to change the shape of the phrase upon the page to make it suit an argument to prove some so-called academic truth.


This is the same with words that although they may be written in a variety of shapes to please the eye of the reader the overall rhythm that encourages the words to be spoken will always be the driving force. This can be seen in a sentence where you choose to explore the form. In exploration of this work I often encourage actors to neutralise the text completely (take all punctuation and other indicative marks away from the text) and observe the natural flow of the line and let this speak to them. It is amazing how near the actor can get to the original and how surprised they are when they return to the original text and even the layout of the text.

  This can be seen in a sentence

Where you choose to explore the form.

If you read the sentence within the above paragraph I am convinced you might have felt the rhythm as indicated above. The only difference now being that I have divided the line into two equal sections and the spell check requests a capital letter for the beginning of the second line – I oblige!

Now consider this setting of the same lines. No matter how the layout changes the beats are still within the overall thought. So it is with Shakespeare and his treatment of perhaps the most common form of expression within the English language the iambic foot (X strong/weak).

 This can be seen

In a sentence


You choose to

Explore the form.

If the music of Beethoven lacks shape and is disturbed by an over use of rubato to indulge in the feelings of the player the work is destroyed for the listener. Surely this is the case with the words of Shakespeare also. We must have recognition of his desired plan and organisation of thoughts in order to fully express the intentions within the writing. We might even suggest that Shakespeare wrote to a formula and as a result it is this that creates the drive and passion which time can not destroy no matter how bastardised our language becomes.

With reference to the gradual decline of our language I would like to respectfully suggest exactly the opposite. Unlike the Academie Français where they judge the value of each word to enter their vocabulary the Anglo Saxon language has borrowed and employed words from many other cultures thus enriching our language and never destroying it. Words may lose favour and even change their meaning according to the sensibilities o the time but overall we have a hold on the past and the future as far as language is concerned. Of course, words do change their meaning but within a context and situation – Shakespeare’s dramatic action – the intentions can still become clear once more and the value of the word restored to its original purpose – both within the form and structure of the line and in the meaning of the word.

The pitch of the spoken word may also need to be considered as an important issue but no more than the pitch of the world of the Baroque – we need to evaluate how important the ‘temperament’ of the work and the writing has in common. Perhaps the placing of the larynx was much higher in the times of the Elizabethan players – there appears to be a case for this within the musical performance of work. The tradition of today where the depressed larynx and the exaggerated use of glottic pressure for women of authority is employed with quite staggering regularity has a different ‘feel’ for the boy’s voice who would have played within the Lord Chamberlayne’s Players. Is this perhaps the same as playing the Bach ‘Cello Suites on a Guarnerius or a modern day instrument or playing a trumpet rather than a sackbut? The argument rages and the storm never really goes away but the music and the words still remain to be honoured and heard throughout the ages.

Hall even suggests that the theories associated with speaking the words of Shakespeare can be assimilated within three days – and be put into practice in a further three weeks. How wonderful if the works of the musical world could be assimilated in the same speed and manner. However, this is where there would appear to be a dilemma and insecurity between the spoken word and the interpretation of symbol (musical notation).

The pace of the spoken word is also an interesting concept. When we deal with music the adagio is deeply embedded within the performer’s technique the holding of one note before embarking upon the next. The rolling of the finger technique as a pianist, the holding of the note of the organist the tension on the string for the violinist etc., all have to be felt and this in turn creates mood and feeling within the interpretation. We have an instruction (Adagio) but the reason behind the music being played in this way has to be discovered by the musician. The same is true of the words spoken – Shakespeare is so clear in his directives as to how to pace the words and together with the understanding of the language the feeling is discovered not dictated. Again the form is the basis by which the artistry begins. The technique of speaking/playing is absorbed into the artistry of expression.

The plays of Shakespeare and a piece of music require a team of varying proportions in order to bring the work to life. The director at the helm always striving to break new ground in terms of its interpretation and relevance to the world of today. The conductor (the equivalent of the director) aims to preserve the sanctity of the traditions of the players and their techniques, skills, understanding and experience to bring the work to life. Why cannot the director aim to preserve the essential ingredients of the writing clear and as precise as the musical score but allow the manner in which they are shared with the audience and visualised to change according to the needs of the society.

To consider the music of Shakespeare within the framework of today’s society we have to understand that all references were understood to the then audience of the day. As in Baz Lurman’s Moulin Rouge so the references within Twelfth Night were understood immediately by those in attendance at the original performances. There sense of feeling and reflection of mood immediately transported the audience to a place further than the text itself.

What allows the work of Shakespeare to become a global concern? Surely the greater the fusion of elements such as rhythm the more global the work becomes. In the writing of Shakespeare we understand the fusion of rhythm and metre as important aspects of the work and so when these rhythms fuse together with other cultures we in effect are making the world smaller. The words themselves may not be understood but the over arching themes of conflict and dramatic tension are universal and global.

The rhythmic element thus has to be an important part of the discussion and so we must look to this element to find the ingredient that encourages the world to become a smaller place when observing the works of Shakespeare. Rhythm is important to us as breath is to living. The seasons have a rhythm and the outcome of each day has a rhythm hat can be determined and observed.

The ability to feel rhythm gives us meaning and yet the repetition of rhythm creates a tension of boredom and irritation. Hence it is not surprising that although we accept that Shakespeare writes within the iambic pentameter there is rarely a line goes by where the stress and beats are to change in order to create variety and purpose.

The ability to create cross rhythms within the work is what creates the fusion of cultural barriers and makes the work of Shakespeare alive to the worlds of many cultures. This is perceived in the area of dance music and speech and so the interaction of the three is evidenced in Shakespeare's writing.

Languages have rhythm. The English language tends to spread its work between a stressed and unstressed syllable. Most monosyllabic words such as prepositions and articles do not take a stress whereas words that have a complete meaning do. But as soon as a word has two syllables one becomes automatically stressed. As soon as we gather a few words together we have a varied collection of stress and unstressed words. We will also note that the speed in which we speak will allow the strong words to appear at equal distance no matter where they are placed within the sentence.

Within the opening of Twelfth Night we have a perfect example of the importance of rhythm and the music within the scene.

If music be the food of love, play on

Give me excess of it, that surfeiting,

The appetite may sicken and so die.

The first line is perfect in its treatment of the iambic pentameter – the vehicle through which Shakespeare has chosen to communicate and yet in the second line we are bumped into a confused world because the rhythm is subverted and makes us sit up to attention and become arrested by the words being spoken at the opening of this play. (In terms of the director – who might not value this form and structure - a useful argument for not allowing scene Act 1 (ii) to be made into the opening scene as in some productions of the play.)? A perfect overture? Arresting as perhaps the opening piano entry in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 4 or ‘Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’’ in the musical Oklahoma. Each in their own way arresting the attention of the audience and playing with the boundaries of audience expectation.

The most important fact to be noted is the fact that Shakespeare has chosen to use the Iambic Pentameter rather than the Dimeter (two feet lines) Trimeter (three feet lines) or the Tetrameter (four feet lines). This is important because it is in his manipulation of the thought and the metrical process that the work retains its tension and its eventual status and glory. The battle is won in each line and it is this aspect of the writing that we must pursue when aiming to capture the music and structure of the form.