Songs from Shakespeare’s plays

Very little of the music quoted by Shakespeare in his plays is original. There are five lute ayres that were possibly used in the earliest productions of the plays. Four of these were written by Robert Johnson, Hark, hark the lark, Full fathom five, Where the bee sucks and Get you hence, whilst the fifth is Thomas Morley’s, It was a lover and his lass.

There are over a hundred songs that Shakespeare quotes or makes allusions to in his plays. About half are ballads or narrative songs while other categories include love songs, drinking songs and rounds. The purpose of the songs would have been to expand or illuminate the thoughts of a character in the play, to moralise on a situation or simply to provide a comment on the action.

Ballads were issued as single sheets of paper printed on one side only and known as broadsides. Unfortunately, most of the lyrics survive without their intended melodies, especially during Shakespeare’s lifetime. The tunes have come down to us mostly as arrangements for solo instruments, primarily the lute. The main difficulty is matching the tunes to the right lyrics with the additional problem that tune names change over time. So, Fly brass, The jovial tinker and Tom a Bedlam all share the same melody.

In Hamlet (4:5), Ophelia refers to the well known ballad, Bonny sweet Robin and quotes or sings the following:

They bore him barefaced on the bier,
And in his grave rained many a tear,
Fare you well my dove.
…. For bonny sweet Robin was all my joy.

The song Bonny sweet Robin does not survive but there is a ballad called Robin is to the greenwood gone which has the refrain, For bonny sweet Robin is all my joy. It is associated with a tune that was used in many versions for solo lute. The best known of these is a set of variations by John Dowland and a set by Thomas Robinson from his book, The Schoole of Musicke.

There are two versions of The willow song, the text of which can be found in Othello (4:3) when Desdemona sings:

The poor soul sat sighing by a sycamore tree,
Sing all a green willow;

It is not clear which of the two surviving versions of the melody Shakespeare intended, although the version in the British Library (BL15117) entitled The complaint of a lover forsaken, is by far the best known.

When Shakespeare calls for a song in a play which cannot be linked to any ballad then a melody needs to be found that will fit the versification of the text. In The merry wives of Windsor, Mistress Quickly sings:

Fie on sinful fantasy!
Fie on lust and luxury!
Lust is but a bloody fire,
Kindled with unchaste desire,

Similarly a song in Love’s labour lost (5:2) has no associated ballad:

When daisies pied and violets blue
And ladie-smocks all silver white
And cuckoo-buds of yellow hue
Do paint the meadows with delight,

The prime candidate for a melody to both songs in terms of its adaptability and character would be the popular tune Packington’s pound.

There is no question that Shakespeare’s audience knew most of these ballads and associated tunes. Shakespeare’s choice to insert, quote or cite these songs in his plays reveals both the emotions and thoughts of his characters and something of his own state of mind as he wrote the plays. They are a critical though frequently overlooked element to a fuller understanding of Shakespeare’s dramatic art

The article above was written after a performance by Rosafesca and soprano Hayley Guest of Songs from Shakespeare’s plays at the Royal West of England Academy on 16 December 2015. The concert was part of the RWA’s exhibition called Centre Stage which celebrated 250 years of theatre at the Old Vic in Bristol.