Music in Shakespeare

Graduate intern, Luke Wilding, discusses his work researching music in the works of Shakespeare.

I came to work on The Encyclopaedia of Shakespeare’s Language through a graduate internship scheme run by Lancaster University. I finished my undergraduate degree in English Literature in the summer of 2016 at Lancaster, and was keen to get some experience of academic research work under my belt before pursuing postgraduate study. After being shown around my new office by Professor Jonathan Culpeper and introduced to my colleagues, I was asked which subject-area of the Shakespeare corpus I was interested in. I had not expected to be given any real options of what I was to research, yet I spotted a dictionary of Music in Shakespeare on the office dictionary shelf. I was classically trained from a young age and have been leading bands, composing, teaching music theory, and touring since my early teens so this was an area in which I could offer some expertise. And, just like that, off I went to research music in Shakespeare.

Music in Shakespeare: A Dictionary (Bloomsbury; 2014) is a particularly thorough work which is designed to be accessible for academics, students, and casual readers. Christopher R. Wilson and Michela Calore have certainly kept in harmony with their mission statement, “to provide a comprehensive survey of Shakespeare’s musical vocabulary – his knowledge of technical terms, his allusions to instruments, musical genres, and performance techniques”. The typical length and detail of each entry exceeds that of other dictionaries in the Arden series. Though these entries are not particularly concise they do, generally, offer only useful, relevant information.

Each entry is divided into three sections. Section A offers a detailed sense for each term and clearly identifies any discrepancies between contemporary and modern usage. The entry for ‘breve’, for example, states:

Not much used today except in church music, the breve was a standard note-value of the Medieval and Renaissance periods in music. It was one of eight separately identifiable notes of white mensural notation used from the mid fifteenth century to the end of the sixteenth. In common time (C or 4/2) it is equal to two semi-breves, four minims, eight semiminims, etc. It was written as a white square note without a tail. Though, paradoxically, it had become a relatively long note-value by the end of the sixteenth century, it is called ‘brevis’ in contrast to the ‘longa’ which was twice its length and notated with a tail, and which in turn was half the value of the maxima.
(p. 67)

The meticulousness of entries such as this (which include the historical development of a term, a visual representation of the described notation, both technical and commonly accessible explanations of meaning, and so on) are to be praised.

Section B is where Wilson and Calore really excel themselves and make this dictionary invaluable for anyone truly interested in Shakespeare’s music. In this section one finds a great breadth of examples from the Shakespeare corpus and explanations of its function, associations, often the significance of its associations with certain characters. Some entries go so far as to offer quite extensive outlines of current critical discourse and commentary. The ‘minikin’ entry, for instance, notes that, ’commentators often observe that these lines [(Lr 3.6.41-4)] refer to the summoning of sheep in order to prevent them from accessing a field, where they can get bloated and die (Foakes, p. 289).’ (p. 277) Wilson and Calore go further still by offering contemporary contexts and accounts of these terms in use from a myriad of other sources from Christopher Marlowe, to John Dowland, to military records, to pamphlets, to the bible, etc. Section C offers an extensive and useful bibliography. This is a particularly nice touch for the academic reader.

There were, however, a few issues with this dictionary which hinder its usefulness. There is the fact that there is no study of the actual songs found in Shakespeare. Though I realise that this is a dictionary intended to define terms and not a casebook of musical analysis, I do feel that, given the length and detail of other entries, the names of each song, where they appear, and a brief analysis of their content, could have been given an entry. Some entries, on the other hand, seem somewhat superfluous. The entry for ‘case’ for example, reads, ‘A case is the wooden box or leather or cloth bag to hold an instrument when it is not being played.’ (p. 82) This would arguably be necessary if Shakespeare often made references to a musical case without offering anything to note its purpose. Based on the textual examples which the dictionary offers, however, this does not seem to be the case. Shakespeare speaks of, ‘a base-viol in a case of leather’; (The Comedy of Errors 4.3.23-4) ‘the case of a treble hoboy’; (Henry VI, Part II 3.2.326) and exclaims ‘God defend/ the lute should be like the case’. (Much Ado About Nothing 2.1.94-95). Equally unnecessary is the distribution between six entries of the Renaissance hexachord to ‘Ut’, ‘Re’, ‘Mi’, ‘Fa’, ‘Sol’, and ‘La’. Surely a single entry explaining the layout of the haxachord would have sufficed here.

Most problematically, in attempting to make entries accessible to both academics and casual readers, Wilson and Calore have occasionally offered entries which are truly clear to neither. One such example is ‘False (relation)’. The entry explains, ‘The theoretical term ‘false’ is used to describe the movement of two or more parts in counterpoint. It occurs when one part rising has a natural or sharp and the other part falling has a flat or natural’ (p. 167). This is followed by a contemporary definition from the musical theory work A New Way of Making Fowre Parts in Counterpoint by Thomas Campion (c. 1614) which does nothing to clarify the sense. Though the entry is technically true, it seems to say very little except that one part rises as another falls. The entry is attempting to explain the nuanced, theoretical function of accidentals used in an uncommon and exceptional way, but does not seem able to get this across with the desired brevity. In this case and others, it would surely be better to offer a lengthy and technical explanation of the concept with notated examples which more advanced readers could draw meaning from since casual readers are unlikely to require an in-depth working knowledge of the concept in any case.

Overall, this dictionary is a helpful guide to music in the works of Shakespeare. Though it is by no means comprehensive in terms of musical references in Shakespeare, the terms it does cover are generally offered with a detailed analysis and a detailed guide to contemporary contexts and usages. Though it could never be used as the primary basis for an academic study of music in Shakespeare, it functions as a good reference text for students and academics wishing for clarification of early modern musical terms.

Working for the short internship period on The Encyclopaedia of Shakespeare’s Language Project has been an eye-opening experience of how complex academic work is really done. It is often a slog through huge volumes of data, working to unravel the over-complicated academic writing to find the simplest of meanings, and striving to maintain a consistent methodology when dealing with inconsistent data. It is, however, incredibly satisfying to break ground on a subject in ways that have never been done before, to detangle all the senses available to find the crux of a meaning, and to be part of a project which will advance and inform our understanding of Shakespeare’s language for years to come. Though my time working on The Encyclopaedia of Shakespeare’s Language is at an end for the moment, I am hoping to return to the project as a part-time research assistant next year alongside my studies.

About Mathew Gillings

PhD Linguistics student at Lancaster University.
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