Music was extremely important to Shakespeare. Some of his comedies are virtually what one might call musicals, they rely so much on song. The lovely lyric at the end of Love’s Labor’s Lost, comparing the “daisies pied and violets blue” of spring to “icicles that hang by the wall” in winter, was so popular and thematic that it was imported into other Shakespeare comedies in revival in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The song at the end of Twelfth Night, “When that I was and a tiny little boy,” sung by the fool Feste, hauntingly tells a story of human life as it progresses from being “a little tiny boy” to “man’s estate” to marriage and “the rain raineth every day.” “A great while the world began, / With hey, ho, the wind and the rain.” Earlier in the play Feste has sung the superb “O mistress mine, where are you roaming?” with its thematic echoing of the play as a whole: “What is love? ‘Tis not hereafter. / Present mirth hath present laughter. / What’s to come is still unsure. / In delay there lies no plenty. / Then come and kiss me, sweet and twenty; / Youth’s a stuff will not endure.”
Shakespeare is, among his other amazing accomplishments, a superb lyricist. His songs were often sung by professional clowns and by the boy actors who played women in his plays, many of whom had been trained as choirboys. The level of performance appears to have been high, both in the singing and in the instrumental accompaniment. Shakespeare often mentions popular melodies such as “Walsingham” and “Rowland.” Part singing was second nature to professional actors, as when Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Feste sing a “catch” in their drinking scene called “Thou knave” in Twelfth Night. Music is the occasion of much mirth, as when Sir Toby replies to Malvolio’s complaint that the revelers “squeak out” their “catches without mitigation or remorse of voice,” showing “no respect of place, persons, nor time” by insisting that “We did keep time, sir, in our catches. Sneck up!” (2.3). Thomas Morley wrote the music for As You Like It’s superb “It was a lover and his lass,” which is to say that Shakespeare wrote the lyrics for Thomas Morley. Some songs like this one may have existed before the play in which it appears. Some songs are set to popular tunes.
What was Shakespeare’s relationship to the sacred music that forms such a substantial part of the Tallis Scholars’ fine program on April 5? Such music came with its own Latin texts and does not gain much prominence in Shakespeare’s plays, other than, for example, the singing of “Non nobis domine” at the conclusion of the great Battle of Agincourt in Henry V. The phrase “Non nobis domine,” “Not to us, Lord, not to us but to thy name give the glory,” from Psalm 113 in the Vulgate text or 115 in the King James version, had been the motto of the Knights Templars and was widely popular. Holinshed’s Chronicles tell us that King Henry did in fact order his prelates and chaplains to sing “Non nobis” after the victory at Agincourt, while the soldiers knelt at each verse. William Byrd composed a popular canon on this text that one hears sung in Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 film.
Even if the high art of contrapuntal church music was not part of Shakespeare’s dramatic vocabulary, we can see much of his theatrical interest in music as a sort of counterpoint to the music of William Byrd, John Taverner, Alfonso Ferrabosco, Thomas Tallis and Richard Davy. Such music was at the center of the conflict in the sixteenth century between Catholicism and the new Protestant faith to which England was uncertainly committed under Queen Elizabeth I. Elizabeth’s predecessor, her older half-sister Mary Tudor, had been raised a devout Catholic by her Spanish mother Katharine of Aragon, and had done her best to return England to the Catholic fold during her reign from 1553 to 1558. She had married Philip II of Spain in 1554, who thus became in his own eyes at least the King of England co-reigning with Mary, even though he could not read English. Elizabeth’s succession to the English throne in 1558 was by no means unchallenged, since in Catholic eyes she was the bastard child of Henry VIII’s liaison with Anne Boleyn. A northern rebellion in 1569, the rising in the north, challenged Elizabeth militarily by the northern earls who were in no way reconciled to Protestant rule. Philip of Spain raised a huge armed force to invade England; throughout the 1580s, leading up to the failed Great Armada of 1588, conspiracies in secret support of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland, Elizabeth’s first cousin once removed, living in house arrest in England until she was executed in February, 1587, incessantly reminded the English that they were in imminent danger of invasion and brought the loyalty of English Catholics into serious question: would they come over to Philip’s side once the invasion had begun?
Throughout all these perilous times, Elizabeth kept England out of war and appealed to her people to profess loyalty to her as head of the English church in its defiance of Rome. Elizabeth’s own tastes in religion appear to have been what we would call High Church. She liked to hear the service sung in Latin. She greatly admired the church music of William Byrd, and protected him with the proviso that he was not to flaunt his Catholicism in public. She protected Thomas Tallis by granting him a twenty-one-year monopoly on polyphonic music; he and Byrd were the only composers allowed to use the paper that was used in printing music. With her courtiers, too, she was prepared to tolerate discreet Catholic worship so long as they acknowledged her as supreme head of the church rather than the Pope. Her father, Henry VIII, seems to have imported Jewish musicians from Italy to adorn this court, similarly countenancing their choice of faith so long as they practiced privately.
Where was Shakespeare in all this? His father, John Shakespeare, had been born before the beginning the Protestant Reformation in England. A group of scholars argue that he remained a Catholic, at least in secret, during his lifetime, and chose to die a child of the Roman church. I find this doubtful, since John Shakespeare rose to civic prominence in his town of Stratford, becoming for a time its chief administrative official. Shakespeare himself lies buried under the altar in the town’s church that had become Protestant, along with his wife and other members of his family. It is true, nonetheless, that Stratford was part Protestant and part Catholic during these years of the late sixteenth century, like many a town at a distant and northerly direction from London. Some of the schoolmasters in the school where Shakespeare appears to have been educated were Catholic.
In his plays, Catholic prelates are often treated with tolerant respect and even admiration in ways that are not so visible in the plays of Shakespeare’s contemporaries. In the late Henry VIII, Queen Katharine of Aragon, Henry’s longsuffering wife, is a sympathetic figure during the grossly unfair trial that she is forced to endure. She sees a vision of angels as she is about to be gathered to her eternal reward. Friar Laurence in Romeo and Juliet is a warm-hearted, caring friend and counselor of young Romeo. Friar Francis in Much Ado About Nothing is a champion of the falsely accused Hero. Corrupt priests abound in Shakespeare’s early history plays, presumably Catholic since the history is that of the fifteenth century, but they are no more venal than the worldly aristocrats with whom they conspire and struggle for power. The Bishop of Carlisle, in Richard II, speaks boldly in defense of the soon-to-be-deposed Richard not for self-interested reasons but out of principle. Shakespeare almost never enunciates matters of dogma, of Christ’s resurrection and of salvation through His sacrifice; he is interested more in the human drama of guilt, penance and spiritual recovery. One can imagine, then, that Shakespeare was attuned to the music of William Byrd and Thomas Tallis, his great contemporaries, and others featured in the Tallis Scholars’ superb concert under the direction of Peter Phillips, while at the same time living in a more secular world where his dramas of human conflict could thrive.
David Bevington is the Phyllis Fay Horton Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in the Humanities at University of Chicago, where he has taught English language, literature and comparative literature since 1967. He earned his BA, MA and PhD degrees from Harvard University. Dr. Bevington is one of the world’s eminent Shakespeare scholars. His numerous publications and editions include: Murder Most Foul: “Hamlet” Through the Ages, Shakespeare and Biography, This Wide and Universal Theater: Shakespeare in Performance Then and Now, Action Is Eloquence: Shakespeare’s Language of Gesture, The Bantam Shakespeare, The Complete Works of Shakespeare, and the Norton Anthology of Renaissance Drama.