Music in the Age of Shakespeare

by , under Music history

2016 marks 400 years since the death of the great playwright William Shakespeare, who died on April 23rd 1616. For the majority of his career, Shakespeare was working at a time when England was under the rule of Queen Elizabeth I, a great patron of the arts. Elizabeth was particularly fond of music and was a talented musician herself, much like her father Henry VIII before her.


“Greensleeves” is attributed to King Henry VIII. Hear more on Songs for William Shakespeare.

Her patronage encouraged the genius of composers such as William Byrd, Thomas Tallis and Orlando Gibbons. Outside the court chapels, a popular music scene was also thriving, with composers such as Thomas Morley writing charming tunes to lyrics written in English, which were often very witty.

“The Frog Galliard” by Thomas Morley, from Great Music from the Court of Elizabeth I.

Working in this environment, it’s no surprise that Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets are full of references to music and song. Similarly, although the stage directions in the earliest versions of Shakespeare’s texts can be extremely limited, they nevertheless often specify which musical instruments are to be deployed at specific points.


In Antony and Cleopatra, for example, an important distinction is made between the wood and string instruments; woodwind is frequently associated with Cleopatra and with the “exotic” land of Egypt, whilst strings represent the logical Romans. It’s interesting to note that Samuel Barber uses a similar distinction in his famous operatic setting of the play.

There are several plays which include whole songs written by Shakespeare. Many of them have been put to music, and some of the most intriguing settings are by Shakespeare’s contemporary Thomas Morley. It’s fascinating to think that these songs may have been heard in early performances of Shakespeare’s plays during his lifetime. For example, “O Mistress Mine” is a song from Twelfth Night sung by the clown Feste. It acts as an exhortation for lovers to live in the moment, since “present mirth hath present laughter, what’s to come is still unsure.” Listen to Thomas Morley’s setting:

“O Mistress Mine” by Thomas Morley, from All the World’s a Stage.

This performance is based on the instrumental version in Thomas Morley’s book of Consort Lessons (1599), where it is most likely a setting by Morley himself of an old tune, although there is a more elaborate version by Byrd in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book.

The Elizabethans believed that the world was governed by the “harmony of the spheres”, that is, a musical harmony, inaudible to fallen human ears, by which the universe functioned. This concept of musicality lay at the heart of the Elizabethan world view, and consequently informed much of the cultural production of the day. For Shakespeare, this was a particularly powerful idea and perhaps helps to explain both why there are so many metaphors of tuning and harmony in his plays, and why his works have been reinterpreted in music again and again over the last 400 years.

The Renaissance diagram below shows the Muses (who inspire poets, composers and artists), the planets and the musical ratios which relate to them: