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The philosophy of music in Shakespeare's drama.

In his dramatic works, Shakespeare sometimes resorted to the philosophical ideas of late Antiquity, first proclaimed by "the last Roman" Boethius in his treatise De Institutione Musica. Inspired by the Pythagorean-Platonic tradition, Boethius divided music into the objective music of the cosmos (musica mundana) and the subjective music of the human soul (musica humana). His philosophy is connected with the idea of the musical nature of Being. According to Boethius, the cosmos is structured on the principle of musical proportionality. The relations between heavenly spheres are equal to those between musical intervals. Seven heavenly spheres form a heavenly heptachord, whose every planet corresponds to a certain string of a kithara, i.e., the cosmos is imagined as a huge musical instrument (Boethius 1867: 188-189). And if the human ear can no longer hear the sounds of heavenly music, the reason is our force of habit: we become so accustomed to its sounds, that we stop distinguishing them. In European Christian culture, this idea was transformed as follows: heavenly music can't be heard by people because of their imperfection, as that kind of music is of divine and eternal nature, like the singing of angels.

The second kind of music according to Boethius is human music (musica humana). Everybody who pays attention to his/her inner self can understand it. This music is a reflection of the indivisible human essence and is the expression of man's inner world. Both world and human music are united by the principle of harmony, which is capable to turn essentially different phenomena into a single one. So music puts in order not only the cosmos, but also the human being, harmonically uniting flesh and soul. Thus the two kinds of music that Boethius speaks of are like two directions of a human being's way of looking: upwards--to the stars, and within--into one's heart.

Boethius music theory also includes a third kind of music, instrumental or sound music (musica instrumentalis), i.e., music in the true sense of the word (Boethius1867:191). Instrumental music may have such a great influence on the human being that it can be used for healing or in education. In connection to this, let us remember an ironic cue by Shakespeare's Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing: "Now, Divine air! Now is his soul ravisht!--Is it not strange that sheeps' guts should hale souls out of men's bodies?" (II.3.54-56).

Boethius' music theory was taken over and developed by Renaissance aesthetics and was reflected in the works of art by Renaissance authors. From this point of view, Shakespeare's dramatic works are of special interest, because music is present in them in many universal ways.

For Shakespeare, music was the harmony of heavenly spheres, just like for his older contemporary, Philip Sidney, who spoke of the "planet-like music of poetry" (Sidney 1973:121). In a famous musical episode in The Merchant of Venice, Lorenzo compares the movement of heavenly bodies that "like an angel sing" with the harmony of "immortal souls":
   Look, how the floor of heaven
   Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold;
   There's not the smallest orb which thou behold'st
   But in his notion like an angel sings,
   Still quiring to the young-ey'd cherubins;
   Such harmony is in immortal souls;
   But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
   Doth grossly close in it, we cannot hear it
     (V.1. 58-65)

In Shakespeare's plays one can also hear music in the human soul. Anticipating the poetics of Romanticism, Shakespeare sees music as the true language of the senses. But at the same time, he combines musical and moral values, presenting virtue as inner music, which is close to the tradition of medieval Christian ethics. The close interweaving of musical and moral terminology characterizes many of Shakespeare's dramatic works. Here is again an example taken from The Merchant of Venice:
   The man that hath no music in himself,
   Nor is not mov'd with concord of sweet sounds,
   Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils;
   The motions of his spirit are dull as night,
   And his affections dark as Erebus:
   Let no such man be trusted.
     (V.1. 83-88)

Musical terminology is sometimes used by Shakespeare to characterize his dramatis personae. Let me give only one, but very significant, example. In the first act of King Lear, Edmond greets Edgar after having defamed him before his father and he enumerates, quite by chance it seems, several musical notes: "O, these eclipses do portend these divisions! fa, sol, la, mi" (I.2.131). It is necessary to give an explanation here. The note "mi" in Shakespeare's time corresponds to the note "si" in our contemporary designation. Then it becomes clear that Edmond enumerates the notes of the musical scale: fa, sol, la, si. The interval between "fa", the fourth sound of the scale, and "si", the seventh sound, forms a musical interval of dissonance, which was called 'diabolic' in Shakespeare's time. So by enumerating these musical notes, Edmond reveals his demoniac, diabolic nature.

It should be noted that Shakespeare's plays reflect not only their author's deep understanding of the philosophy of music, but also his excellent knowledge of music practice--musical instruments, musical genres and terms. Let us remember in this respect a comical music lesson in The Taming of the Shrew, where Hortensio offers to teach Bianca the gamut "in a brief sort" and shows her a kind of written scenario in which the main character is the gamut: "Gamut I am, the ground of all accord" (III.2.71). Due to the polysemantic character of the word "accord", which is not only a musical term, but also a condition of harmony and concord, the whole phrase acquires a deep meaning.

The sweet power of music that can heal sorrows and feed love is the leitmotif of many of Shakespeare's plays. Thus, Duke Orsino's well-known monologue in Twelfth Night opens with an expressive metaphor: "If music be the food of love, play on" It is interesting to note that this line becomes a metaphorical motif that Shakespeare would use again in his tragedy Antony and Cleopatra, when Cleopatra says:
   Give me some music,--music, moody food
   Of us that trade in love
     (II.5. 1-2)

To a Russian reader, these words may seem somewhat familiar, due to Alexander Pushkin's well-known cue in his little tragedy The Stone Guest:
   To love alone does music yield in sweetness.
   Yet love is melody itself
     (Pushkin, I.2: 281, Eugene M. Kayden)

Shakespeare's plays strike their readers or spectators by the diversity and the harmony of their melodies of love.

The power of music in Shakespeare's dramatic work embraces also the elements of nature, as brilliantly shown in Oberon's monologue (A Midsummer Night's Dream):
   My gentle Puck, come hither. Thou remember'st
   Since once I sat upon a promontory,
   And heard a mermaid, on a dolphin's back,
   Uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath,
   That the rude sea grew civil at her song,
   And certain stars shot madly from their spheres,
   To hear the sea-maid's music.
     (II.1. 148-154)

One of the key concepts of Shakespeare's poetics--the concept of time--is also filled with musical associations; it contains one of the most apt definitions of music, regarded as the expression of mathematical order in the stream of time. In Shakespeare's plays, the right rhythm of time can build both the life of a man and the life of society; to break this rhythm means to untune the music of life. This idea is expressed in the monologue of King Richard the Second, in Shakespeare's historical drama bearing the same title:
      Music do I hear?
   Ha! ha! keep time:--how sour sweet music is,
   When time is broke and no proportion kept!
   So is it in the music of men's lives.
   And here have I the daintiness of ear
   To check time broke in a disorder'd string;
   But for the concord of my state and time,
   Had not an ear to hear my true time broke.
   I wasted time, and now doth time waste me;
      (V.5. 42-50)

As the word "time" contains not only temporal but also musical characteristics, the meaning of this monologue becomes very complex.

In The Winter's Tale, Shakespeare uses the following stage direction at the beginning of Act IV: "Enter Time, the Chorus". And the Chorus sings:
   Now take upon me, in the name of Time,
   To use my wings.

Thus, Shakespeare's time can be heard, it is music itself.

Following the tradition of classical antiquity, Shakespeare interpreted music as a contradictory phenomenon. On the one hand, in the antiquity, music was perceived as the embodiment of order, measure, beauty and harmony, the figures of Apollo and Orpheus being personifications of these qualities. On the other hand, music was also connected with the figures of Dionysus and Pan, who symbolized its exciting, ecstatic and chaotic nature that needed a certain control and restriction. In Shakespeare's comedy Measure for Measure, the Duke notes:
   ... Music oft hath such a charm
   To make bad good, and good provoke to harm

There is no doubt that Shakespeare's poetics is dominated by the concept of music as harmony, which is interpreted as "consent of dissent" (concordia discors). Such understanding of harmony is the source of the most important principles of Shakespeare's architectonics; it is based on polyphony, the contrasting interlacement of motives and characters, in one word, on everything that realized the musical principle of agreement in diversity. Shakespeare adopted the Renaissance inner unity of music and word, based on the similarity of the structural principles of the two arts. The idea that words have a special power given by their harmonious arrangement is often found in poetological treatises of the XVI-XVII centuries, where word harmony is understood as numerical proportion. The application of numerical harmony principles to poetry is motivated by its concern with "sphere music". In particular, in his treatise Observation in the Art of English Poesie (1602), Thomas Campion noted that the universe was created in accordance with the principles of symmetry and proportion and that, in a sense, it might be compared with music, and music--with poetry (Campion 1969: 293). Being interpreted as a cosmic power, harmony makes different and contradictory phenomena unite into a single whole: due to harmony, the world consisting of differences will not perish.

It is no coincidence that Shakespeare's time was marked by the development of polyphony in music and by the principle of wit in poetry--wit being understood as the combination of dissimilar images. Musical polyphony was, at the same time, perceived as a semantic phenomenon: the simultaneity of voices entailed the simultaneity of meanings. Our contemporary understanding of polyphony in literature is associated first of all with M. Bakhtin's theory of dialogism, where polyphony is considered to be the dialogue of personal voices, individual shades of meaning and points of view (Bakhtin 1979: 363373). However, it was the aesthetics of Romanticism that laid the foundation for this view of polyphony, as it was directed to musical categories. German romantics in general and F.W. Schelling in particular characterized Shakespeare as an exemplary polyphonic writer and as the great master of harmony and counterpoint in music (Schelling 1966: 205). The poetics of Romanticism put at the forefront the ideal of the final harmonic concordance: the more genuine the artist is, the better his ability to reconcile some contradictory views within the same literary work. And it was in Shakespeare's work that the Romantics found the greatest range of those "reconcilable" qualities. Indeed, Shakespeare's words aimed at musical sounding and simultaneously joined different qualities, like different voices in polyphonic music.

Thus, taken as a whole, Shakespeare's work is an example of how difference and dissonance may be overcome by means of harmony that creates the unity of sound in his artistic cosmos.


Bakhtin, Mikhail 1979. Estetika slovesnogo tvorchestva [Aesthetics of Verbal Creation]. Moscow: Iskusstvo.

Boethius, Anicius Manlius Severinus 1867. De institutione arithmetica; De institutione musica. Godofredus Friedlein (ed.). Leipzig: Teubner.

Campion, Thomas 1969. Observations in the Art of English Poesie. In Walter R. Davis (ed.). Works of Thomas Campion. London: Faber and Faber, pp. 291-317.

Pushkin, Alexander 1999. Izbrannaya poesia v perevodah na anglijskij jazik [Selected Poetry in English Translations]. Moscow: Rudomino, Raduga.

Schelling, Friedrich-Wilhelm 1966. Philosophia iskusstva [The Philosophy of Art]. Moscow: Mysl'.

Shakespeare, William 1994. The Complete Works. Ware. Hertfordshire: The Shakespeare Head Press Edition.

Sidney, Philip. 1973. A Defence of Poetry. In Katherine Duncan-Jones and Jan van Dorsten (eds.). Miscellaneous Prose of Sir Philip Sidney. Oxford: Clarendon Press. pp. 59-121.

Nadezhda Prozorova

University of Kaluga, Russia
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Title Annotation:WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE (1564-1616)
Author:Prozorova, Nadezhda
Publication:European English Messenger
Article Type:Essay
Date:Jun 22, 2014
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