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It is the subject of debate whether many of the boys’ songs in commercial productions were set pieces adaptable to many situations. These include the generic drinking song, “Come, thou monarch of the vine,” from Antony and Cleopatra. Also not clear is which of the songs Shakespeare penned and how many were common melodies at the time, but it is presumed that the plays use both.


Shakespeare uses music to set the mood or provide commentary on the action or a character. “O mistress” in Twelfth Night comments on the aging Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek and hints at Viola’s transgendered disguise. Magical incantations also figure prominently in The Tempest, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Macbeth.  Shakespeare’s characters also use song to establish their mood, such as Ophelia’s song snippets that progressively reveal her slide into mental illness; Edgar, in King Lear, also sings folk songs to feign madness.


The plays also include serenades, rounds, and catches, typical of Renaissance England.


Instrumental music


Typically, in a Globe Theatre production, Shakespeare use of instruments would be limited to a trumpeter and a wind player (flute, recorder, shawn (a double-wind predecessor to the oboe, called “hoboy”). Some plays, such as Romeo and Juliet, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and Cymbeline, call for specific ensembles, but most music was played offstage unless part of the action for a serenade, masque, or dance. Plays produced at court were more lavish, such as when Twelfth Night was performed at Whitehall in 1601 or The Tempest was staged there in 1611 and 1613.




Music in

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everal Shakespearean comedic actors, Richard Tarlton, William Kempe, and Robert Armin (who joined Chamberlain’s men in 1598) performed these to the audience’s

delight and their popularity persuaded several notable European composers to contribute works, including Jan Pieterszon Sweelinck and Samuel Schiedt.


Servants, clowns, fools, rogues, and other minor characters were given singing duties in Shakespeare’s work. Only when in disguise or emotionally distracted are protagonists given to song; rather, most songs are directed toward the protagonist.


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