Will_Kemp_Elizabethan_Clown_JigOne of the amazing things about Shakespeare–and one of the things that has led to the conspiracy theories that a glove-maker’s son from the country couldn’t have possibly written such a vast and wide ranging body of work–is the vast sweep of the Poet’s knowledge: law, language (English, French, Latin), geography, horticulture, the royal court, the lives of commoners, the military, all manner of avocations and professions. And, as shown in Sonnet 8, musicianship:


Music to hear, why hear’st thou music sadly?

Sweets with sweets war not, joy delights in joy:

Why lov’st thou that which thou receiv’st not gladly,

Or else receiv’st with pleasure thine annoy?

If the true concord of well-tuned sounds,

By unions married, do offend thine ear,

They do but sweetly chide thee, who confounds

In singleness the parts that thou shouldst bear.

Mark how one string, sweet husband to another,

Strikes each in each by mutual ordering;

Resembling sire and child and happy mother,

Who, all in one, one pleasing note do sing:

   Whose speechless song being many, seeming one,

   Sings this to thee: ‘Thou single wilt prove none.’

Number 8 comes from early in the Young Man sonnets, when Shakespeare was possibly being paid by Lord Burghley to try and convince the young Earl of Southampton to marry–by writing Southampton sonnets! Southampton, by all accounts, adored verse, and back then trading verse was like trading iPod tracks today.

Here Shakespeare contrasts harmony and chords–‘the true concord of well-tuned sounds / by unions married’–against the sounds of single notes or parts, ‘who confounds / In singleness the parts that thou shouldst bear.’ A single man is like a single note. But a family is like the delight of musical chords.

Resembling sire and child and happy mother,

Who, all in one, one pleasing note do sing

Another sonnet which illustrates that Shakespeare must’ve loved music is one of the later sonnets, Number 128, where the Poet finds the Dark Lady playing on the virginal (harpsichord).

Music played an important part in Elizabethan Theatre. During the early years of Shakespeare’s career (till about 1600), many of his plays’ performances ended with impromptu musical numbers. Shakespeare’s fellow player, Will Kempe, was an accomplished dancer and singer, and many of Shakespeare’s comedies contain songs (which we no longer have the music for, just the lyrics).  

The image is an Elizabethan woodcut of Will Kempe. Kempe was one of Shakespeare’s fellow Lord Chamberlain’s Men.



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