Winter Solstice – 2015

Globe Liz

As we approach the shortest and darkest day of the year on the 21st, the Solstice, here’s a little ditty from the Bard. His oft quoted ‘Winter’ song ends the play Love’s Labour’s Lost.

WHEN icicles hang by the wall,

  And Dick the shepherd blows his nail,

And Tom bears logs into the hall,

  And milk comes frozen home in pail,

When blood is nipped, and ways be foul,

Then nightly sings the staring owl,


To-whit, to-whoo, a merry note,

While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.


When all aloud the wind doth blow,

  And coughing drowns the parson’s saw,

And birds sit brooding in the snow,

  And Marian’s nose looks red and raw,

When roasted crabs hiss in the bowl,

Then nightly sings the staring owl,


To-whit, to-whoo, a merry note,

While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.


–from Love’s Labour’s Lost, Act V, Scene ii

Not everything Shakespeare wrote needs to be profound on seven different levels, requiring a PhD in British Literature to decipher. This simple song (and yes, it’s been put to music by several composers) is pretty straightforward, singing about the discomforts of winter, and the singular joy of fellowship with family and friends, the comfort of good food indoors, out of the wind and snow.

Performances of Shakespeare’s plays in his lifetime–especially those through his early career of mostly comedies and histories–often ended with seeming impromptu songs or ditties. Not so impromptu; they were practiced and repeated. Alas, many of these are lost, never having been included with the texts in the First Folio.

Oftentimes the chief clown and dancer of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men’s, Will Kempe, led these songs. After about 1599 or so, much of these show-ending numbers ended. Kempe had a falling out with The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and Shakespeare began his run of great tragedies. Perhaps it just didn’t seem right to dance a jig after the stage was overrun with blood.   Anyhow, today we have a small literary tragedy: that we don’t have a lot of these songs, or the music they were originally performed with. The curious ending of the Love’s Labour’s Lost, though, included two of these. I’ll save the other for a different season.  

Happy Solstice!

The image is of a painting by David Scott, circa 1840. It shows Queen Elizabeth I at the Globe Theatre–a bit of fantasy. The Queen never attended public performances.

Sunday Sonnet – 29 November 2015

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.