Stage Music

Stage music' is the most straightforward  of the categories.(Grove Music Online)

 Music was used to announce the arrival or entrance of kings and nobles. It was used as background for a banquet or procession, to suggest offstage action, or to suggest the passage of time.  Here are a couple of examples:

 In Act 1 scene 4 of Hamlet there is a note  A flourish of trumpets, and ordnance shot off, within.

 Trumpets and kettledrums announce the royal procession in Hamlet.

The script for Macbeth in act 1 scene 4 calls for a trumpet fanfare. In act 2 scene 3 a bell rings before Lady Macbeth enters.

Magic Music

Another category is ‘magic music'.  Music associated with the supernatural can assist in inducing sleep or falling in love or a miraculous healing. Here are a couple of examples. 

 The fairies sing Titania to sleep in A Midsummer Nights Dream. 

(You spotted snakes with double tongue)

 The sprite Ariel leads the shipwrecked Ferdinand ‘to these yellow sands' in The Tempest.

The Witches in Macbeth use charms and prophecy to lead Macbeth to murder as they about the cauldron sing.

At the end of the Play The Winters Tale Hermione is presented as a statue.  In restoring Hermione to her husband Leontes Paulina uses music.

"Music!awake her! strike! 

"Tis time; descend; be stone no more; approach;

Strike all that look upon with marvel.  Come...

Bequeath to daeth your numbness; for from him

dear life redeems you. You perceive she stirs (5.3. 98-103)

Music , Atmosphere and Character

Perhaps more than any other theatrical device, music is capable of indicating to an audience a change of tone within the drama. Shakespeare realized this more than any other dramatist of his day. ‘Atmospheric music' is the most subtle of the four categories because it is concerned with such intangibles as mood, tone and emotional feeling, and because it may involve changes from suspicion to trust, from vengeance to forgiveness or from hatred to love. (Grove Music Online)

Here are a couple of examples of Shakespeares music that evoke an atmosphere or deepen a character.  

 ‘Take, O take those lips away', sung in Measure for Measure (4.i), shows Mariana's brooding on her betrayal and loneliness. (Grove Music Online)

A notable example of character music in Shakespeare occurs in Ophelia's mad scene (Hamlet, 4.v), where both her singing and her songs themselves characterize her state of mind.  (Grove Music Online)

Musical Instruments and Instrument Referemces

Shakespeare used references to musical instruments in character names and dialogue.  He also musical instruments in the dialogue to develop characters.   The musicians names in Romeo and Juliet are  James Soundpost, Hugh Rebeck, and Simon Catling.   The Clown Peter asks them to play 'Heartsease' a popular tune that would have been known to the audience. .  Nobles and members of the middle class knew how to play the recorder, the viol or the lute

Here are a couple of examples of musical instruments in the plays.   


After the play scene in Hamlet,  Hamlet asks Guildenstern if he can play the recorder.

Guildenstern: I know no touch of it, my lord.
Hamlet: It is as easy as lying.


The unsuccessful lute lesson of  The Taming of The Shrew is another example of using an instrument as part of the dramatic action.

Hortensio  I think she'll sooner prove a soldier
  Iron may hold with her, but never lutes.


Why, then thou canst not break her to the lute?


Why, no; for she hath broke the lute to me.
I did but tell her she mistook her frets,
And bow'd her hand to teach her fingering;
When, with a most impatient devilish spirit,
'Frets, call you these?' quoth she; 'I'll fume
with them:'
And, with that word, she struck me on the head,
And through the instrument my pate made way;
And there I stood amazed for a while,
As on a pillory, looking through the lute;
While she did call me rascal fiddler
And twangling Jack; with twenty such vile terms,
As had she studied to misuse me so.

Music Inspired by Shakespeare's Plays

Shakespeare's compostions have continued to inspire modern composers.  There are many many more examples than the ones listed here. (See the bibliography for additional suggestions for further exploration)

A few examples include:

Ralph Vaughn Williams (1872-1958) 

Serenade to Music for 16 vocal soloists and orchestra in 1938. The text is from Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. He also composed 'Three Shakespeare Songs' in 1951.  The text is from The Tempest and from a Midsummer Nights Dream.   

 Benjamin Britten composed incidental music for A Midsummer Nights Dream. 1960 

Amy Beach (1867-1944)

Three Shakespeare Songs based on text from The Tempest and from A Midsummer Nights Dream.

Duke Ellington

'Such Sweet Thunder' in 1957 based on text from Shakespeares plays.  Star Crossed Lovers, Madness in Great Ones (Hamlet) and Lady Mac are some of the tracks.  

Paul Moravac Tempest Fantasy won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize.