On the eleventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me:
Eleven pipers piping, Ten lords a-leaping,
Music is an important part of Shakespeare’s plays (particularly the comedies*). It’s what the audience would expect, and it goes back in part to that cross-fertilisation between masques and plays I was talking about yesterday. Twelfth Night, for example, a play which it’s strongly suspected was written for Court, has more songs than average – likely because Shakespeare knew he would have access to the talented court musicians as well as his own troupe.
We don’t actually know if Shakespeare wrote all his own songs – and we certainly don’t know what tunes they were performed to (the First Folio neglected to include the musical notation). At least one of the songs – the Willow Song, which Desdemona sings before her death – was a pre-existing folk song. Desdemona sings
The poor soul sat sighing by a sycamore tree,
Sing all a green willow;
Her hand on her bosom, her head on her knee,
Sing willow, willow, willow.
The fresh streams ran by her, and murmur’d her moans,
Sing willow, willow, willow;
Her salt tears fell from her, and soften’d the stones
Her audience would have known the traditional end to the song and a strong suspicion of how the story was going to play out…
Take this for my farewell and latest adieu…Write this on my tomb, that in love I was true…
O mistress mine, where are you roaming?
O, stay and hear; your true love’s coming,
That can sing both high and low.
Trip no further, pretty sweeting;
Journeys end in lovers meeting,
Every wise man’s son doth know.
* Although it is interesting to note that Ophelia and Desdemona are the only heroines – and among few main characters – who sing.
** I’m humming it right now and you probably are too…
*** It’s also worth noting that Robert Johnson was also one of the king’s lutenists. That masque connection again.