Enjoying Shakespeare Through Music

Apr 24, 2019

Sarah Williams
Credit Bradley Fuller / South Carolina Public Radio

“If you’re afraid of getting into Shakespeare, start with the music.”

For Dr. Sarah Williams, associate professor of music history at the University of South Carolina, the sometimes-challenging task of understanding the works of William Shakespeare can be made easier -- and more enjoyable -- through music. A specialist in the popular music and culture of England in Shakespeare’s time, Sarah suggests that common notions about the playwright and his works often miss the mark.

“I think Shakespeare would have taken offense at being a cultural snob or anything like that,” she says.

Sarah points to the ways music not only enlivened early performances of Shakespeare’s plays, but also made them appealing to a wide audience. Popular songs of the era were often heard in the theaters of the time before making their way to more exclusive environments. In turn, it was in these courtly settings that the tunes received embellishments, and -- happily for music historians -- were written down. Researchers therefore have a better idea of how the original popular songs sounded than they would otherwise.  

“We know the musical notation because these learned, courtly composers like John Dowland, the famous Elizabethan lutenist, set the tune to lute variations,” Sarah says. Other composers, like William Byrd, followed suit.

“These are composers working for Queen Elizabeth -- I mean, in the highest echelons of society. And they knew that [popular] music, too.”

Although music was an integral part of staged productions in Shakespeare’s day, performance practice differed dramatically depending on venue.

“In the big amphitheaters, they didn’t employ a regular ensemble, so the actors onstage had to be trained in music as well,” Sarah says, while “at the smaller hall theaters, they had professional musicians that would perform these more musically-sophisticated productions."

In this interview that aired Tuesday, April 23rd, SC Public Radio’s Bradley Fuller speaks with Dr. Sarah Williams about music culture in the time of Shakespeare, the experience of the era’s theatre-goers, and the kinds of songs that were popular across all levels of society in Tudor- and Stuart-period England.