“Clues to Shakespeare, the Man”

Shakespeare · was a musician, composer, lyricist or an ardent lover of music.

By a bizarre twist of fate, that is just after I had finished publishing my book and then turned around to write a screenplay about the life of Edward de Vere (“Not Without Mustard”), my film editor told me that he had just edited a 10 minute short film about William Shakespeare for a musician friend of his. However, it seems his friend had chosen the last night of Shakespeare’s life with fellow playwright Ben Jonson, that is the day before he died on April 23rd 1616 (supposedly on St. George’s Day, and coincidentally the date of his birth). Apparently, Ben Jonson had just published his own first compilation of plays and poetry and then went onto Stratford-upon-Avon to celebrate the Bard’s birthday with a drunken night on the town. The next day, William Shakespeare was reputedly found dead in his bed. So, again coincidentally he died on the same day he was born, (or is that part of the legend?). And it would be another seven years before his own plays were compiled and published in 1623 by Heminges and Condell. The academic’s film therefore covers just one fictional day in Shakespeare’s life or career. My own screenplay on the other hand is based on the real life of Edward de Vere from the age of twelve until he died aged fifty-four as the author of Shakespeare’s plays and poetry. Having told my editor friend that I thought the Stratford man was not in my opinion the author of Shakespeare’s plays or poetry for various reasons, I was subsequently invited to a meeting over a pint of beer at which our difference of opinion would be a paramount test of confidence in our divergent theories. But then I had to take into consideration that the friend was a classics student having matriculated from two different universities with a degree in English language and literature, and therefore something of an expert academic on the subject of William Shakespeare. Would he for example reject everything he had learned during his time as a student and embrace some alternative “crack-pot theory”? Evidently not! In complete contradistinction I had never been to university to study classics but nevertheless had still managed to write a comprehensive book about the “Swan of Avon”, but from a completely different angle. I might add my interest in Shakespeare began in middle age and that it took me over twenty years to research and write due to the lack of resources and available time. I had already ascertained that those academically trained students or scholars maintained many false views about William Shakespeare that remain for them entirely certain and unalterable irrespective of the facts. Basically, as it has been told many times that he was a farmer from Stratford-upon-Avon who later became an actor, then playwright and poet in London. I had already mentioned in several articles and blogs how “academic group think” develops psychologically among the educated elite and how academics hold views with little or no substance and how this tendency has spawned into various conspiracy theories today. I had in mind statements such as “the academic dung-heap of fake news”, or the “blinkered academic Cyclops of fantasy”, “the Dick Whittington of Stratford-upon-Avon” etc. Yet I was not sure how to handle a tricky meeting where there would undoubtedly be a strong difference of opinion without my being derogatory or resorting to denigrating remarks just as Boris Jonson did at Prime Minister’s Question Time with Sir Kier Starmer. As it turned out the meeting was quite convivial but ended in an impasse with the academic studying me with some concern as if I was probably “unhinged” or was simply another conspiracy theorist searching for a benevolent and gullible ear. I suppose it is a bit like saying that Vincent Van Gogh did not paint the pictures we are so familiar with. So, I ended the discussion with a simple bare fact, namely that even a ground penetrating radar test conducted on Shakespeare’s tomb revealed nothing but dust and rubble! So, where was Shakespeare’s body and how did it mysteriously disappear? Moreover, where are the examples of Shakespeare’s original hand-written manuscripts, the crucial evidence required to substantiate the fact that the “Stratford Shakespeare” could even write? There are various examples of hand-written manuscripts of Elizabethan plays from the Middle Temple, Gray’s Inn and of several playwrights such as his fellow playwright Ben Jonson. So, why, oh why, do we not have any original scripts of Shakespeare’s plays? Therein hangs a tale…
However, I also understood that there could only be one simple test of his personal attributes and character, it can only be found in the text of his plays and poetry. All of which are keys or clues to the identity/personality of the author. These are derived purely from an analysis of the dramatic, poetic and lyrical works alone I would have deduced that, Shakespeare, the man had the following characteristics and credentials:

Opening Credits of my screenplay “Not Without Mustard”

A) Shakespeare was a musician, composer, lyricist or an ardent lover of music.

In his book Shakespeare and Music, Dr. Edward M. Naylor draws upon 33 plays and four volumes of poetry which make reference to or include the noble art of music. The only plays that exclude music or any indirect reference to it are Henry VIth part 3 and King John. Indeed, in the Merchant of Venice Shakespeare himself writes;

“The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils:
The motions of his spirit are as dull as night,
And his affections dark as Erebus:
Let no such man be trusted.”

Therefore, aside from his extensive knowledge of the legal world, the spiritual wisdom found in the Bible, his understanding of physical and mental health, of rural customs here and abroad, of ornithology, dancing, fencing, botany, science, astrology, biology, navigation, military tactics, English history, and human psychology it comes as no surprise that the Bard also knew something both rare and common in the art of musical notation. Unfortunately, the last will and testament of the Stratford Shakespeare makes no mention of any musical instruments being passed on to the family or his friends. However, the composer John Farmer dedicated his “First Set of English Madrigals” (1599) to the Earl of Oxford, saying: “that using this science as a recreation, your Lordship have overgone most of them that make it a profession”. Not only was music an integral part of the majority of Shakespeare’s plays but it was also included whenever a break or interlude in performance was required to disguise the work of stage-hands as they prepared the stage for the next act or scene.

A group of Elizabethan musicians

Among the major instruments employed in Shakespeare’s time was the viol da gamba, the lute, the recorder, the bagpipes, the virginal, the cornet, tabor and fife, the hautboy, and of course the human voice in song. Above all those listed the lute, primarily because it was a popular instrument among male and female musicians and its’ symbolism employed in courtly poetry, was the most mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays and poetry. The viol was rarely mentioned although it was played solo or in consort during performances. Reference is made to it in Pericles, Prince of Tyre, in King Lear and Twelfth Night. In the latter Maria calls Sir Andrew Aguecheek a fool and his character is defended by Sir Toby Belch as follows: “Fye, that you’ll say so! He plays o’ the viol-de-gamboys, speaks three or four languages word for word without book, and hath all the good gifts of nature”. In Richard II Act I, scene 3 when the Duke of Norfolk is banished he protests: “My native English, now I must forego: And now my tongue’s use is to me no more, Than an unstringed viol or a harp; Or like a cunning instrument cased up, Or, being open, put into his hands, That knows no touch to tune the harmony.” The lute in a variety of sizes was popular all over Europe and was employed to accompany songs, rarely was it a solo instrument. A popular custom of the times, especially among courtiers was to send a lute-string, called a chanterelle, tied in a ribbon as a love token to their beloved. In Much Ado about Nothing Don Pedro ascribes Benedick’s melancholy as follows: “Nay, but his jesting spirit; which is now crept into a lute-string, and now governed by stops”. Incidentally, lute strings made of cat-gut were often used by barbers to pull teeth. The virginal, a popular household instrument synonymous with a miniature piano and which we know was played by Queen Elizabeth herself, is mentioned in Sonnet 128, in A Winter’s Tale, and Two Noble Kinsmen. It originally had cat-gut strings which were replaced by metal ones in the future production of the clavichord. Its’ name probably derives from Queen Elizabeth herself who proselytised herself as a “virgin” and was in fact born under the sign of Virgo. It is mentioned only in A Winter’s Tale when Leontes noticing Polixenes’ hand straying towards Hermione’s says: “Still virginalling upon his palm”. The violin or “fiddle” as it was known was also played and mentioned disparagingly in Taming of the Shrew and King Henry VIIIth.

Queen Elizabeth enjoyed the Volta

Similarly, the recorder deemed an inferior musical instrument, as it is now, was mentioned in A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Hippolyta when she berates Quince for his inability to play it. The sounding of drums and trumpets (alarums, retreats or flourishes) was the signal to the audience that a battle has ensued or a grand entrance was being announced. Similarly, the playing of fifes and whistles that a large mob or crowd had assembled or was about to rush onto the stage. The pipe and tabor, a popular instrument on streets and in rural areas, often played together by one musician, is mentioned in The Tempest, Merchant of Venice and The Two Noble Kinsmen. The actor Will Kempe employed a “taborer” (Thomas Slye) to accompany him on his “Nine Daies Wonder” in 1600 when he moriss-danced all the way from London to Norwich. References to pipes and pipers usually meant what we call the bagpipes as for example in A Winter’s Tale. The hautboy was a conical wooden tube with six holes in front and one on the back for the thumb and was popularly known as a shawm or wait. With a chromatic scale it had a shrill and reedy sound and was synonymous with the shepherd’s pipe. It was always played in consort with other instruments. The tenor hautboy has developed into our cor-anglais and the bass into the bassoon. In his Roman play, Coriolanus when he leaves Rome with the Volscians stage directions dictate:

An artist’s impression of the Elizabethan stage

“Trumpets, Hoboyes, Drums beate together…” Other references to the hautboy can be found in Macbeth, (Act I, scene 6), Henry VIIIth (Act I, scene 4), and Timon of Athens (Act I, scene 2).
In reference to a royal entertainment at Kenilworth Castle, Leicestershire in July 1575 (Princelye Pleasures-1576) George Gascoigne mentions an ensemble or family of musical instruments featuring the pipe, flute, cittern, serpent (now obsolete), fiddle, treble and bass viol, shawms and bandore. In As You Like It (Act I, scene 2) Rosalind makes a pun when referring to the Duke’s wrestler who has broken the ribs of his opponents: “But is there any else longs to see this broken music in his sides?”; meaning that more than one musical instrument is being used. Generally, in the 16th and 17th century music was performed in consorts of instruments of the same type. So that the musicians would all be playing viols, trumpets, tabors, drums and pipes etc on their own. This would not only increase the volume of the instruments for the benefit of an audience but increase the sense of drama that each instrumental consort could create such as say in a marching band. The chromatic scale cornet in Elizabethan times bears no resemblance to the cornet we know today. It was a hollowed out tusk of wood covered in leather with a small mouthpiece. Along its’ length were six holes which could be stopped by the musician’s fingers and a small hole on the reverse. It is mentioned in the trial scene of Katherine in Henry VIIIth (Act I, scene 2), in Coriolanus (Act I, scene 10) and in the casket scene in the Merchant of Venice. An alarum would also sound (usually a cornet or trumpet) whenever a play began or when the next act was about to commence. Sometimes hand-bells would be used to announce the beginning or end of an interlude or refreshment break.

A scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream

When different instruments played together it was known as “broken consort” or “broken music”. The idea of an orchestra was unknown in Shakespeare’s time but that does not mean that several instruments could sometimes be played together whether that was onstage or from the theatrical balcony. In Henry Vth the King, when wooing Katherine says: “Come, your answer in broken music; for thy voice is music and thy English broken; therefore Queen of all, Katherine break thy mind to me in broken English. Wilt thou have me?”. The subject of consorts and musical ensembles was given prominence in the works of Thomas Morley who advised in his Consort Lessons (1599), and Philip Rosseter in his Lessons for Consort (1609). However, ensembles and consorts were more likely to be employed in the choirboy and chapel-boy events. There was a philosophical hierarchy in the properties of each instrument for example stringed instruments were considered superior to wind and percussion instruments such as tabor or bagpipes. In Henry IVth Part One for example the begrudging Falstaff is compared to the drone of a bagpipe, in Twelfth Night Viola’s voice is compared by Orsino to the shrill sound of a pipe.

An Elizabethan musician playing the lute

The human voice in song is mentioned over a hundred times in Shakespeare’s plays and references to songbirds of various types also gets a unique mention. Among the most notable were the nightingale and the lark (King Richard III, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Venus & Adonis, and Romeo & Juliet). The nightingale is referenced in The Passionate Pilgrim and the Rape of Lucrece perhaps because it is also found in Ovid’s verse. We will however find poetic references to the nightingale in Two Gentlemen of Verona: “And to the nightingale’s complaining notes tune my distress and record my woes”, Taming of the Shrew and King Lear: “The foul fiend taunts Tom in the voice of a nightingale”. A song from Cymbeline equates the lark with an ascent into heaven: “ hark, hark the lark at heaven’s gate sings” as well as in the Sonnets: “Like to the lark, at break of day arising from sullen Earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate”. It also appears in Love’s Labours Lost: “When shepherds pipe on oaten straws, and merry larks are ploughmen’s clocks”. In the Winter’s Tale its singular song is highlighted: “The lark that tirra-lirra chants”. In Richard II and Richard III the owl is mentioned together with the lark: “For night-owls shriek, where mounting larks should sing” and in King Lear: “The shrill-gorged lark”. While in Henry VIIIth it is used as a metaphor of daring: “Let his grace go forward, and dare us with his cap, like larks”. The thrush is alluded to in The Merchant of Venice: “If a throstle sing, he falls straight a-capering” as well as A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The peculiar habits of the cuckoo are alluded to in King Lear, Midsummer Night’s Dream and Henry IVth by Worcester: “And being fed by us, you use’d us so as that ungentle gull, the cuckoo’s bird, useth the sparrow; did oppress our nest, grew by our feeding to so great a bulk”. The robin or ruddock as it was known gets a mention in Cymbeline. Similarly, the wren in Macbeth: “The poor wren, the most diminutive of birds, will fight, her young ones in her nest against the owl”.

A Cuckoo, one of Shakespeare’s favourite musical metaphors

In Love’s Labour’s Lost which only contains two songs and probably one which is lost, Armado tells the page Moth to warble; the song is known as a concolinel:

Armado: Sweet air!-Go, tenderness of years; take this key, give enlargement to the swain, bring him festinately hither. I must employ him in a letter to my love.
Moth: Master, will you win your love with a French Brawl?
Armado: How meanest thou? Brawling in French?
Moth: No, my complete Master; but to jig off a tune at the tongue’s end, canary to it with your feet, humour it with turning up your eyelids, sigh a note and sing a note, sometimes through the throat, as if you swallowed love with singing love, sometime through the nose, as if you snuffed up love by smelling love; with your hat pent-house-like o’er the shop of your eyes; with your arms crossed on your thin-belly doublet, like a rabbit on a spit; or your hands in your pockets, like a man after the old painting, and keep not too long in one tune, but a snip and away. These are compliments, these are humours; these betray nice wenches, that would be betrayed without these; and make them men of note-do you note me?

An artist’s impression of an Elizabethan Jester or Clown

Now the term “Brawl” is derived from the French Bransle or branle which was a tune to which a circular or linear country dance was performed in eight time. The Canary was probably another country dance derived from the Canary Islands in 6-8 time. In the same play reference is made to a country round dance the so-called “Haye” (sometimes known also as Hay or Hey). The Morris dance is also mentioned in Love’s Labour’s Lost when Holofernes says to Jacquetta: “Trip and Go, my sweet”, which is a phrase employed by Morris dancers. The Italian term Ballare meant a type of dance usually in eight time, hence our own word ballet. In act I, scene 2 Armado asks Moth: “Is there not a ballad of the King and the Beggar?”. Moth replies; “The world was very guilty of such a ballad some three ages since: but I think, now ‘tis not to be found; or, if it were, it would neither serve for the writing nor the tune”. Armado then requests the subject to be “newly-written over”.

The links to my current publications, on the Shakespeare Authorship Controversy; “Shakespeare’s Qaballah” and an anthology of poetry “Parthenogenesis” are as follows:


“We all love Shakespeare, whoever he was…”

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The links to my publications 
“Shakespeare’s Qaballah”,
a Companion to Shakespeare Studies and my anthology of poetry,