Renaissance Music: Shakespeare’s Practical and Poetic Manipulation of Lyrics in As You Like It

Amy Morrison ‘04

While it is a comedy of the turmoil of love and the experimentation with gender roles and identity, William Shakespeare’s As you Like It is a historical preservation of Renaissance music. The play is fraught with spontaneous song and poetry, yet Shakespeare strategically manipulates these musical elements. Specifically, the lyrics and poetry of the play function to establish a soundtrack and a direct appeal to their Elizabethan audience, while providing Shakespeare with a valuable shorthand for character development.

It is necessary to understand that music in Shakespeare’s time functions as a complete renovation of sound, voice, and function. Paul Brian emphasizes that “whereas the music of the middle ages is predominately sacred, there is a great flourishing of ideas dedicated to secular topics, predominantly love, in the 15th through early 17th centuries” (1). From this comment, we can understand that the demand for love music and poetry in Shakespeare’s time is indeed influential on As You Like It’s musical content. In addition, Mason proffers that “the chief glory of Elizabeth’s age was […] the development of its secular vocal music, which reached a high degree of artistry. It did so, of course, because Elizabethans received perhaps even more enjoyment from singing together socially then they did from singing psalms together in church” (3). In this development of secular music and emphasis on communal singing, the numerous musicians and singers who painfully extend Shakespeare’s cast of characters should be seen as symbols of music’s booming popularity in the Elizabethan age.

In scenes of As You Like It, we can see the influence of communal music on the play. Act 2, scene 5 begins with an upbeat song delivered by Amiens:

Under the greenwood tree
Who loves to lie with me,
And turn his merry note
Unto the sweet bird’s throat,
Come hither, come hither, come hither.
Here shall he see
No enemy
But winter and rough weather (1-8).

While this song obviously functions to contrast the sharp melancholy of Jacques, Long suggests its worthwhile placement on As You Like It’s imaginary soundtrack: “Its subject and structure suggest a song suitable for singing by a convivial group. It is, perhaps, a drinking song appropriate for a group of mock foresters to sing or to enjoy as listeners” (143). This incorporation of a song that fits into the popular communal genre while countering the woeful tone of Jacques is a rather cinematic choice on Shakespeare’s part. It likens him to almost a film director who makes choices on effective musical selections.

We also must notice Shakespeare’s choice of borrowed lyrics when considering the music of the play as a soundtrack. Much like today’s film moguls, Shakespeare seeks to include familiar lyrics to attract attention to his work. In Act 3, scene 3, Touchstone spouts a fragmented verse: O, sweet Oliver/O, brave Oliver/Leave me not behind thee […] (82-84).

            Pattison acknowledges that this fragment belongs to a popular Renaissance poem:

            Lord Oxford is credited with the authorship of the famous ‘In peascod time’ […]

(The poem) became so popular that its first line came to designate the tune. Later the title ‘The Lady’s Fall’ replaced ‘In peascod time’; and its innumerable ballads were set. In a Dutch collection it appears as ‘O Sweet Oliver’, a fragment of which is carolled by Touchstone” (170-1).

Shakespeare’s strategic selection of this popular poem not only functions to create the rollicking, merry tone of Touchstone and his adventure in the forest, but also to evoke the appeal of recognition from Elizabethan audience. This catering to popular culture is a conscious effort for Shakespeare, as he recognizes what his audience wants to hear.

In addition, it can be noted that Touchstone quotes from an actual ballad, but only in a briefly sung fragment.   However, “certain kinds of poetry were expected to be sung right down to the seventeenth century, even in cultured circles, and the mass of the people knew no other sort of poetry than song” (Pattison 19). While Shakespeare chooses popular lyrics to enhance As You Like It, he deliberately uses poetry in the musical form to deign to the Elizabethan preference of sung lyrics.

Besides the ballad, Shakespeare uses another form of popular lyric to generate interest from his audience. “The madrigal, which was a secular, lyrical poem in the native language, was set in the form of an a capella song, originally for three voices, and afterwards for four, five, or even more. This contrapuntal form was one which would naturally appeal to English taste and to the English love for communal performance” (Mason 6).

The madrigal emerges in particular scenes of the play, and most ironically complicates a scene between the two simplest characters, Touchstone and Audrey. Elson notes that during Act 5, scene 3, two more pages enter to accompany the first page, the only who one speaks to Touchstone. He reasons that the slowed action which ensues is the problematic result of Shakespeare’s attempt to remain true to the verisimilitude of the madrigal, hence the insignificant pages who are pushed into the scene to fulfill the requirement of certain number of musicians. (190). However, this is still a wise choice on Shakespeare’s part, as all levels of Elizabethan society were literate in musical knowledge.

So far, the music of As You Like It has been examined in its relationship to its audience. However, Shakespeare uses the lyrics and songs of the play to assist himself in character development. We must consider that “perhaps no greater tribute to the power of music can be found than in Shakespeare’s presentation of the psychical side of a character in its appreciation, half-appreciation, or non-appreciation of [poetry]” (Elson 151). This comment can be applied to the nature of certain characters of As You Like It.

Duke Frederick and Oliver are unappreciative of lyrics and poetry. The Duke remains physically and psychologically distanced from the woods, and therefore is characterized as stoic due to his absence from the merry songs and affectionate poetry that the other characters indulge in. Oliver, while having some scenes in the woods, still does not completely partake in the revelry in the forest, for he enters after Rosalind and the others and psychologically has one foot still stuck in the court. John H. Long associates these characterizations with the music of the play in stating that “the subject of the first two of Shakespeare’s songs is a restatement of the moral of the play, namely, the influence of nature is benign. The next two songs suggest the joys and simplicity of rural life”(139). However, we must note that neither Duke Frederick nor Oliver is present during these songs that celebrate the rustic.

Music is most helpful for Shakespeare in terms of characterization through Jacques. In essence, “the Englishman of the sixteenth century was a countryman at heart, as surely as the modern Englishman is a townsman” (Pattison 15). If Shakespeare aims to stay accurate in portraying Jacques as a true Englishman who most embraces the theme of rustic simplicity which Long writes of, he proves so in marrying Jacques to his melancholy love of nature which resides in the forest. Arden also points out that “at the end of the play […] Jacques is the only character who chooses to leave his wealth and ease […] In neoplatonic terms he is the most musical of them all for he is the only one whom the carnal music of this world cannot satisfy, because he desires to hear the unheard music of the spheres” (qtd. in Seng 72). It is fitting that Jacques retreats to the cave where perhaps one day this music will present itself to him and lure him out of his melancholy and partake in the optimistic music of the forest.

If music is considered in an overall interpretation in the play, we must consider the new divergence of secular and the church. Are the court and the forest a parallel or metaphor for the secular and the church, with music acting as the barrier between the rigid and the merry? It is possible that while Shakespeare uses musical language to contrast the rustic casualness of Forest of Ardenne to the propriety of the Duke’s palace, he is using the play as a reaction to the two different worlds the Renaissance has espoused.

In looking at music in the scenes of As You Like It, we might also attribute different characters’ attitudes toward music to their struggle with the world surrounding them. Since love has been established as a booming secular topic, does the melancholy Jacques represent the appreciator of brooding love poetry, while Touchstone and Audrey represent the citizens who embrace the Renaissance’s happy odes to marriage and love? Lastly, Shakespeare ends the play with four marriages, of few of which the betrothed barely know each other and have little honest interaction which each other throughout their scenes. We may consider this as Shakespeare’s criticism that love has become a fad which lovers wear like a new hat.

As You Like It is a play that often speaks through its music. Serving as a soundtrack, a way to appeal to its Elizabethan audience, and a means to character development, music is an integral part of the play. Shakespeare is perceptive of music’s importance in Elizabethan society and creates a world in which the music describes the players in ways in which dialogue cannot be substituted. In essence, As You Like It chooses a few individuals to symbolize the importance of music to an entire society, whether it is the merrymakers of the Forest of Ardenne or the inhabitants of Renaissance England.

Works Cited

Brian, Paul. “Renaissance Love Songs Study Guide”. 6 June 1997. Online. 7 November 2002.

Elson, Louis C. Shakespeare in Music. Boston: LC Page & Company, 1900.

Long, John H. Shakespeare’s Use of Music. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1955.

Mason, Dorothy E. Music in Elizabethan England. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1958.

Pattison, Bruce. Music and Poetry of the English Renaissance. (2nd ed). London: Methuen and Company, 1970.

Seng, Peter J. The Vocal Songs in the Plays of Shakespeare: A Critical History. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967.