I really enjoy all the singing that Shakespeare writes into so many of his plays. It can do so much for a production: Give time for a costume change, give an audience a break from so much speaking they might not understand, lets an actor or two show off their musical skills, maybe even allows an audience to connect more to the current action. Music has a way of affecting people in some cases that words alone just can’t.
The Willow song in the Emilia/Desdemona scene near the end of Othello has such gravity to it. Most of us know what’s going to happen to Desdemona and hearing this words with mellow music could provide a very cathartic experience.
The songs in As You Like It can easily transport us away from the court to the more relaxed, more harmonious Forest of Arden. Feste’s songs in Twelfth Night have the potential to be very entertaining as well as moving. Orsino seems to be deeply moved by a song he sings. Folk songs are sung by very merry (or drunk) characters, just like merry (or drunk) people in real life do of course.
Some of the music of these songs still exist — a few were actual popular songs from Shakespeare’s day. In performance however, most theatre’s don’t search for the original tune. It usually doesn’t fit their concept. In fact, many directors will cut songs out of the plays. Saving time is always an issue when producing one of these works, but so much can be lost when cutting a song. It’d be much better to cut out a passage of banter with humor or very old references that no one will understand than to cut something that could be much more entertaining.
When a production chooses to keep the songs and has some really good music to accompany the words, the effect can be really fun. Even magical. The inverse is also true. Really bad music or a horrible singer can really kill the moment. Who wants to listen to Titania being sung to sleep with a song and a voice that would make the dogs of the neighborhood howl?
The music is another wonderful piece of the wonder of Shakespearean performance. Music is another element that can be different in every production of a play. Composers will always be able to come up with new music to go with the words and fit the play’s concept – just as new actors and new directors will continuously be able to bring their own unique work to Shakespeare’s text.
Play on, give me excess of it…