" 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 dull as night / And his affections dark as Erebus / Let no such men be trusted"
(Merchant of Venice 5.1.83-88, Lorenzo to Jessica)
Shakespeare counsels us not to trust a man who does not love music because he is a villain and is capable of committing all heinous crimes.
Very little is known about Shakespeare's own opinion about anything for his mysterious silence about himself because he never speaks his own mind out except through the voices of his characters, be that Iago or Cleopatra. Shakespeare's characters surpass the philosophers in depth as well as reasoning when they speak of something physical or metaphysical. If we study him on the basis of one philosophical theme or topic like music, death, love, mortality or adversity, we get astounded by the variety of interpretation and cogent definition the characters come up with which outshine the philosophers or specialists themselves.
Music has been held high in the works of Shakespeare. A frustrated man or a successful man may equally hold music as the source of peace and tranquility. Our effort here is to enjoy the sweetest music in his works either indirectly by reading the lines that describe ecstatic power of music or by listening to some great lines from his songs.
Shakespeare's works replete with comments on music which are more touching, deep and musical than any music ever heard. That unheard melodies are sweeter than that of heard melodies is exquisitely exhibited in the lines on music in Shakespeare. It is not for nothing that Beethoven's Sonata is absolutely based on the Tempest.
Shakespeare's plays abound in songs too. The beginning lines of the songs like "Tomorrow is Saint Valentine's day'' or "It was a lover and his lass" or "Under the green wood tree ' or "O mistress mine! Where are you roaming ?" or "Come away, death" or " Tell me where is fancy bred" and so on keep the listeners enchanted with their melodies. Here we also look beyond the usual songs and enjoy melodies in poetry in which music is otherwise unheard.
Cleopatra ,Portia, Desdemona, Ophelia, Emilia, Richard ii, Ferdinand, Orsino speak on music in the respective plays they are in and some lines in the sonnets are live music.
We begin with a definition of music "The true concord of well-tuned sounds" (Sonnet 8.5).Music with instruments matching each other is also sweet music "Mark how one string, sweet husband to another,/Strikes each in each by mutual ordering"(Sonnet 8.9-10).
Cleopatra, lovesick for Antony, appeals to her companions to soothe her burning heart with music "Give me some musicmusic, moody food/ Of us that trade in love".
A man becomes a tyrant or an untrustworthy criminal with all vices if he does not know how to appreciate music, "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 dull as night, /And his affections dark as Erebus: /Let no such man be trusted" (The Merchant of Venice).
Music is also a panacea which takes a man in to ecstasy -- a state of divine bliss and it dispels all kinds of grief, worry and anxiety from human life. To create such divinely happy state, Shakespeare invokes the spirit of Orpheus with his instrument " Orpheus with his lute made trees, /And the mountains tops that freeze, /Bow themselves when he did sing…./In sweet music is such art, /Killing care and grief of heart"(Henry viii).
The fairy King Oberon, in A Midsummer Night's Dream ,describes to mischievous boy puck how he witnessed that on hearing the sweet music played upon by a mermaid sitting on the back of a Dolphin ,the rough sea became quiet and stars shot out madly from the spheres "Once I sat upon a promontory,/And heard a mermaid on dolphin's back/Uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath/That the rude sea grew civil at her song/And certain stars shot madly from their spheres/To hear the sea-maids music".in the same play, the fairy queen Titania finds the hypnotic power of music 'Music ho, music, such as charmeth sleep!".
The effect of music can be so devastating on a lover that can tempt him to die while listening to it. Orsino appeals to Curio in The twelfth Night " If music be the food of love, play on, /Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting, /The appetite may sicken, and so die'. Orsino sensuously feels that music came to his ear like sweet sound "That breathes upon a bank of violets /Stealing and giving odour:.
One of the saddest tragedies-- Othello has the undertone of music all over. Desdemona, sensing that she might not be able to refrain Othello from the green eyed monster--- jealousy which might even bring her death like her mother's maid, she tells Emilia her mind "She had a song of 'willow', /An old thing it was, but it expressed her fortune/And she died singing it. That song tonight/Will not go from my mind". Tragic music hovers through this part of the play . Emilia after being stabbed by her husband Iago sings to Desdemona dead "I will play the swan/And die in music".
Shakespeare's poetic excellence can elevate his lines into great music. Caliban, an impeccable creation, half fish and half man, describes musical atmosphere of the magical island created with the wizardry of Prospero to Stephano and Trinculo " Be not afeared; the isle is full noises, /Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not," Here Caliban's words onomatopoeically imitate the sounds they refer to " Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments/Will hum about mine ears; and sometime voices".
Music is such stuff as if it were made of dreams in Shakespeare. It can play magical role to create a heavenly aura all around. It can also be so sweet that the shipwrecked, weeping prince Ferdinand who has supposedly lost his entire family by a shipwreck in the sea, gets consoled by Ariel's song "Where should this music be ? in the air or the earth?/It sounds no more: and, sure, it waits upon/ Some god on the island. Sitting on a bank,/Weeping again the king my father's wrack,/This music crept by me upon the waters,/Allaying both their fury and my passion/ With its sweet air".
In a different situation, king Richard ii, before being murdered in captivity in the Tower, finds music distasteful and intolerable "How sour sweet music is/When time is broke and no proportion kept! /So it is in the music of men's lives…..The music mads me. Let it sound no more".
Shakespeare was well versed in the musical milieu that prevailed in the Elizabethan theatre as music played vital role in the success of any play on the stage. More over his plays have songs which are great pieces of poetry on the one hand and fine pieces of music on the other.
Emilia, stabbed by her husband Iago, dies singing the swan song to the dead Desdemona, "I will play the swan/ And die in music". Bottom, just being transformed into an ass, boasts of his good taste for Music to Titania in A Midsummer Night's Dream "I have a reasonable good ear in music. Let's have the tongs and the bones." Shakespeare, more neutral than gods, will win the hearts of all the feminists in a moment with Balthasar's song in Much Ado A bout Nothing, "Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more, / Men were deceivers ever."