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Ominous Oboes

Suspenseful background music has been around long before cinema was invented. Shakespeare himself toyed with the effect, and consistently relied upon a very specific instrument to indicate ominous foreshadowing...

Surprising though it may seem, oboes in Shakespeare's plays and Jaws have something in common.

We tend to think of atmospheric music as a modern invention, mostly found in the cinema. The Jaws theme tune is a classic example of this: we all know something bad is coming when we hear the distinctive music. But this effect has existed in theatre for hundreds of years. It was in the early stages of being developed as a recognised theatrical device during  Shakespeare’s time, and Shakespeare experimented with it to great effect. To produce ominous-sounding music, he had to choose appropriate instruments to create the right effect.

A "hautboy", or oboe player, from a ballad sheet printed in Shakespeare's time.

In Shakespeare’s time one instrument in particular was associated with doom and gloom: the oboe, or “hautboy”, as it was known (a corruption of the French for “high wood”). Although the instrument was gradually developed to produce a quieter, more pleasant tone, it would have made a harsh and noisy sound in Shakespeare’s time – especially if multiple oboes were played together.

The oboe’s ominous sound often had a big impact on the action in the plays. A good example of this comes from Act Four Scene Three of Antony and Cleopatra:

[Music of the hautboys as under the stage]
Soldier 4:     Peace! what noise?
Soldier 1:      List, list!
Soldier 2:     Hark!
Soldier 1:      Music i' the air.
Soldier 3:     Under the earth.
Soldier 4:     It signs well, does it not?
Soldier 3:     No.
Soldier 1:      Peace, I say! What should this mean?
Soldier 2:     'Tis the god Hercules, whom Antony loved
                       Now leaves him.”

Antony and Cleopatra, 4.3

This moment happens on the eve of Anthony’s battle with Octavius. The music of the oboes comes from underneath the stage, which traditionally signified the position of Hell in the theatre during Shakespeare’s time. The oboe music sends the soldiers onstage into confusion. They interpret the music as an ill omen, signifying that Antony’s good fortune and success in battle will end. Thanks to the music, the audience is left anticipating the oncoming disaster, even though Anthony wins his next battle. He is later betrayed, loses the war, and commits suicide, but the audience would have seen this coming: he is doomed from the moment the oboes play.

Musicians in Cymbeline
Illustration of musicians playing sorrowful music in "Cymbeline". The musician on the far right is playing a "hautboy" as it would have looked in Shakespeare's time.

Oboes also appear three times in one of Shakespeare’s most ominous plays, Macbeth. Act One Scene Six begins with “hautboys and torches”, as Duncan and his men approach Macbeth’s castle. The dark music and torches signify night time, and could be simply providing a fanfare to mark the entrance of the king. But this scene is also the point where Duncan enters his murderers’ house, and he will never leave.

The beginning of the next scene also begins with “hautboys and torches”, as Macbeth begins to plan Duncan’s murder in the middle of the night. Finally, there is a stage direction for “hautboys” as the witches reveal a final prophecy to Macbeth, showing him the line of Banquo’s descendants. This prophecy foreshadows Macbeth’s fate, revealing that his descendants will never be kings. The witches’ appearance and spell-casting may even have been accompanied by oboes whenever they appeared. A song and witches’ dance is included in some versions of the play text, and it is likely that oboes would have provided some of the accompaniment

The sound of the oboe, then, was the real Shakespearean equivalent of the Jaws theme by modern standards. Once the hautboys started to play, everybody knew that things weren’t going to end happily...

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