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Shakespeare's Ludicrous Musical Lovers: Part 2

Ludicrous lovers tend to fall into two categories: writers of music, and performers of music. They also tend to always be men. What might that mean for women?

This second blog on Shakespeare’s ludicrous lovers covers two different types of musical romantic: the lovers who write music, and those who perform it (or have it performed by servants). And as Shakespeare’s ludicrous lovers tend to be men, it is interesting to see whether there is any response from the women’s point of view...

Ludicrous Lovers
Ludicrous lovers from Much Ado About Nothing (RSC, 2006)

The Lover-Songwriters

Some of Shakespeare’s lovers are not content with surrounding themselves with music: they also feel the need to express their love by writing music about or for their loved one. In Much Ado About NothingBenedick mocks his lovestruck friend Claudio’s musical taste at the start of the play. He cannot understand why Claudio has given up “manly” instruments in favour of more romantic ones:

I have known when there was no music with him but the drum and the fife; and now had he rather hear the tabour and the pipe

Much Ado About Nothing, Act 2 Scene 3

An "ancient" wooden pipe, date unknown (SBT 19 40-30)

But Benedick gradually falls in love himself during the course of the play, and his musical tastes suddenly become romantic. He tries desperately hard to write a love song, but finds it difficult to express himself, mainly due to his inability to write in rhyme – which is hilarious for the audience to watch. See the scene performed at Shakespeare's Globe in 2011.

In As You Like It, Orlando writes reams of poetry and hangs it on the trees throughout the Forest of Arden. While this is not necessarily musical as such, the language and rhythm of the poetry is very lyrical and sounds like an attempt at a love song – again, with appalling rhymes. It is sometimes sung in modern performances.

Click here to hear "Rosalind" - Orlando's Attempt at Romantic Verses 

Wooing Musicians

Proteus and Sylvia
Proteus wooing Silvia - Two Gentlemen of Verona, 4.2 (illustration by John Gilbert - PC 56.36 18 GIL)

Some of Shakespeare’s lovers go on to perform their love songs to the women they love – or they hire musicians to do it for them instead. The iconic romantic image of Romeo standing beneath Juliet’s balcony was relatively common where music was concerned, as lovers (or paid musicians) were often depicted as playing under the balconies of the women they wished to woo. Shakespeare’s classic depiction of this is in Two Gentleman of Verona with Proteus’ love song for Silvia, as he stands beneath her balcony with musicians and sings “Who is Silvia?”. He is one of three rival lovers for Silvia’s affections, and the song does not seem to endear him to her – but it does make his former love Julia realise that Proteus’s affections have moved elsewhere.

Another wooing song is Cloten’s ballad to Imogen in Cymbeline. But Cloten is keen to obtain Imogen’s money, not her love. His song, “Hark, hark! The Lark” is full of flowery, poetic language to wake Imogen up and call her to him. But Imogen doesn’t appear, which frustrates Cloten. Ultimately, Proteus ends up with his former love, Julia – and Cloten ends up being beheaded by his enemies. Neither Cloten nor Orlando’s wooing songs have the desired effect. Although they use flowery language and try to express their undying love, the sentiment doesn’t sound sincere: partly due to their lack of musical skill.

The Women’s Response

Balthasar singing “Sigh No More, Ladies” from Much Ado About Nothing (RSC, 1996)

The ludicrous lovers’ songs may be about women, composed in honour of them, or sung to them, but are there any songs for women? Shakespeare does give women some musical advice on love, in Much Ado About Nothing. In Act Two Scene Three, Balthasar sings a song to a gathering of lords, with no women in sight. Yet Sigh no More, Ladies is really a piece of advice for women – that however romantic men are, and however often they declare their love, it cannot guarantee that they will remain constant. The song suggests that the best course of action is not to take love too seriously. Given that what appears to be the most stauch relationship in this play breaks down shortly afterwards, as the jealous Claudio jilts Hero at their wedding, this advice does fit into the play. But it really appears to be a note of caution from Shakespeare aimed at women more generally. Many lovers, however musically they express their passion – are still ludicrous.

Click here to listen to Sigh No More, Ladies

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