Share this page

Shakespeare's Magical, Musical Transformations

When there is music, there is magic. At least, so it is in Shakespeare's plays.

Music is almost always present at magical moments in Shakespeare’s plays. This was no coincidence, and while it did work as a theatrical device, the presence of music meant much more than that to Shakespeare’s contemporaries. The music of the spheres was that music connected all the elements in the universe. Whether people believed in it or not, the basic belief about magic in Shakespeare’s time was that it gave you the power to control those elements.

Prospero and Ariel
Painting of Prospero from The Tempest, by John Massey Wright. In The Tempest, Prospero has learnt to control the elements of the island he lives upon, making him a powerful sorcerer. He also commands the musical spirit, Ariel.

It is unclear how many people in Shakespeare’s time did believe that certain humans could acquire magic. But for Shakespeare, it was more important that magic could exist onstage in the world of fiction. The audience knew that when they heard music, something magical could be about to happen.

So what kind of “magical moments” called for music in Shakespeare’s plays? Shakespeare used music to send people into an enchanted sleep on a number of occasions. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Oberon bids Titania call for music which will “strike more dead/Than common sleep of all these five the sense” (4.1) – he wishes to send the four lovers in the fairy grove into a deep sleep. Shakespeare used music as a magical device much more in his later plays. In Pericles, shortly after Marina and Pericles are reunited, he seems to hear the music of the spheres, although nobody else can:

“Most heavenly music!
It nips me unto listening, and thick slumber
Hangs upon mine eyes: let me rest”
Pericles, 5.1

 He then falls asleep, and the goddess Diana appears to him in a magical/divine vision. This moment of falling asleep would seem bizarre and out of place, but the presence of music explains that this is a magical sleep which happens for a reason.

Music is also used at moments of magical reawakening, especially from what looks to be a death-like sleep. Again, Shakespeare uses this in his later plays, particularly in Pericles and The Winter’s Tale. In Pericles, Thaisa (Pericles’ wife) is believed to be dead, and her coffin is placed in the sea. It washes up upon the shore of Cerimon’s kingdom. Cerimon, a man with great skill in healing, has the coffin opened and declares that Thaisa is not dead. He calls for music to bring her back to life:

“The rough and woeful music that we have,
Cause it to sound, beseech you.
The viol once more: how thou stirr’st, thou block!
The music there!—I pray you, give her air.
This queen will live: nature awakes; a warmth
Breathes out of her: she hath not been entranced
Above five hours: see how she gins to blow
Into life’s flower again!”
Pericles, 3.2

The music has magical healing qualities which revive Thaisa like a medicine.

Illustration of Hermione's statue from the final scene of The Winter's Tale

The best-known moment of a character coming back to life in Shakespeare is in Act Five Scene Three of The Winter’s Tale, and it is clearly accompanied by music. In this scene, a statue of Hermione is present onstage – Hermione has been seemingly dead for sixteen years. Her maid, Paulina, cries “Music, awake her; strike!”, and the statue of Hermione comes to life. Shakespeare uses music here as the cause of Hermione’s reawakening. It is ambiguous whether Hermione has been alive all along and has pretended to be the statue, or whether the statue itself truly becomes alive through magic, but an audience in Shakespeare’s time would have accepted that music could make the impossible happen, change the order of the universe, and magically bring somebody back to life – even if it was only possible in fiction.

Recommended blogs

See all blogs