In the twenty-first century, death is something that we generally try not to think about. We use euphemisms to describe it, speak in hushed tones, and avoid the subject wherever possible. But the approach to death in Shakespeare’s time could not have been more different. Death was everywhere, and it wasn’t just the higher death rate or the plagues and fevers that regularly swept the country that made it so hard to avoid. Shakespeare and his contemporaries were supposed to be regularly reminded of death, and of their forthcoming judgement, whatever it entailed.
These reminders of death were called memento mori, or vanitases, and they were everywhere, even in music. The portrait shown below is one of the finest paintings in the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s collections, and it shows a memento mori with a musical theme. Find out more about the portrait, and other memento mori from Shakespeare's time.
Lots of musical memento mori existed during this period. Countless ballads of the time reminded the listeners of their universal fate, such as the very popular ballad "The Shaking of the Sheets". This theme was often included to give the song a moral element.
While this all seems rather depressing, Shakespeare actually used music to create memento mori with a more optimistic outlook on life. Within certain songs in the plays, he reminds his listeners that “youth’s a stuff will not endure” (Twelfth Night), and “how that life [is] but a flower” (As You Like It). But Shakespeare’s memento mori are particularly unusual, as they tend to appear in the happy songs. They can be found in Shakespeare’s comedies and at happier points in the plays. The two most well-known musical memento mori are “O Mistress Mine” from Twelfth Night, and “It Was A Lover and His Lass” from As You Like It. "O Mistress Mine" is sung by Feste the jester during a night-time session of merrymaking, and "It Was A Lover and His Lass" is sung by a group of foresters in a rustic celebration of the spring.
O Mistress Mine (click to listen)
"What is love? 'tis not hereafter;
Present mirth hath present laughter;
What's to come is still unsure.
In delay there lies no plenty;
Then come kiss me, sweet-and-twenty;
Youth's a stuff will not endure."
Twelfth Night, 2.3
It Was A Lover And His Lass
"This carol they began that hour…
How that a life was but a flower…
And therefore take the present time…
For love is crowned with the prime”
As You Like It, 5.3
These may appear to be bizarre choices of moments to remind the audience of death. But the message of Shakespeare’s musical memento mori urges his audience to make the most of life, because the happier moments are worth enjoying.
Shakespeare does include other memento mori in his works – the most obvious being Yorick’s skull. But these songs show a more cheerful approach to the knowledge that death is coming – to make the most of life, while it is there to be enjoyed.