Share this page

Playing Shakespeare's Music

Join theatre history researcher and musician Jennifer Waghorn for a talk and performance about the music in Shakespeare's plays

Find out more about the music used in Elizabethan and Jacobean theatres, and uncover some of the ways Shakespeare used music in his plays. Listen as Jennifer performs songs and explore with her examples of modern theatre music as she performs original settings of Shakespeare songs from a previous production of The Tempest.

Scroll down to work through the discussion as a series of shorts, or you can head to YouTube to watch the full talk in a single video.

Playing Shakespeare's Music

In this video Jennifer introduces herself and Shakespeare's most musical play, The Tempest. 

Music Survival and Adaptation

Some of the music from Shakespeare's plays survives because it has been written down. However, it is treated quite differently to the written text of the plays and is often more subject to adaptation as musical tastes and styles change. Here Jennifer discusses the opportunities that this presents for a musical director/composer to make Shakespeare's music their own.

Modern Composition

Now let's think about how you might go about composing a piece of music for a production of Shakespeare. Jennifer suggests some of the things that you might take into consideration, including the practicalities of the physical space, the ensemble and musicians available to you, as well as the cues you might pick up from Shakespeare's writing itself.

Character Songs

Songs do a fantastic job of creating general mood and atmosphere, but they can also be used to illustrate a particular character's emotional state. Jennifer discusses various examples of this in Shakespeare's plays, including Ariel's final song in The Tempest; Where The Bee Sucks, There Suck I.

Underscoring and Instrumentation

The modern practice of using incidental music or under-scoring can have a huge impact on the overall tone of a production. Jennifer discusses some of the differences between how music is used in modern theatre, compared to what Shakespeare might have expected in the Elizabethan era. She also illustrates what an impact your choice of instrument can have on the way a melody comes across.

Songs Inspired by Shakespeare

In this final video, Jennifer discusses music that has been influenced by Shakespeare. From classical pieces to Taylor Swift, Shakespeare's themes, characters and words provide a lot of food for the imagination and have been the inspiration for countless songs over the centuries. Listen to performances of two pieces that Jennifer wrote for a 2016 production of The Tempest.

About Jennifer

Jennifer Waghorn is a theatre history researcher and musician based in Stratford-upon-Avon. She is currently finishing her doctoral thesis at the Shakespeare Institute on the original music of Shakespeare’s theatre company and the seventeenth century composers who worked between the theatre and the court. She has advised on music history for productions at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and The Other Place since 2018, and has worked with the Historical Dance Society on reconstructing Jacobean court masque entertainments.

Jennifer is also a theatre composer, musician and musical director; she has written music for around thirty productions (mostly Shakespeare) with various theatre companies, including the Arcola Theatre, FRED, and the Year Out Drama Company. She also performs regularly as a solo singer-songwriter, and as a violinist and singer with folk bands Greenman Rising and the Company of Players. She was named Stratford-upon-Avon Musician of the Year in 2018 (Stratford-upon-Avon Awards). She plays a variety of instruments, including violin, guitar, mandolin, accordion, piano, hurdy-gurdy and rebec, combined with loop pedal work and beatboxing.

Where Shakespeare's story started Relive Shakespeare's love story Walk in Shakespeare's footsteps