Do you hear Shakespeare’s Words and Music?

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I am about to leave for Los Angeles to attend a Shakespeare Symposium convened by Professor Jonathan Post at the University of California in Los Angeles (U.C.L.A.).

The title of the symposium is “Where has all the Verse Gone? Shakespeare’s Poetry on the Page & Stage” (May 13-14) and speakers are among the contributors to a forthcoming volume, The Oxford Handbook to Shakespeare’s Poetry.

A description of the symposium includes the following:

‘For the last three decades, the study of Shakespeare has been largely dominated by a number of theoretical perspectives that have quite thoroughly displaced a knowledgeable understanding of, and interest in, what an earlier generation of critics would have assumed to be the central working conditions of Shakespeare’s muse: that his writings, first and foremost, belonged to the broader field of verbal art or poetry.

‘This gathering casts a wide net. It understands poetry to be not just a formal category but to be inclusive of the drama as well, and of Shakespeare’s influence as a poet on later generation of writers in English and beyond.

The symposium focuses on some of the following set of interpretive categories: general matters of style, questions of verse origin and evolution in and around Shakespeare; the importance of words, line, and rhyme to meaning; the significance of song and ballads in the drama; the place of gender in his verse, including the relationship of Shakespeare’s poetry to the visual arts; the different values attached to speaking “Shakespeare” in the theatre; and the adaptation of Shakespearean verse (as distinct from performance) into other periods and languages.’

My own contribution is called ‘Shakespeare’s Words and Music’ in which I explore the potential musicality of Shakespeare’s language and the effect this might have on performance. The music of Shakespeare’s language is often a diminished dimension in stage productions of his work. Actors, it seems to me, in focussing perhaps primarily on conveying the literal meaning of the words, can often shy away from their musical qualities.

I’m looking forward to discussing this further, and would be interested to read your comments on this subject.

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Author:Paul Edmondson

Head of Research and Knowledge and Director of the Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival for The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Follow Paul on Twitter @paul_edmondson
  • Very interesting. ‘Meaning’ or ‘music’? I’ve been a listener/viewer at RSC performances since the, ahem, middle 1960s. I’m certain that were I to listen to a recording of some of those long-ago performances, I’d note an acting style that is markedly more ‘musical’ than what we hear today.

    For example, I remember being enthralled in the 1970s by Alan Howard’s performances, as he worked his way through just about every king in the canon. Magnificent. Music AND meaning.

    Then, after a long gap, I saw his Macbeth at the National Theatre in the 1990s – and, to my older ear, his performance seemed mannered in the extreme. Musical, yes – but at times he was almost singing the verse.

    It’s a delicate balance. Perhaps it’s to do with breathing? A few years ago I went to an extraordinary ‘workshop’ session at the Courtyard Theatre: veteran scholar and director John Barton worked through a selection of Shakespeare’s sonnets with two fine actors. 

    One of them (Judi Dench) took the more lyrical approach, letting the verse rest ‘on the breath’ – if that makes sense. The poems took flight. Unforgettable.

    The other actor (Ian McKellen) focused more emphatically on meaning, individual words pinging out, emphasising dissonances and alliteration. Quite different from Dench – but equally engaging and enthralling.

    It’s all about trusting the text – something which can be forgotten in the more ‘high concept’ productions that come along from time to time.

    The current ‘Merchant of Venice’ is a good example. Fortunately, at its centre, is the fine voice of Patrick Stewart. I hope his younger colleagues are listening and learning.

  • Hi, There’s a lot of research about the effect of music on the brain, and it seems obvious to me that there’s a link with poetry as well. Our reaction to a piece of well-spoken poetry isn’t just intellectual, but has to do with rhythm and other factors including the actual quality of the voice. Think about Juliet Stevenson, for instance. My own post on this subject is at, and I look forward to hearing more about the symposium in due course.

  •  Hi Paul. Very interesting blog. Remember the play readings on a Thursday at the Shakespeare Institute? This seemed to me to be the point of such play readings i.e. -that the plays’ real life came about when they were heard in a small space – when the sounds of the language were revealed ‘off the page’ by the spoken voice. I am currently doing some research into Maori interactions with Shakespeare and this is a key aspect of that research. As a predominantly oral culture Maori understood and were immediately drawn to the music in Shakespeare’s words.   Maori also link oratory and song very closely – in formal situations an orator’s speech is always followed by a song. I’d love to hear more about the conference in due course. Jacquie Walters (nee Hanham).

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