Music in the Tempest
“Music and The Tempest” The vital center of The Tempest is its music. Pervading and informing the action of the play, music is always sounding, always affecting and shaping the lives of the characters. Often directionless and ambiguous in its meaning, the music of The Tempest provides a context for Prospero’s magical machinations and becomes, through the course of the play, a powerfully evocative symbol of this magic. In The Tempest music is the medium through which order emerges from chaos; it is the agent of suffering, learning, growth, and freedom.
Critics who have noted the pervasiveness of music, songs, and musical allusions in Shakespeare’s drama1 have often attempted to extrapolate from the canon of his work and posit a distinct philosophy of music which they insist he was trying to communicate in his plays. This is most easily accomplished by rather vague references to renaissance ideas of divine harmony and the “music of the spheres,” that macrocosmic heavenly order of which this worldly microcosm was thought to be a reflection.
It has also been pointed out that during the Renaissance, music came more and more to be associated with a “rhetoric of emotion,” a kind of language of the heart in which man could express his inmost feelings and communicate them to others. 2 Though neither of these notions can account for our experience of a play as musically rich as The Tempest, together they can provide us with helpful tools for understanding how Shakespeare employed music in his drama. For from ideas of order we can derive principles of structure, and if there is a providential design in The Tempest, it is certainly an artistic and a musical one.
Furthermore, this design manifests itself in the manner in which it speaks to deep human feelings; it is meaningful in the extent to which it can express the “language of the heart. ” In The Tempest these two modes of interpretation form a unity from which music emerges as an emotional and philosophical idea. Embodying its own conceptual integrity, music becomes a force that transcends its power as melos, or in the case of song, as melos and lexos, to achieve its status as the play’s presiding symbol of both feeling and form. This explanation will account, I hope, for what may appear to be my subsequent neglect of the melos of The Tempest’s music. From contemporary song books of the period one is able to conclude with a certain amount of assurance that some of the play’s actual music still survives. Peter Seng points out the existence of possible original melodies for two of the songs, “Full fathom five” (I, ii, 397) and “Where the bee sucks, there suck I” (V, i, 88). That the evidence for the remaining body of the play’s music is sparse gives us, I think, license to employ our “imaginative” ears to evoke in our own minds the presence of those “strange and solemn airs” that pervade The Tempest. The absence of considerations of melody in my discussion of the songs will not, I hope, be perceived as an oversight, but rather as a methodological step necessitated by my thesis that the ontology of music in The Tempest is an ideational as well as a melodic one. If we want to examine music as an informing idea in The Tempest, we can begin by looking at a play with which it has many affinities, As You Like It.
One can view The Tempest and As You Like It as companion plays in more than one sense. In terms of plot they share many common elements. Each begins in medias res; Duke Senior and Prospero have both been deposed before the plays’ actions begin. Each drama presents a principal figure whose machinations orchestrate events to bring about a desired end; Rosalind wishes to win Orlando and Prospero to recover his dukedom. Both plays juxtapose groups of good and bad characters; there are the evil-doers and the victims of evil.
The primary actions of The Tempest and As You Like It unfold in artificial worlds where the old exigencies of court life do not obtain. Prospero’s island and the Forest of Arden become places of self-discovery where new standards of behavior are learned. Each play’s deepest concern is with the process of recognition of error and regeneration, and finally, each abundantly employs music as a vehicle for commenting upon this process or for helping to bring it into being. As You Like It is richer in music than the plays that preceded it.
From his experience with the earliest comedies Shakespeare had probably learned the value of music as an important dramatic device. Here the songs are more carefully integrated, reinforcing and illuminating the themes of the play. The first song, “Under the greenwood tree” (II, v. 1), portrays the life of the exiles in the Forest of Arden and focuses their dramatic situation. Cast from their position of security at court, the new inhabitants of Arden are learning that nature supplies a home that is in many ways far superior to the one they have left behind: “Here shall he ee no enemy / But winter and rough weather” (II, v. 6-7). 5 A musical statement of one of the themes of the play, the beneficent effect of nature on man, the song also reveals the character of its two singers, Amiens, the cheerful exile, and Jaques, the melancholy cynic. This is a fine instance of music as dramatic economy. Simultaneously fulfilling two functions, the song delineates the import of the play’s action and displays antithetical responses to it. The placement of the songs in As You Like It also intensifies the play’s dramatic movement. Blow, blow, thou winter wind” (II, vii, 174) repeats the theme of the first song, but it is more caustic, more explicit in its comment. The implications of this song, which contrasts winter’s natural violence with the violence that human beings inflict upon each other, are undercut by its dramatic position. Coming directly after Orlando carries in his faithful but debilitated servant Adam, the song becomes an ironic comment upon itself, for we have just seen an example of friendship that is not “feigning,” of loving that is not mere “folly. We have also discovered that Duke Senior’s attachment to Orlando’s father survives in his kindness to the son. Like Jaques’ misanthropic speech on the ultimate insignificance of human life, the song makes a point which the events of the play qualify, and the agent of this qualification is the very benignity of nature itself. One final instance of the use of music in As You Like It is worth noting. While perhaps bearing no explicit relationship to the progress of the plot or the nature of character, the song “It was a lover and his lass” (V, iii, 5) has an evocative power that imbues the entire conclusion of the play.
Celebrating a life of love and springtime, the song by contrast reminds us of the winter of exile and misfortune that has just passed. It looks ahead to the marriages that are about to take place and brings a sense of freshness to inform the repentance that Duke Frederick and Oliver experience. More atmospheric than thematic, this song suggests a new order of living and being; it transcends the events of the play to provide a context that expresses their fullest meaning. In this sense it comes closer than any other song in the play to the use of music that Shakespeare employs in The Tempest.
This brief discussion of As You Like It illustrates how important to a drama music and song can be. Taken together, the songs of As You Like It form more than a decorative enhancement of the action. Amiens’ simplicity and energetic gaiety are so closely connected to its progress that it is very difficult to imagine the play without him or his songs. The music of As You Like It moves with the play as an analogous structure of mood and motive. It does not, however, become the structural principle of the play itself.
This is where The Tempest takes its crucial departure from a play with which it otherwise shares many similarities. The difference between the two plays is, of course, the chronological fact of twelve or thirteen years. Historical considerations of dramatic presentation–the acquisition by the King’s Men of the Blackfriars Theatre–can, in part, account for the unique use to which music was put in The Tempest. But the deepest distinctions between The Tempest and As You Like It are those that point to profounder questions of ethics and the nature of freedom and responsibility.
The answers supplied by As You Like It are essentially those of the comic vision–that human nature is susceptible to goodness and that man, if not perfectible, is at least reformable. But Shakespeare’s romances follow the writing of the tragedies, and they are caught in a delicate balance between the affirmation of the earlier plays and the dark and ponderous probings of Macbeth and King Lear. And if they are able to sustain or even suggest a positive vision, it is only after an excess of suffering and the painful passage of time.
The divergent attitudes toward time that As You Like It and The Tempest reveal are perhaps a key to understanding the very different roles that music takes in each of these plays. In one sense, time seems to be of little significance in As You Like It. Duke Senior and his company regret their unfortunate exile, but the Forest of Arden has a medicinal effect that tempers the burden of the past and makes the present livable, even enjoyable. The future, too, looms in their consciousness as neither a promise nor a threat.
There is in the play, however, the repeated appearance of what I call “the salutary moment,” those unique instants when men and women fall in love and when wrong-doers recognize their errors and seek forgiveness. This is the “love at first sight” of Rosalind and Orlando, of Celia and Oliver. It is also the instantaneous conversion of Duke Frederick by his encounter with a religious hermit and the quick reformation of Oliver when saved from the devouring jaws of a lion by the intervention of his brother. Time, then, in As You Like It is fragmented and dispersed; it is important insofar as it coincides ith certain significant incidents. Helen Gardner, speaking of the “unmeasured time” of this play, points out that comedy by its very nature makes use of changes and chances which are not really events but “happenings. “6 Comedy exploits adaptability; it tests a character’s willingness to grasp the proper moment and fashion it to his own end. Briefly, it dramatizes Rosalind’s advice to Phoebe: “Sell when you can, you are not for all markets” (III, v, 60). This carpe diem attitude toward living, which depends on the coincidence of situation and desire, posits a sense of time that locates value in the particular moment.
Time’s effect, then, is not cumulative but instantaneous; it is not the fulfillment of destiny but life lived “as you like it. ” I stated earlier that the music of As You Like It formed a structure analogous to the movement of the play, and I think my point is reinforced if we notice that the songs tend to embody this special “momentary” quality as well. They either occur in relatively short scenes devoted to the consciousness of “having a song” (II, v; IV, ii; V, iii), or they exploit a significant moment by providing an ironic or thematic comment (II, vii; V, iv).
The possible exception is “It was a lover and his lass” (V, iii), the import of which has already been discussed. If the musical instances in As You Like It parallel in theme and tone the movement of the play, the music of The Tempest orchestrates its developing action at every point. The songs of As You Like It are largely situational; for the most part, they do not require a comprehensive view of the drama to render them meaningful. They do not depend upon time as a moving force that brings events and feelings to a certain issue. Time, however, is of utmost importance in The Tempest.
Prospero has four hours to complete his magic revels; this sense of time (and timing) thus makes every moment meaningful. An intuition of urgency, a recognition of catastrophe just barely avoided, imbues our experience of The Tempest. Our perception of time in the play includes both a sense of the “proper moment” and a feeling of necessary duration. Ariel saves Gonzalo and Alonso from the swords of Antonio and Sebastian in “the nick of time,” but Alonso saves himself by enduring a period of suffering. And I think, too, we can see how the shape of time in The Tempest is largely coextensive with its music.
For music informs the play not only as an agent of the “proper moment”; it also directs and integrates all of the play’s moments into the total vision that is the play. The Tempest could not exist without its music, whether it is the strange and solemn airs that accompany the magic banquet, the sprightly singing of Ariel, or the drunken cavorting of Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo. All of these bear an intimate relationship to each other; all relate to Prospero’s one significant action–his effort to recover his dukedom and to bring his enemies to a recognition of their past and their errors.
Ultimately one’s view of the importance of music in The Tempest will depend upon what one thinks the play’s dramatic import finally is. If one believes that Prospero’s island is an harmonious one where redemptive grace allays and triumphs over evil, one is apt to find its music symbolic of a celestial concord which will eventually obtain on earth. It is true that The Tempest’s music revolves around the opposition of concord and discord and that the agents of these two modes of being respond (or do not respond) to it in their respective ways.
But rather than seeing the play as the victory of harmony over disorder, I think The Tempest suggests how very difficult it is to bring order into being and that order, once achieved, is indeed a fragile thing, precariously balanced between the violent past from which it has emerged and the threatening future which may consume it. Music, then, assists at the birth of this tentative order, and Prospero’s music must be considered in terms of both the extensions and limitations of his art. 7 The first song of the play is Ariel’s “Come unto these yellow sands” (I, ii, 375), which he sings to a grieving Ferdinand.
The tempest has finally subsided, and Ariel’s song celebrates the simplicity of the calm earth into which Ferdinand has been transported. As an invitation to the dance, “then take hands,” the song looks ahead to that moment at the end of the play when all of its characters are joined inside Prospero’s magic circle. The magic which Prospero had used to invoke the tempest now enchants Ferdinand, drawing him further into the island and toward Miranda. This is the first crucial step toward their marriage, which will in part resolve the parental strife that had been Prospero’s cause for raising the tempest.
One critic has suggested that this song is the musical counterpart of the sweet-singing Sirens’ invitation. “The island has all the magical charms of Circe’s island: strangers from afar have been lured to it and Prospero provides a magical banquet and charms his visitors by music’s powers, so that they are no longer able to obey their reasoning powers. “8 Here Prospero’s more benevolent powers replace the lust and destruction of the Sirens, and the music leads Ferdinand, not to an easy satisfaction, but to a test of discipline and faithfulness. Ferdinand’s response to the song, “Where should this music be?
I’ th’ air or th’ earth? ” (I, ii, 388), establishes the magical quality of this island, where the very air is music. W. H. Auden has written that “the song comes to him as an utter surprise, and its effect is not to feed or please his grief, not to encourage him to sit brooding, but to allay his passion, so that he gets to his feet and follows the music. The song opens his present to expectation at a moment when he is in danger of closing it to all but recollection. “9 As Ferdinand follows this elusive music, Ariel begins his second song, “Full fathom five thy father lies” (I, ii, 397).
Probably no song of The Tempest is so well remembered and perhaps no other is thematically so important. Ferdinand is made to believe that his father is dead; similarly, Alonso will believe that Ferdinand is dead, and in that belief he will undergo the madness, the “sea change” of grief and humility, from which he will emerge transformed. The poetry of the song transports Alonso from the world of mutability and flux to a kind of permanence. His bones and eyes become coral and pearls; the “sea” gives form to what was subject to decay. 0 Thus the song reminds us that the life of Milan–the disordered world of usurpation and potential tyranny–is now under the shaping influence of Prospero’s art. Ferdinand reacts to the song not with grief but with awe: “This is no mortal business, nor no sound / That the earth owes” (I, ii, 407-408). The music, in the play’s first triumph over history, moves Ferdinand to accept his past and leads him to the future–and Miranda. The swift agent of Prospero’s well-timed music, Ariel plays a “solemn strain” (II, i, 178) that lulls the Milan travelers to sleep.
Gonzalo, in his simplicity and warm-heartedness, submits most easily, but Alonso soon follows. Sebastian and Antonio, however, are significantly exempted from the effect of the music. Prospero’s magic has no power over them. Their own imperviousness to this music, their inability to hear it, contrasts sharply with Caliban, who, even in his vile earthiness, is subject to the music’s seduction. “The isle is full of noises,” he tells Stephano and Trinculo, “Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not” (III, ii, 132-133). When Sebastian and Antonio plot to take the lives of Alonso and Gonzalo, Prospero’s music urgently intervenes.
Ariel sings a warning song, “While you here do snoring lie” (II, i, 290), into Gonzalo’s ear, and the sleepers awake. The music that had induced their slumber becomes the agent of their deliverance; Alonso and Gonzalo escape catastrophe. One of the primary distinctions to be made about music in The Tempest is, of course, that there is Ariel’s music and there is Caliban’s music. And while there is that moment when Caliban seems to come close to understanding both of these musical languages, he remains, for the most part, on the side of the raucous and the bawdy.
This is the music of Stephano and Trinculo as well. Stephano’s first two songs, “I shall no more to sea” (II, ii, 41) and “The master, the swabber, the boatswain, and I” (II, ii, 45), are indeed the “scurvy tunes” that he calls them. The songs are a kind of comic diversion and an introduction to the buffoonery of the three that is to follow. Their lustiness and earthiness offers a clear antithesis to the obedient chastity of Ferdinand and Miranda, who are learning that fulfillment must be by desert and not demand. Caliban, now under the influence of his new god “sack,” raises his own voice in song.
His “Farewell master” (II, ii, 173) and “No more dams I’ll make for fish” (II, ii, 175) signalize his revolt from Prospero. The latter song ends with a call for freedom, reminding us, perhaps, of Ariel’s behest early in the play that Prospero release him. Ariel must work for his freedom; Caliban expects his to fall into his lap. It is important, too, I think, and perhaps ironically significant that the only two characters in the play who ask for freedom are the non-human ones, while all the other characters are very much involved in a struggle to be free from history, from each other, and from themselves.
Caliban’s “scurvy song” heralds the delusion he is about to come under in thinking Stephano and Trinculo the vehicle through which his freedom may be realized. Together the comrades plot to kill Prospero and take the island, and they seal their bargain with their song “Flout ’em and scout ’em” (III, ii, 118). Caliban remarks, “That’s not the tune” (121), and Ariel enters with his tabor and pipe and a wholly different kind of music. This evokes different responses from the three; Stephano thinks it the devil, Trinculo expresses penitence, but Caliban counsels them not to fear this intervention.
Curiously, the two scenes of the drunken songs frame the scene of log-bearing Ferdinand, engaged in his trial to prove to Prospero his fitness for Miranda. Ferdinand’s sobriety in performing his task and his willingness to accept control and responsibility–his efforts to bring about his own freedom–are thrown into relief by this contrast with desire run wild. This reminds us that Prospero’s attempt to bring a new order into being is threatened on all sides by strongly motivated self-satisfaction and potential anarchy.
Ariel’s music, then, has intervened a second time to hinder the enactment of a plot hatched to assassinate a ruler. Similarly, shortly after the maneuvers of Stephano, Trinculo, and Caliban to do away with Prospero, we see Antonio and Sebastian once again involved in machinations to kill their king. Again Ariel interrupts, this time with “solemn and strange music” (III, iii, 18), and he produces the dance of the strange shapes and their banquet. Alonso and Gonzalo admire the apparition, calling it “harmony” and “sweet music. Antonio and Sebastian, still beyond the pale of the island’s music, can only relate the phenomenon to mundanities of geography and travelers’ tales. Gonzalo thinks the shapes’ “manners” more gentle than human kind, while Sebastian wants to eat the food they have placed in front of him. Like Stephano, Trinculo, and Caliban, his earthly-mindedness has no access to the beauty that affects Gonzalo and Alonso. Ariel enters again, this time disguised as a harpy, and the banquet disappears.
He explains to them the initial effect and purpose of his music: “you ‘mongst men / Being most unfit to live, I have made you mad” (III, iii, 57-58). Ariel reminds them of their deposition of Prospero and promises them “lingering perdition” unless they are able to experience “heart’s sorrow / And a clear life ensuing” (82). Ariel is telling the representatives of Milan that they must submit to the music of the island and endure the pain that the achievement of freedom involves or continue to be agents of chaos and evil. This is the point where the powers and limitations of Prospero’s art merge.
While it is true that the play has revealed that there are those amenable to order and those that are not, Prospero can only use his music to bring his captives to a consciousness of their own disordered, threatening behavior. His music cannot perform that transformation by itself. As Ferdinand had to choose whether or not he would undergo the ordeal of log-bearing, Alonso must choose whether or not he will repent. In doing so he must experience a depth of despair as a necessary prelude to his recovery: “My son i’ th’ ooze is bedded; and / I’ll seek him deeper than e’er plummet sounded / And with him there lie mudded” (III, iii, 100-102).
Perhaps the most magnificent use of music in The Tempest is that which introduces and informs the masque that Prospero produces as a wedding blessing for Ferdinand and Miranda. The song “Honour, riches, marriage, blessing” (IV, i, 106) looks forward to the happy union of the couple. Yet while the song of Juno and Ceres bespeaks a life of plenty, this is not the same kind of richness that Gonzalo had envisioned when he dreamed of his ideal commonwealth: “Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none; / … all men idle, all” (II, i, 148, 150).
Juno and Ceres sing of the bounty that is the result of cultivation: “Barns and garners never empty, / Vines with clust’ring bunches growing” (111-112). This copiousness is the result of dedicated work, of nature and nurture, and the dance which concludes the masque is one of nymphs and “August-weary” reapers. We should remember, too, that Prospero’s magic is also the outcome of his hard “labours. ” If we would chide Gonzalo for his innocent simplicity in imagining a golden world, the masque song balances his dream with one that must admit the necessity of the human work that brings fruitfulness and bounty.
This masque is perhaps revelatory of Prospero’s imaginative desire to see order and goodness, but it expresses this goodness as the result of meaningful human effort. The frailty of this vision, however, shows itself by rapidly dissolving as Prospero remembers Caliban’s “foul conspiracy&q uot; against his life. 11 Jan Kott has called this play “the great Renaissance tragedy of lost illusions,”12 and while one may hesitate to see it as the dark and murky drama which he thinks it is, one must, I think, give credence to the sense of incompleteness that emerges as the play comes to a close.
For there are gaps, empty spaces in our perception of the human lives we have seen portrayed, which we suspect even Prospero’s finest magic and greatest music cannot touch. His famous “Our revels now are ended” speech (IV, i, 148) seems, in fact, to point to the limitations of the musically enchanted spectacle he has produced. Just how fragile it really is is evidenced by its ambiguous effect on Prospero himself. For he has yet to be reminded by Ariel that “the rarer action” is one of loving forgiveness, and there is that crucial moment when it seems as if his “nobler reason” will be as baseless as the fabric of his vision.
When “the insubstantial pageant” fades, what is left is Prospero and his beating mind. His labors, however, are not without positive issue. Prospero’s music had made Alonso and his company mad, yet that madness was a necessary prelude to their recognition of guilt and repentance. If Prospero’s music led the shipwrecked travelers to an awareness of their own history, it also provided a vehicle through which this awareness–this madness–could be healed. They enter Prospero’s magic circle to a “solemn air … the best comforter / To an unsettled fancy … ” (V, i, 58-59).
Yet if they have attained a freedom from madness, it is a freedom that must accept the burden of responsibility for its past and future. In this context, Ariel’s final song, “Where the bee sucks, there suck I” (V, i, 87), is significant. One critic has suggested that this song, which is about Ariel’s freedom, is really a lyric coda to the entire play, celebrating the attainment of freedom on the part of all who have been involved. 13 I think the song has a different and greater function. As it suggests Ariel’s approaching happiness, it points to the world beyond the play, the world which must remain that of our imaginings.
And in going beyond the world of the play, we must inevitably consider not only the “cowslip’s bell” and the merry summer that Ariel looks forward to with delight, but also Milan and the world to which the reinstated Prospero must return. Ariel’s song most poignantly reminds us that his freedom is not the freedom of a Prospero or an Alonso, that only a spirit can be free to the four elements. For the court of Milan freedom must now reside in responsible action emerging from the recognition of the pain of history.
Throughout The Tempest Prospero’s art–his music–had been the measure of the shaping influence he had on the lives of other people. Its power finally, I think, must be as tentative as the conclusion to which it brings us. It has united Ferdinand and Miranda and created a new future for Alonso, but Antonio is still trapped in vile self-seeking, and the cases of Sebastian and Caliban are questionable. Music has helped to bring about some order in what had been chaos, some concord from what had been discord. 14 But