Music is a vital aspect of Shakespeare’s dramatic works, and The New Oxford Shakespeare is unique in providing transcriptions of all known songs associated with the plays which have been found in contemporary or nearly contemporary sources.
Shakespeare frequently used musical imagery in his plays and poetry, but the actual sound of music was also a salient aspect of his conception. Sometimes he includes individual songs in full (such as ‘It was a lover and his lass’ in As You Like It); but characters also often quote snatches from ballads and popular songs.
There are over 100 of these formal songs and snatches in the First Folio plays. Contemporary settings are known for about a third of these. While it is often not possible to establish whether they were used in first performances or in revivals, these contemporary settings at least represent something of Shakespeare’s dramatic soundscape.
The New Oxford Shakespeare places these transcriptions into the body of the text itself, bringing this essential aspect of Shakespeare’s dramatic conception unobtrusively to the foreground.
Next to each song or snatch, an editorial note suggests how it could be performed, either using recognised principles of reconstructing songs and snatches, or through further experimentation. The Online edition of the Complete Works includes much fuller description and explanation of the sources, with edited texts of the original manuscripts and printed editions, in early modern notation, and textual apparatus identifying variants.
Even for students without musical training, having the transcription on the page will give a strong sense of how music operates in the dramatic context.
Dr John Cunningham is a senior lecturer in Music at Bangor University, UK. His main area of research is secular music in Britain, 1600-1800. Recently he has edited music for the Cambridge Works of Ben Jonson (CUP, 2014), The Complete Works of John Milton (OUP, 2012; vol. 3); The Complete Works of Katherine Philips (OUP, forthcoming). He is also the author of The Consort Music of William Lawes, 1602-45 (Boydell, 2010).