Music in Shakespearean plays has undergone a lot of criticisms, varying considerably in their approaches. While earlier critics mostly look for its place in the Renaissance society, the recent views consider it primarily a dramatic device.
For the Elizabethans, music certainly played a vital role. According to J. M. Nosworthy, they regarded music "not simply as a diversion but as an act of faith, and as something no less essential to the overall pattern than the concepts of degree, the body politic, the elements and humours, and the like." This cosmological view of music chiefly derived from the classical philosophies. The tripartite division of Boethius in the early sixth century was still quite in vogue in Shakespeare's days. Music was not just a mere part of the theatre, but integrated to the life as well as to the cosmos. No wonder Lorenzo says The Merchant of Venice:
"The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not mov'd with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils." [5/1/83-5]
In later plays, music is also often used as a medicine. The Doctor in King Lear calls for music as Lear awakens from his madness. Cerimon in Pericles awakens Thaisa to the accompaniment of music, and Paulina calls for music as Hermione's statue comes to life in The Winter's Tale. It is also employed in As You Like It, Much Ado about Nothing, and Antony and Cleopatra. In The Tempest music is woven to the very fabric of the play. It contributes to the dramatic unity, to the setting and characterisation, to the pageantry, and especially to the symbolism. The obvious function of much of the music is practical, although there are often overtones of Neoplatonic theory.
In a comedy, the plot traditionally begins in chaos and moves toward peace. The Tempest begins with the shrieks and moans of a sinking ship and the roar of a raging storm as the Ship master cries, "Blow till thou burst thy wind, if room enough", challenging the maleficent sea. Therefore, by use of sound, Shakespeare has established that there is universal disorder in this world using the cracks of a breaking ship and the cries of a king sinking with his crew.
The Elizabethans believed in music's enormous power to control human behaviour. In Act I Scene ii, Ferdinand is lured by Ariel's music to Prospero's dwelling, and quite enchanted, addresses Miranda as the goddess of those tunes. The music affects Miranda as well, and is responsible for their falling so quickly in love.
Another musical event takes place in the opening scene of the next act. Ariel plays his music again, but this time a lullaby to make everyone asleep except Antonio and Sebastian. Catherine M. Dunn tries to justify their indifference to music innovatively. Gonzalo, the most innocent of the group, is one of the first to succumb. Alonzo, guilty of serious sin but repenting through grief, responds last. But Antonio and Sebastian are still prone to evil, and the disordered state of their souls makes them remain unmoved by the music. Later when Ariel returns to dismiss their murder plot he sings in Gonzalo's ear, again because he is innocent, and has the most "harmonious temperament" of the group.
The banquet episode provides another instance of music's control over humanity. But it seems to contradict the popular notion of music as a remedy to disordered minds, for here it is used as a distraction and not a remedy. A plausible justification may be derived from the Greek notion of ethos. Just as certain modes were considered to be ennobling or relaxing, so others were conducive to wildness and irrationality.
Music adds colour and comedy to Stephano's entrance while revealing his gross nature. Also, his "disordered" tune prepare the audience for the later disclosure that he is an element of disharmony on the island. This is also evidenced by Caliban's drunken "howls", which even Trinculo recognises to be unmusical noises. The dissonance in the music of the trio suggests the very chaos in them, at the same time foreshadowing their failed conspiracy to murder Prospero. Later in the masque, the music symbolises the perfect macrocosm-microcosm relationships so admired by Renaissance theorists.
It is significant from the postcolonial perspective that Caliban is not allowed even the vocal harmony, and his detune is mocked even by the basest of Europeans like Trinculo. Yet he is sensitive to the melodies that enchant the islanders:
"The isle is full of noises
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not." [3/2/135-6]
The most striking use of music in the play occurs at the climax in Act V. As Prospero sets his prisoners free, and Alonzo recognizes his follies, music once again works over human mind and induces order into disorder.
Keeping in mind the Renaissance concept of the "musica mundana", the storm can also be regarded as a disordered music. This leads to a metaphorical interpretation of the play as a long concert directed by Prospero. Here the discordant elements of nature are gradually resolved into concord, reflecting and causing the transmission of all the conspirators from disharmony to the harmony of love and reason.
The Tempest can therefore be marked as the culmination of Shakespeare's musical philosophy. In incorporating the Neoplatonic doctrine of the divine order of the universe, a doctrine consistently expressed as a musical analogy, he is only following a deep rooted Renaissance tradition. In presenting a picture of sounds, music and dance gradually shaping chaos into love and harmony, he is only expressing man's eternal dream of a "brave new world".
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