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Having studied Macbeth extensively during a course I took as a younger man, I was astonished to learn recently that it is thought to have contained two songs, which are also present in a related play called The Witch. They are referred to in stage directions.

Music and a song inside: 'Come away, come away,’
Macbeth Act 3, Scene 5

Music and a song: “Black Spirits,” etc. Hecate exits.
Macbeth Act 4, Scene 1

We never discussed these during the course, and I had always presumed directions like this were snippets of music, but apparently they often referred to full songs. We have the lyrics to many of these songs, but while the arrangements have not survived, good educated guesses have been made as to how they might have sounded. You can hear one example of the results in the 1967 album Shakespeare's Songs.

However, while I've seen a number of Shakespeare productions over the years - and several of Macbeth - I have never come across an instance of one of these songs being performed. Neither has anyone else that I've consulted on this.

Given that we have the words, and attempts at the melodies, why have the performances of these songs been lost in modern interpretations of the plays? User @PeterShor has helpfully provided an example of the Twelfth Night where the songs were included, but to my knowledge this remains a rarity.

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    Are you talking about Macbeth, or are other Shakespeare plays relevant to this question. The songs are sung in this production of Twelfth Night. (Start listening around 33:15.
    – Peter Shor
    Commented Apr 15 at 15:13
  • @PeterShor other plays are relevant. Really appreciate the link as I have -never- heard of this happening before, but the question is more around why they've become so rare. I will edit to make this clear.
    – Matt Thrower
    Commented Apr 15 at 15:14
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    The reason that nobody performs the songs in modern performances of Macbeth may be that the scholarly consensus is that Shakespeare did not write those songs — they were added later. See this question. But as for his other plays, it beats me. I'll have to watch that production of Twelfth Night all the way through, and see how much the songs add to it. Judging from the little snippet I watched, I suspect that they add quite a bit.
    – Peter Shor
    Commented Apr 15 at 15:24
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    I was going to note that our local theatre included the songs in one production I was in... but indeed, I was Feste the Fool in Twelfth Night. :-D Commented Apr 15 at 15:35

1 Answer 1

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The question's premise is doubtful. As others have pointed out in the comments, it is fairly routine for performances of Shakespeare to include songs. Whether or not songs are included in a given production is the choice of the director and dramaturge. A director might decide to cut certain lines or even entire scenes; likewise, she might decide to cut some or all the songs. Nor is it simply a matter of cutting. Sometimes, scenes or songs are introduced. I've seen a production of 1 Henry IV that began with one of the characters announcing, "Previously in Richard II," and segueing into the abdication scene from that play; and one of A Midsummer Night's Dream where the fairies (and/or the rude mechanicals—I do not precisely recall) hang out in a karaoke bar.

With the comedies at any rate, one is far more likely to hear the songs in performance than not. I've seen As You Like It several times, and every production included "Under the greenwood tree," "Blow, blow, thou winter wind," and "It was a lover and his lass" at the very least. Likewise, productions of Twelfth Night are unlikely to leave out "Come away, come away, death" or "O mistress mine." And "Full fathom five thy father lies" cannot be excised from The Tempest without some violence to the play. The music directors might on occasion choose to write their own tunes and/or arrangements, but in many cases, these songs sport well-known traditional melodies.

Perhaps the tragedies are a different matter? It's true that the witches in Macbeth seldom if ever break into song these days. Part of the problem is textual. The songs are generally accepted to be interpolations by Thomas Middleton rather than original to Shakespeare. Many scholars argue that not only the songs, but the scenes in which they appear, are Middletonian rather than Shakespearean. The only source text for Macbeth, the First Folio, does not include the full lyrics for the songs, and those full lyrics for Middleton's songs were not discovered until 1778. Modern editors would probably provide those texts in an appendix, but given their uncertain provenance, there is little reason for a modern production to include them. Much of Macbeth's force inheres in its speed and brevity. Including the songs would impair rather than augment the performance, it seems, particularly given the sheer inanity of the lyrics. Here's a sample:

Black spirits and white, red spirits and grey,
Mingle, mingle, mingle, you that mingle may.
Titty, Tiffin, keep it stiff in.
Firedrake, Puckey, make it lucky.
Liard, Robin, you must bob in.
Round, around, around, about, about,
All ill come running in, all good keep out.

Middleton, The Witch V.ii.

But Macbeth is a bit of an outlier here. Other Shakespearean tragedies do make room for music and it continues to be performed onstage. The power of Ophelia's mad scene in Hamlet would be undercut if she were not to sing. Productions tend to have her sing well, if the performer is talented enough to do so expressively; or sing badly, using the poor singing as a symptom of Ophelia's having lost her faculties. Finally, what the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust calls the saddest song in the canon lends depth and poignancy to Desdemona's plight in Othello:

The poor soul sat sighing by a sycamore tree,
     Sing all a green willow.
Her hand on her bosom, her head on her knee,
     Sing willow, willow, willow.
The fresh streams ran by her and murmured her moans,
     Sing willow, willow, willow;
Her salt tears fell from her, and softened the stones—
     Sing willow, willow, willow.

Shakespeare, Othello IV.iii. YouTube performance by A Musical Dreame: Alison Ponsford-Hill (soprano), Yair Avidor (lute)

Like the witches' songs in Macbeth, this song is not original to Shakespeare. However, unlike those, it predates rather than postdates the play. Shakespeare has made one crucial changes to the original Elizabethan song: as Desdemona renders it, the heartbroken lover is a woman rather than a man. Granted that one change, even the verses Shakespeare leaves out are relevant:

Come all you forsaken and mourn you with me,
     Sing willow, willow, willow;
Who speaks of a false love, mine’s falser yet than she,

and so on. It's clear that Shakespeare's choice of song is thematically appropriate to the situation. As a result, productions of Othello are likely to include "Willow." Were I to see a production that omitted it, I'd be disappointed.

To sum up:

  • It is not the case that songs are rare in professional Shakespearean performance
  • The choice to include, exclude, or even add songs depends on the exigencies of the given production
  • Comedies are likely to include songs
  • Even tragedies are likely to retain songs that seem inextricably linked with the themes of the play and/or the situations wherein they occur.

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