7 July: ‘Let the sky rain potatoes! Let it thunder to the tune of Greensleeves!’

Publishing takes a long, long, very long time. A chapter on rhetoric and dance in Shakespeare for the Oxford Handbook of Shakespeare and Dance was my first publishing deal, as it were. I pitched an abstract in July 2014 if memory serves right, just going into my second PhD year. The thing was written exactly 2 years later when finishing the thesis, and was published, guess when, this year. 2019. Five years in the making, it had better be good! Same story (slightly) different name: The Oxford Handbook of Shakespeare and Music. I’m tweaking a small part of one of my PhD chapters on musical repetition in Shakespeare’s plays, exploring how sounds and music (the sound of music?) contributes to senses of identity, be it local, national, or otherwise.

The field of sound studies engages with such questions, for example mapping soundscapes, that is, what can be heard in a particular place at a particular time. I’m writing this sitting at the open window, for instance, so I can hear, the occasional ding dong of the bell of the church at the end of our street, the cars below, the tram, sometimes people chatting, a plane flying by. If I was sitting in my garden, the story would be totally different. Or a library. A café. Another country, say Iran, where I’d be hearing the wonderful call for prayer five times a day. The concept of soundscapes and the practice of documenting sounds (in whatever way, e.g. through recordings, or maps, or diagrams such as these below) stems from ecologists Schafer and Truax, and has been taken over by lots of other disciplines, including urban planning, biology, literature, history.

‘How noisy is your neighbourhood?’ -map.

Regarding the early modern period, Bruce Smith writes so creatively about sounds and identity in his seminal The Acoustic World of Early Modern England. Just think about church bells signalling the boundaries of parishes, street cries in particular parts of London, or ballads travelling up and down the country in the aural memory of people. This, of course, also pertains to foreign sounds as when travellers brought new music books from the continent, and new melodies in their ears and mouths. Imagine a young man (or, more rarely, woman), having just returned from a trip to the Low Lands, walking along the street and whistling a tune that’s all the rage over there. That tune may be picked up by someone with a good ear, a composer, of notated music like William Byrd, or more casual unscripted music like a ballad singer. New words, in English, are being mapped to existing sounds, and there you go: musical intermingling beyond the boundaries of nations, languages, or social classes. Remember Philip Sidney being moved by a scurvy old ballad singer upon hearing ‘Chevy Chase’ in the streets? Something understood between the lowest of the low, and the highest of the high. Music, with its immediacy and magical emotional touching, is capable of doing that.

So. What about Shakespeare and musical ideas of identity, of nationhood? Uses of music in the theatre are hard to track, and we have to re-construct creatively what could have been there. You can consider the kind of playhouse for instance (more singing going on in the indoor playhouses because the boy-actors were more highly trained singers), you can consider the documented presence of professional musicians who might have played in the theatres too, there are cultural habits such as offering a flourish when a king enters, and there are cues in the texts that we have, although these will very often be on the slim side. ‘A song.’ Or ‘Musick’. Sometimes, lots of times, actually, there are quotations of songs, or a character breaks into fully-fledged singing. Duffin’s Shakespeare’s Songbook is a great start to research that.

Falstaff, for example, is full of music. In the Merry Wives of Windsor, just before he is cozened by the two ladies, Falstaff, waiting for his supposed mistress in the park, mentions the most English song imaginable. ‘Let the sky rain potatoes; let it thunder to the tune of ‘Green Sleeves;’ hail kissing-comfits and snow eringoes; let there come a tempest of provocation’. ‘Greensleeves’, a ballad probably going back to the times of Henry VIII, signals Englishness, local culture, perhaps nostalgia to a recent past. It fits this play, Shakespeare’s only comedy set at home, in England. To drop a reference to that ballad is a memory trigger in the mind of the audience who remembers moments when they themselves sung or heard ‘Greensleeves’, something which evokes warm fuzzy memories of home.

But Falstaff, perhaps depending on the different theatrical genre, is also European. Here’s an example from 2 Henry IV:

Falstaff: Well now you have done me right.

Silence: Doe me right and dub me knight, Samingo, Isn’t not so?

Falstaff: ‘Tis so.

Silence: Is’t so? Why then, say an old man can do somewhat.  (5.3)

Samingo is an elision of Sir Mingo, that is, Sieur or Monsieur Mingo (or Domingo), a widely current ballad from the end of the sixteenth century. Silence’s memory has latched onto the jingly feel of the song’s line, the catchy internal rhyme of ‘doe me right and dub me knight’, and it’s an even more felicitous choice since the ballad is a drinking song on  braggadocio Monsieur Mingo. Does that remind us of another showy offy supposedly knighted drunkard? Well, actually, the melody to the Domingo ballad probably comes from a 1570 Franco-Flemish songbook by the famous Orlando de Lassus, tracing something like the aural trajectory that I’ve described above. How English is that song then? How English are the sounds that Shakespeare’s characters and the playgoers are hearing? Perhaps sound negotiates senses of self and senses of community that are more porous than other media, and that foster more generous understandings of one’s place in the world and towards others. What that has to do with potatoes? No idea. Suggestions welcome!

Check out this sound capturing project by the British Library. Love the thought of a sound library! Although catching something as fleeting seems absurd, somehow…

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