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Reviewed by:
  • Shakespeare’s Musical Imagery by Christopher R. Wilson
  • Linda Austern (bio)
Shakespeare’s Musical Imagery. By Christopher R. Wilson. London and New York: Continuum International, 2012. Pp. xii + 260. $120.00 cloth.

Wilson’s engaging volume is the most recent contribution to a reawakened interest in music in Shakespeare, following his comprehensive Music in Shakespeare: A [End Page 389] Dictionary (2005), coauthored with Michela Calore, and belonging to the same series as Adam Hansen’s Shakespeare and Popular Music (2010). The present study focuses on the use of musical metaphor and textual references to the art in Shakespeare’s plays and poems, providing a continuity between music as heard, seen, and understood in the early modern English theater and literary culture. It provides a basic introduction to its topic for students and scholars of Shakespeare and of early modern English literature and theater more generally, with enough original insight to make it useful for experts in the fields of Shakespearean and early modern English music. The book particularly complements Ross W. Duffin’s practical anthology of vocal music from the plays, Shakespeare’s Songbook (2004), as well as David Lindley’s Shakespeare and Music (2006), which focuses on the theatrical functions of music in its cultural context. Wilson’s study engages critically with both of these, in addition to over two centuries’ worth of classics on topics relating to both music and metaphor in Shakespeare. It argues that linguistic references to music, which extend into sound, practice, and representation in the theater and through cultural usage, are vital to the meanings of Shakespeare’s plays and poems. Perhaps most importantly, given the esoteric nature of Wilson’s focus, the book never loses sight of music as an art of performance and aurality. Wilson also acknowledges Shakespeare’s careful evocation of the emotional aspects of music that were only just becoming recognized during his lifetime, including early affective associations with what later became the major and minor scales.

In Shakespeare’s era, music served a polyvalent function as a liberal art or science, a performing art that crossed class boundaries, a craft with its own technical discourse, a metaphor for all forms of harmony and discord, and a metonym for human relations. It was also a web of paradoxes: it lacked substance but affected physical entities, and it was a primary object of the sense of hearing but relied on visual impact in performance. Music was both practical and theoretical, an art of mind and body. It could be suggested through word or through gesture. Wilson demonstrates the ways in which the musical imagery that furbishes each of Shakespeare’s plays and many of his poems crosses between these significations, sometimes evoking multiples of them through careful use of language. He considers music in its broadest sense, which includes dance and mythic and symbolic personages; instruments whose construction and cultural usage render them significant even when silent; and the natural song of birds, which has a vital symbolic function in several of the plays.

One of the major contributions of the book is to show how Shakespeare’s textual and figurative references to music are ultimately grounded in his era’s theory and practice, and to make this accessible to nonspecialist readers and modern producers. The author remains conscious that readers will be familiar with Shakespearean drama not only from various editions of the play texts but also from a range of staged and filmed productions, and that the theatrical works he discusses are subject to interpretation in performance. Modern performances rely on culturally familiar uses of sound and music that may or may not be consistent with those of Shakespeare’s day, but the two can be brought together usefully and creatively. For example, Wilson points out that Shakespeare’s essential, era-specific combination [End Page 390] of “aurality with metaphor” in his “‘music of war’” offers “scope for imaginative substitutes” of such later acoustic signifiers as sirens and explosions in modern productions (79, 80). He also reminds readers that since the viol is “confined exclusively to early music ensembles in the twenty-first century” (175), today’s audiences are unlikely to understand some vital early modern signification...


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pp. 389-391
Launched on MUSE
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