Music in The Tempest by William Shakespeare


Shakespeare’s The Tempest is full of sound and noises of many forms, these including clinging chains, hauling winds, horrible noises, and at times some sweet music from a harp, these meant for different purposes ranging from to create fear, progress themes, manipulate characters, or pass message to both the characters therein and the audience. The congruent of sounds are also utilized by Shakespeare to intensify drama in the play and introduce varying moods in it. In addition to using the music for the basic purpose of setting emotions in the play for the characters and audience, or supporting the various themes progressed within the plot of the play, music is also used to show the multiplicity of Shakespeare.

Unlike other plays by Shakespeare, such as The Merry Wives of Windsor or Macbeth, music here does not only appear in the expected scenes, for example in the banquet (The Tempest 3.3), but is used nearly three times as much as he has utilized it in other plays, this making it form a big chunk of the play itself. Music is intrinsically integrated into the play on a deep structural level, assisting in carrying the dramatic weight. Being holistically integrated with the text means that music is indispensable in the play, without which the play would not be desirable nor comprehensible, this having a huge influence to the figures used in the play as well as to the audience.

Use of song and sounds

The Tempest begins with the calculated storm and shipwreck scene that seem to illustrate the scenic extravagant of the masque. Here, Neil notes that there is a striking emphasis upon the aural in the stage directions which refer to “A tempestuous noise of thunder and lightning heard” (The Tempest This is different to other texts for the imagining of the storm in an acoustic form where it is described to as being heard rather than seen. Here, it is also we note that all Shakespeare’s play typically starts with the simple entry of characters and initiate dialogue, this except for the ‘Thunder and lightning’ provided at the beginning of Macbeth (Macbeth 1.1 sd), and such as one indicated in The Tempest (37).

The beginning of the play also sets the tone for the rest of the play through the use of music and sounds, these also serving to demonstrate the powerful brutality that will characterize The Tempest. Sounds such as the thunder, rain, waves and subsequent destruction of the vessel make the audience understand Prospero’s manipulations to those around him, and further makes an imprint of his immense power and sorcery in the island, enabling the audience to associate subsequent mentions of the storm with Prospero.

During the Renaissance period, music was associated with rhetoric emotions, a language of the heart through which people could express their inner feelings and communicate these to other people. This understanding is paramount in understanding Shakespeare’s dramas and how he employed music and sound in constructing themes and characters. In the Tempest, it is through song that learns of the burdens of Ariel and other spirits, as well as that of Ferdinand. Ferdinand’s passionate grief of his father is highlighted musically, showing this to the audience (The Tempest 1.2.376-377, 392-394), while Ariel wishes that his fellow spirit join in and take up the chorus of his song (The Tempest 1.381 sd, ‘Ariel: Shakespeare’s Most Musical Character’). This is an indictaati8iom that despite there being a stark contrast between Shakespeare’s work, more so in the widespread musicality therein, there is evidence of renaissance aspects in The Tempest.

Moreover, these inner feelings are also highlighted as low notes in music, a form that expresses human misery, this as indicated by the groaning Prospero, the bereaved Alonso, and the enslaved Ferdinand and Caliban, these miseries expressing a burden. An example of this is shown in Ariel’s solemn music that transforms the grief of Alonso into a wondrous “heavy drowsiness” in which the king and his shipwreck companions “sink” (The Tempest 1.2.183 sd, 196, 199).

Music in The Tempest serves to pass messages to either the actors, the audience, or both, informing them of impending occurrences. For example, in scene ii, we encounter Ariel, who is invisible to the other players in exception of Prospero, is singing his second song that serves to inform Ferdinand that his father did not survive the shipwreck (The Tempest 1.2.396-403).

Although he does not explicitly mention words associated with death such as die or drown, Ferdinand understands the intent and message conveyed by the song, but he is not surprised that his father had died. This function is also served in the following scene where Ariel makes Gonzalo and Alonso, together with the rest of the group to fall asleep suddenly, giving Antonio and Sebastian privacy to scheme the murder of Alonso. Just like in the previous scene, Ariel is invisible to the two and is thus able to listen to their scheming without their knowledge.

However, as he wants to prevent the planned murder, he sings a song in the ear of the sleeping Gonzalo, relaying a direct message of the conspiracy to wake him. In the two instances, songs are used to effectively relay the message, this further aided by the invisible nature of Ariel, although this may have probably been different were he visible to the strangers.

Throughout the play, sounds and music are used to control the behaviors or aspirations of the people. For example, Ariel uses a song to instill fear amongst Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo who seek to overthrow Prospero, although this fear is quickly dismissed by Caliban (The Tempest 3.2.133-141). In reference to the mimicked melody that they assume to emanate from the island, Caliban shows to have had a prior experience hearing the sounds in different tunes, describing the island to be “full of noises” of a thousand “twangling instruments.’ Prospero constantly provides Caliban and the ship’s crew with pleasure through their dreams.

These musical enticements serve to awaken a desire to assert themselves and consequently bending them to do as he wishes. Caliban describes “a hum bout ears” and “twangling instruments” that lull him back to sleep and conjure a calm and peaceful mood (Di Salvo 7). He further reminisces the vivid dreams accompanying the music that provide images of his desires including riches, these making him cry for the longing to relive the memories. These desires, in turn, invoke the desire to kill Prospero by Caliban so that he can enjoy the sweet music and other desires for free (The Tempest 3.2.143). Further analysis of these proceedings can also point to a charitable nature of Prospero.

Ariel ensures the cast is unaware of this manipulation, as he uses sound and music to reassure them they have control over their fate. In the song to Gonzalo, he warns him that “If of life you keep a care,/ Shake off slumber, and beware (The Tempest 2.1.301-302). Because he is invisible to him, Gonzalo assumes this is his conscience warning him and thus believes he has input in his life within the island, and can either continue sleeping or wake up. Similarly, after the wreck, he uses song to welcome the crew into the yellow sands, and metaphorically holds their hands to comfort and reassure Ferdinand that the island is safe, lulling him into a false sense of security as we understand that the shipwreck and the development of events is a scheme by Prospero to cause pain to Antonio (Di Salvo 3).

Music and sounds in The Tempest are employed not only in creating an atmosphere within the play but also to drive themes, direct and integrate all the moments and proceedings of the play. The play could thus not exist without the strange ad solemn airs, the thunder, or the sprightly singing of Ariel. All these sounds bear an intimate relationship to each other and are all directed towards a singular purpose and objective by Prospero, which is to bring suffering to recover his dukedom and to bring suffering to his enemies and make them recognize their past errors.

The ominous sounds at the beginning of the play associated with the shipwreck introduce the audience to the brutal nature of The Tempest and the absolute power associated with Prospero’s sorcery. The sounds and music become significant, employed as the primary means through which Prospero controls people. These songs and music hypnotize characters, make them follow a dictated path, or manipulate emotions, with Ariel, the performer who acts out of discretion of Prospero, the composer, underlining the major role of Prospero and his control in the Island.

Works Cited

  1. ‘Ariel: Shakespeare’s Most Musical Character.’ Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, 2013, Accessed 13 Nov 2018.
  2. Di Salvo, Paul A. ‘‘An Isle Full of Noises’: The Perception & Influence of Sound in Shakespeare’s The Tempest.’ (2013).
  3. Neill, Michael. ‘Noises,/Sounds, and Sweet Airs’: The Burden of Shakespeare’s’ Tempest.’ Shakespeare Quarterly 59.1 (2008): 36-59.
  4. Shakespeare, William, and Arthur Wilson Verity. Macbeth. At the University Press, 1901.
  5. Shakespeare, William. The tempest. Vol. 30. A&C Black, 1999.