Broken Harmony: Shakespeare and The Politics of Music by Joseph M. Ortiz

Shakespeare and The Politics of Music by Joseph M. Ortiz

After considerable attention to the subject of Shakespeare and music in the 1960s and 1970s, scholarship on the topic slowed to a trickle in the last decades of the twentieth century.

Recently, however, there has been a revival of interest, stimulated in part by the kind of archival historical scholarship represented in Christopher Marsh’s outstanding Music and Society in Early Modern England (2010), by cultural history such as Bruce Smith’s brilliantly suggestive. 

The Acoustic World of Early Modern England (1999), and perhaps most significantly by the ways in which musicology more generally has enlarged its scope from a traditional concentration on formal analysis to consideration of the social and cultural construction [End Page 99] of musical meaning.

Earlier Shakespeare scholarship tended to focus on the symbolic functions of music in the plays and on the discovery of original settings of the songs, whereas more recent attention has concentrated rather more on the material presented and effects of performed music in the early modern theater.

This bifurcation itself reflects to some extent the Boethian division in early modern thinking about music between the entirely theoretical music speculative on the one hand and musica practica on the other.

Joseph Harmony important, thoughtful study confronts and explores the ways in which music was described and discussed in the period. That attitudes to music were deeply divided is well-known, but Ortiz attempts to do much more than merely exemplify how such tensions are exhibited in Shakespeare’s plays.

He is interested in the variety of ways in which the theoretical discourse on music, its privileging of words about music rather than the sound of the music itself, is indicative of an effort to discipline and contain music’s unruly energies.

He observes, “Music, because of its uncontrollable promiscuity in relation to language, requires a violent act of ‘translation,’ most often in the form of an intensely regulated system of codification or theory, in order to be perceived as meaningful” (36).

Throughout the book, he demonstrates the ways in which the deployment of music in Shakespeare’s plays resists such “‘translation.’” Assisting this exploration is his contention that a parallel to the nature and fortunes of music may be found in the ways in which Ovid’s work was contained, or translated, in the allegorizations, it provoked from the Middle Ages onward, and yet simultaneously continually eluded such containment.

(Indeed, the contribution the book makes to the study of the relationship of Shakespeare to Ovid is one that might not be readily apparent from its title. Ortiz notes a number of places in the plays, hitherto unremarked, where Ovidian influence might be claimed.)

The book is organized as a series of meditations on a play, or a group of plays, with each chapter approaching from a different angle his central interest “in the rhetorical, textual, and theatrical methods by which music is made to seem like language … and the cultural and political work performed by such acts of translation” (4–5).

In the first chapter, Titus Andronicus strikingly emphasizes “language’s inability to control music’s meaning” (43); the second chapter, subtitled “Mad Speech and the Female Musician,” uses Ophelia and Lucrece to “[problematize] the models of feminine vocality and masculine visuality that Hamlet and Lucrece cite as their parameters for action” (46).

This chapter extends well beyond the early modern, investigating later readings of Ophelia in nineteenth-century writing and Romantic aesthetics. In the third chapter, the focus returns to Shakespeare’s culture, as Ortiz investigates the teaching of music—principally through. 

The Taming of the Shrew and the literature of practical musical instruction that was beginning to proliferate in the period, together with the theoretical literature of music speculative, which informed university training. He contends that “Shakespeare frequently returns to the Renaissance classroom in order to show its dependence on textual forms of authority, and music is a favorite subject through which Shakespeare’s characters…


Mohit Sharma

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