Literature

10 of the Best Songs from Shakespeare’s Plays

The best Shakespeare songs

Previously, we’ve picked 10 of Shakespeare’s finest sonnets and 10 of his greatest plays, as well as some of the greatest speeches from his plays. But within his plays there are many songs which have become famous as poems in their own right. Phrases like ‘full fathom five’, ‘fear no more the heat of the sun’, and ‘under the greenwood tree’, this last helped by Thomas Hardy using is at the title for one of his novels, have all taken on a life of their own. A. E. Housman named Shakespeare’s songs as one of the most important influences on his own poetry. Below, we pick 10 of Shakespeare’s best songs from the plays, and say a little about each of them.

‘Fear no more the heat o’ the sun’.

Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,
Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages:
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.
Fear no more the frown o’ the great;
Thou art past the tyrant’s stroke;
Care no more to clothe and eat;
To thee the reed is as the oak:
The scepter, learning, physic, must
All follow this, and come to dust.
Fear no more the lightning flash,
Nor the all-dreaded thunder stone;
Fear not slander, censure rash;
Thou hast finished joy and moan:
All lovers young, all lovers must
Consign to thee, and come to dust.
No exorciser harm thee!
Nor no witchcraft charm thee!
Ghost unlaid forbear thee!
Nothing ill come near thee!
Quiet consummation have;
And renownèd be thy grave!

Taken from one of the ‘problem plays’, Cymbeline, this song is sung over the dead bodies of Cloten and Fidele, the latter of whom (spoiler alert) is actually the heroine Imogen disguised as a boy, and is not really dead; merely drugged. Nevertheless, at the point in the play where they appear, the lines effectively say that ‘the good thing about being dead is that you no longer need to fear the hardships of life.’ You can listen to this Shakespeare song being sung here.

‘It was a lover and his lass’.

It was a lover and his lass,
With a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino,
That o’er the green cornfield did pass,
In springtime, the only pretty ring time,
When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding;
Sweet lovers love the spring.

Between the acres of the rye,
With a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino,
Those pretty country folks would lie,
In springtime, the only pretty ring time,
When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding;
Sweet lovers love the spring.

This carol they began that hour,
With a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino,
How that a life was but a flower
In springtime, the only pretty ring time,
When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding;
Sweet lovers love the spring.

And therefore take the present time,
With a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino,
For love is crownèd with the prime
In springtime, the only pretty ring time,
When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding;
Sweet lovers love the spring.

If one phrase above all others sums up Elizabethan song-making, it’s ‘hey nonny nonny’. There’s plenty of hey-nonny-nonnying going on in this song from As You Like It; excitingly, copies of the original sheet music (by Thomas Morley) have survived from the early seventeenth century. The song is a glorious celebration of young love in springtime, so fits with the woodland-set romantic comedy in which it appears: ‘It was a lover and his lass, / With a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino, / That o’er the green corn-field did pass, / In the spring time, the only pretty ring time, / When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding; / Sweet lovers love the spring.’ You can listen to this Shakespeare song being sung here.

‘Under the greenwood tree’.

Under the greenwood tree
Who loves to lie with me,
And turn his merry note
Unto the sweet bird’s throat,
Come hither, come hither, come hither:
            Here shall he see
            No enemy
But winter and rough weather.
Who doth ambition shun
And loves to live i’ the sun,
Seeking the food he eats,
And pleased with what he gets,
Come hither, come hither, come hither:
            Here shall he see
            No enemy
But winter and rough weather.

This is another song taken from As You Like It, and once again, its leafy theme is in keeping with the comedy set in the Forest of Arden: ‘Under the greenwood tree / Who loves to lie with me, / And turn his merry note / Unto the sweet bird’s throat, / Come hither, come hither, come hither: / Here shall he see / No enemy / But winter and rough weather.’ The song is in many ways a celebration of the Edenic pastoral setting for the play, encouraging people to leave the bustling world of work to come and enjoy paradise in the woods; although Jaques, the pessimist who sings the final stanza in counterpoint to Amiens’ earlier verses, offers a somewhat less upbeat view. You can listen to this Shakespeare song being sung here.

‘When daisies pied and violets blue’.

When daisies pied and violets blue
      And lady-smocks all silver-white
And cuckoo-buds of yellow hue
      Do paint the meadows with delight,
The cuckoo then, on every tree,
Mocks married men; for thus sings he:
                                                    “Cuckoo;
Cuckoo, cuckoo!” O, word of fear,
Unpleasing to a married ear!
When shepherds pipe on oaten straws,
      And merry larks are ploughmen’s clocks,
When turtles tread, and rooks, and daws,
      And maidens bleach their summer smocks,
The cuckoo then, on every tree,
Mocks married men; for thus sings he,
                                                    “Cuckoo;
Cuckoo, cuckoo!” O, word of fear,
Unpleasing to a married ear!
When icicles hang by the wall,
      And Dick the shepherd blows his nail,
And Tom bears logs into the hall,
      And milk comes frozen home in pail,
When blood is nipp’d, and ways be foul,
Then nightly sings the staring-owl,
                                                    “Tu-who;
Tu-whit, tu-who!”—a merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.
When all aloud the wind doth blow,
      And coughing drowns the parson’s saw,
And birds sit brooding in the snow,
      And Marian’s nose looks red and raw,
When roasted crabs hiss in the bowl,
Then nightly sings the staring owl,
                                                    “Tu-who;
Tu-whit, tu-who!”—a merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

This song is from one of the less famous plays, the comedy Love’s Labour’s Lost, and is actually about wives cheating on their husbands during springtime. The reference to the cuckoo mocking married men is the clue here: ‘cuckoo’ being a reminder of ‘cuckold’, and an allusion to the cuckoo’s trick of laying its eggs in another bird’s nest. You can listen to this Shakespeare song being sung here.

‘Full fathom five thy father lies’.

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
                                             Ding-dong.
Hark! now I hear them,—ding-dong, bell.

One of Shakespeare’s most famous songs, and much parodied and pastiched, ‘Full Fathom Five’ from The Tempest is sung by the fairy Ariel to the young Ferdinand, to tell him that his father is apparently dead and lying thirty feet below, at the bottom of the ocean, following the tempest of the play’s title and the ensuing shipwreck: ‘Full fathom five thy father lies; / Of his bones are coral made; / Those are pearls that were his eyes: / Nothing of him that doth fade, / But doth suffer a sea-change / Into something rich and strange.’ You can listen to this Shakespeare song being sung here.

‘Where the bee sucks there suck I’.

Where the bee sucks, there suck I:
In a cowslip’s bell I lie;
There I couch when owls do cry.
On the bat’s back I do fly
After summer merrily.
Merrily, merrily shall I live now
Under the blossom that hangs on the bough.

Another song from The Tempest, this very short song is another one sung by the sprite Ariel. Prospero, the magician whom Ariel serves, plans to renounce his ‘rough magic’ and release Ariel from his service; this song is Ariel looking forward to his blissful freedom. You can listen to this Shakespeare song being sung here.

‘O mistress mine’.

O Mistress mine where are you roaming?
O stay and hear, your true love’s coming,
      That can sing both high and low.
Trip no further pretty sweeting.
Journeys end in lovers’ meeting,
      Every wise man’s son doth know.
What is love, ’tis not hereafter,
Present mirth, hath present laughter:
      What’s to come, is still unsure.
In delay there lies no plenty,
Then come kiss me sweet and twenty:
      Youth’s a stuff will not endure.

‘Journeys end in lovers’ meeting, / Every wise man’s son doth know.’ This song, sung by the Clown Feste in Twelfth Night, is effectively a variation on the carpe diem or ‘seize the day’ motif in poetry. You can listen to this Shakespeare song being sung here.

‘When that I was a tiny little boy’.

When that I was and a little tiny boy,
    With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
A foolish thing was but a toy,
    For the rain it raineth every day.
But when I came to man’s estate,
    With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
’Gainst knaves and thieves men shut their gate,
    For the rain it raineth every day.
But when I came, alas! to wive,
    With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
By swaggering could I never thrive,
    For the rain it raineth every day.
But when I came unto my beds,
    With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
With toss-pots still had drunken heads,
    For the rain it raineth every day.
A great while ago the world begun,
    With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
But that’s all one, our play is done,
    And we’ll strive to please you every day.

This song from one of Shakespeare’s most popular comedies, is another one sung by the Clown or Fool character, Feste, in Twelfth Night. Some critics have expressed doubts over Shakespeare’s authorship of the song, which may have been written by Robert Armin (who played the fool characters in the original productions of many of Shakespeare’s plays) or may be an earlier song that predates the play. It uses wind and rain as symbols of life’s hardships, and thus concludes the poem on a somewhat bittersweet note. All revels and festivities – such as those enjoyed at Twelfth Night – are short-lived intervals in life’s daily grind (‘the rain it raineth every day’, after all). The song is also the only good poem we know that features the word ‘toss-pots’. You can listen to this Shakespeare song being sung here.

‘Take, oh take those lips away’.

Take, oh take those lips away,
      That so sweetly were forsworn,
And those eyes: the breake of day,
      Lights that do mislead the Morn;
But my kisses bring again, bring again,
Seals of love, but sealed in vain, sealed in vain.

In his 1933 Leslie Stephen Lecture ‘The Name and Nature of Poetry’, A. E. Housman quoted these lines and called them ‘nonsense’ but ‘ravishing poetry’; he added that this and another of Shakespeare’s songs were ‘the very summits of lyrical achievement’. This song is from Measure for Measure, the only one of Shakespeare’s plays to be set in Vienna, and is sung to Mariana, the woman whom Angelo promised to marry before abandoning her, reneging on his promise. The tone, therefore, is bittersweet, and slightly more on the melancholy side. Listen to the song being sung here.

‘Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more’.

Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more.
    Men were deceivers ever,
One foot in sea, and one on shore,
    To one thing constant never.
Then sigh not so, but let them go,
    And be you blithe and bonny,
Converting all your sounds of woe
    Into hey nonny, nonny.
Sing no more ditties, sing no more
    Of dumps so dull and heavy.
The fraud of men was ever so
    Since summer first was leafy.
Then sigh not so, but let them go,
    And be you blithe and bonny,
Converting all your sounds of woe
    Into hey, nonny, nonny.

‘Men were deceivers ever’: this song appears in Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing, and the meaning of the song chimes with one of the main plots of the play, which involves the villainous Don John tricking the naïve Claudio into believing his bride-to-be Hero has been unfaithful. You can listen to this Shakespeare song being sung here.

3 Comments

  1. Wonderful list! My favourite is Full Fathom Five – I remember singing it at school and the tune raised the hair on my arms…

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