The Role of Music in Shakespeare's 'The Tempest'

Essay, 2011

8 Pages, Grade: 1,3



I. Introduction

II. Analysis and Interpretation
1. Music as Message
2. Music as Essential Part of the Play
3. Music as Power-Tool

III. Conclusion

IV. Bibliography

I. Introduction

The Tempest is full of music, singing, and dancing. Every act and every scene has at least one musical element. This is not very surprising, as Shakespeare had his own musicians, whom he did not have to pay, and thus he could afford such a variety of music. The whole play takes place on a desert island which is inhabited by only three people. Particularly, the “unusual soundscape [shall] underpin[s] the strangeness of the island” (Shakespeare, Introduction 23-4). Hearing all the songs accompanied by “solemn” music is not only spectacular for the audience, even Caliban, whom we know as a rude and uneducated native of the island, is fascinated by “the isle [which] is full of noises, / Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not” (3. 2. 127-128). Thus he wants to calm his new friends Stephano and Trinculo, who had never seen and heard such things. Moreover, Ariel casts a spell over Ferdinand with his music and he follows it, although he has just shipwrecked and a different behaviour would be expected in the case of such a catastrophe.

We can see that music has a huge impact on both the figures in the play and the audience, as this drama was actually written to be performed rather than to be read. Nonetheless it is not enough to say that music is only used to create a nice background sound for the play. One can even go so far and say that music plays the main role and the whole play only revolves around music. In order to prove this, I will show in the following the important functions of music and musical elements. Firstly, I would like to demonstrate the music's function as a message for both the figures and the audience, secondly, the music's function as an essential part of the play and last but not least, the most important function - music as a 'power-tool' for Prospero and in a sense also for Ariel.

II. Analysis and Interpretation

1. Music as a Message

Following a tradition of “neo-platonic idealization”, music can be the imitation of divine order, but also a “source of riot and disorder” (Trüstedt). Both definitions fit to The Tempest, as we have the awful storm at the very beginning, deliberately caused by Prospero, and on the other hand we have a lot of heavenly music and songs performed by Ariel.

Most of his songs have a message for the hearers, be it for the actors or only for the audience. This can be seen in act I, scene ii, 396-403, when Ariel sings his second song. He is invisible for Ferdinand and his song tells Ferdinand that his father has not survived the shipwreck and drowned. He does not mention even once the words died, dead or drowned, but explains that Alonso has now turned to precious sea treasures on the seabed. Ferdinand understands the message at once but he is not surprised at all, as he already believed his father to be dead and this “ditty […] remember[s] [his] drowned father.” (1. 2. 404). Of course his father is not dead and therefore “the change that is reported [in the song], happens not […] at sea […], but rather here, in and through music.” (Trüstedt).

In the next scene Ariel makes Alonso, Gonzalo, and the rest of the company fall asleep, except for Sebastian and Antonio. Being invisible, he listens to the conspiracy plans of those two. Ariel wants to prevent the murder on Alonso and sings in the ear of the sleeping Gonzalo, in order to wake him up. Ariel's message in this song is very direct and clear, in contrast to the first one, and Gonzalo suddenly awakes. This time Ariel did not lie, as Gonzalo sees at once the swords waving Sebastian and Antonio. In both scenes Ariel was invisible for the actors and the concerning persons might have had the impression of a divine afflatus.

For the figures, this way is more credible than if Ariel appeared in person and would tell them what is going on; it is very unlikely that any of them would believe him as Ariel is a stranger for all of them. Everyone has their own theory on where the music and singing might have come from, whether it is “i'th'air, or th'earth” (1. 2. 387).

The masque, which is performed for Ferdinand and Miranda in act IV, scene i, can be seen as a play-within-a-play. We can assume that the song sung by Juno and Ceres (ll. 106-117) has a message for the engaged couple and they transmit their blessings on the young people in their song. Furthermore, “like music and poetry, dance was believed to reflect through its ordered patterns the sacred harmony of the spheres.” (Simonds, 74). This time, it is not the invisible Ariel who brings the message but here we have a direct allusion to divinity and supernaturalism on the island, established by the goddesses and the nymphs. Of course, this masque - with its huge variety of musical elements - should also show the audience the importance of that scene.

In addition to this, the catch of Caliban, Trinculo and Stephano can also be considered as a

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Thereby they explain clearly their attitude towards the authority and want to motivate others to scout the sovereigns and mock at them (Trüstedt).

In the end of the play Ariel again performs a song, but this time without any directions of Prospero; he sings about his future in freedom without his master, which is already within his reach. From his song we get to know that Ariel is going to go a different way than Prospero; the former wants to retire in the nature and live “under the blossom that hangs on the bough.” (5. 1. 94), whereas the latter is determined to become active in politics again.


Excerpt out of 8 pages


The Role of Music in Shakespeare's 'The Tempest'
University of Tubingen
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
446 KB
role, music, shakespeare, tempest
Quote paper
Anna Miller (Author), 2011, The Role of Music in Shakespeare's 'The Tempest' , Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: The Role of Music in Shakespeare's 'The Tempest'

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free