All theorbos, all the time

My sister has a favorite word. I thought that was kind of weird, when she first told me, but then I went into this spiral of ‘do I have a favorite word? Should I have a favorite word? Is that a thing most people have?’ and that was a rough couple of days. So I’m pleased to reassure you all that now I do, in fact, have a favorite word: theorbo.

But this is (mostly) not a post about theorbos; it’s a post about discoveries (and a lot of youtube links you should definitely follow).

One of my favorite things about where I’m at in my study of Shakespeare is that I know enough to be pretty okay keeping up with most authors, but there’s still so much I don’t know that I get these really delightful moments of discovery where some tiny thing just clicks into place. I love learning things. In that vein, I’ve become absolutely obsessed with this guy lately, in a totally normal way but when I googled him the suggested searches were “brandon acker wife”, “brandon acker age”, and “brandon acker married” so like… some of you need to learn how to use incognito.

And yes, he does look like a Disney prince or maybe a cross between Tobey Maguire and a young Hugh Grant, but more importantly he is so jazzed (ha) to tell you all about the theorbo, and I didn’t know what the theorbo was until a week ago but I’ve now listened to him play The Rains of Castamere on the theorbo probably about 200 times and work it into any conversation I have with anyone.

So I thought, what better to read to the accompaniment of a 17th-century member of the lute family than a bunch of books about music in Shakespeare? Surely there can’t be enough material in them to justify an entire blog post for one book.

Here are the things I learned from Edward W. Naylor’s Shakespeare and Music: 1

1. Modern instruments are boring.

I definitely would have stuck it out longer in elementary school band if I’d been able to play the incredibly goofy Serpent, “a large, black, curly instrument, of thin wood covered with leather, which helped play the loud bass in oratorios“, instead of having to settle for a trombone I couldn’t even play because my arms were too short to reach seventh position. It would have been worth carrying it back and forth on the school bus just to be that badass.

2. What I thought was just a pretty metaphor in Henry V is actually a joke about lute players.

There are two options for what King Henry means when he asks Katherine “come, your answer in broken music; for thy voice is music, and thy English broken”. The first is a reference to “the natural imperfection of the Lute, which, being a pizzicato [plucked] instrument, could not do more than indicate the harmony in ‘broken’ pieces . . . relying on the hearer to piece the harmony together”, in the same way Henry has to piece together Katherine’s fragmented English.

The second refers to the substitution of another instrument, like a woodwind, for an absent musician in a ‘consort’ of six viols, creating a ‘broken’ consort. Katherine’s habit of substituting a French word or phrase when she can’t think of the English one mimics the substitution of, say, a recorder for a viol.

And speaking of recorders:

3. I think I’ve cracked Sonnet 123.

A part of Sonnet 123 that’s bothered me ever since I learned it is this quatrain:

Thy registers and thee I both defy,
Not wondering at the present nor the past;
For what we see and thy records do lie,
Made more and less by thy continual haste.

To fit within the meter, ‘records’ must be pronounced ‘recórds’. Someone like George Wright 2 would say that that unnatural stress forces the voice to rise in pitch on ‘re’ to compensate, giving the word a sort of punchy emphasis. I don’t really buy that, and most editions just gloss it as ‘recórds’ and call it good enough.

BUT if you imbue ‘registers’ with its second meaning, “the compass or range of a voice or instrument“, then ‘records’ can take on its secondary (archaic) meaning of “birdsong”, particularly that of the nightingale, of R&J fame: a fleeting, beautiful melody heralding the transition from night to day and day to night.

So you get registers meaning records of history, of births, deaths, marriages, purchases – the milestones of a human life – and at the same time a vocal register; young boys’ voices dropping during puberty and then turning again, as Jacques says, to “childish treble” in old age. And then you get records, which probably really only means registers, but it sounds like the nightingale, and that sounds like ephemerality.

Maybe I’m wrong. Helen Vendler and Stephen Booth don’t mention it, 3 and they’re much smarter than I am. But I definitely went “oh my god” when I read what ‘records’ could mean and raced for my bookshelf, so that’s at least something, right?

4. Sometimes serious academics forget they’re not supposed to use made-up words.

Apparently “the word was still in use in 1680, when Dr Plot was present at the annual Bull-running held by the Minstrels of Tutbury” is a real sentence and not the summary of 2021’s most ambitious cinematic crossover, Megamind 2: Horton Hears a Who.

5. Edmund (maybe) foreshadows all the weird Satan stuff that happens later in Lear.

Things I’m maybe not proud I’ve done with my time in the past week: staring at a passage from King Lear for like twenty minutes going “but it’s a major third!” and then only figuring out I was wrong after after angrily googling “Early Modern English solfege”.

But now that I know that the Elizabethan scale (sometimes) went ‘fa sol la fa sol la mi fa’, with mi standing in for si (or if you’re a dumb American like I am, ti, which is why I was so confused) I know that when Edmund says,

O, these do portend these divisions. Fa, sol, la, mi

the interval from that fa (the one that’s actually fa and not do) to mi is an augmented fourth, otherwise known as a tritone, otherwise known as mi contra fa, otherwise known as the diabolus in musica.

I’m not actually sure I buy that that’s what Shakespeare was getting at since (as far as my chagrined wiki-ing tells me) mi against fa wasn’t described as devilish in writing until the early 1700s, and from what I can tell the 9th-century source first cautioning against it seems to have been coming at it from the angle of how to properly tune lutes. But it’s pretty neat if it’s true.

6. JK Rowling is smarter than I give her credit for. (But her twitter takes are still bad.)

Hands-down number one long-held belief I didn’t expect to have shaken by a 19th-century book about Shakespeare: that the etymology of the tarantallegra curse in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is not, as I have thought it was for the past seventeen years, the modern-day tarantella, but the 16th-century belief that certain musical ‘airs’ could compel the victim of tarantula bite-induced madness to dance so violently that they sweat out the toxin. (Thanks, Harry Potter fanwiki, for reassuring me that it was actually the black widow and my belief that tarantulas are scary but safe was not also a lie.)

7. I got dragged by this book one hundred and four years later.

Saying that Peter’s joke about James Soundpost being unable to speak “perhaps indicates that the pronunciation of singers even in the musical time was no better than it is now” was 100% unnecessary and also I’m in this photo and I don’t like it.

Should you read this book?

Since I did read the entire book, I figure I should probably give a verdict. And that verdict is: if you like Shakespeare and have a middling to fair grasp of Western musical notation, read this book.

Admittedly I skimmed a lot of chapters 2-6, and chapter 7 on stage directions is interesting but exists in easier to read formats elsewhere. 4 But the introduction and chapter 1 were really cool, which I realize doesn’t sound like a glowing recommendation for a book, but they were really cool.

Naylor is writing in 1896, which I forgot and was subsequently very confused by his matter-of-fact statement that “three notes sung to two of the same kind” (e.g. 5/4 time) and “four notes sung to three of the same kind” (e.g. 7/8 time) don’t exist in modern music. Also, he uses ‘ejaculations’ in a really serious academic context, and that was kind of hard for me to swallow. 5

If you’re not particularly interested in music theory or medieval country dances, this might not be your thing. But Shakespeare’s England was so musical, and so many of his metaphors are musical ones that I never would have caught before this but I’m now super excited to notice them on re-reads, so on the whole I’d say it’s worth at least a skim. Also, it’s available for free on Project Gutenberg so you really have no excuse.

To conclude

Sadly, Shakespeare himself never got to hear the great theorbists (second favorite word) on the Continent. But you and I can and should listen to what wikipedia tells me is the only theorbo concerto, written by the modern composer Stephen Goss and performed by internationally-acclaimed lutenist and theorbist Matthew Wadsworth. Or, since I listened to that and it was actually kind of boring, this performance of “It was a lover and his lass” from As You Like It, set by Thomas Morley (1557-1602) and played anachronistically on the theorbo even though it was composed for lute and the theorbist is only using the lute register so I guess it’s just for looks.

As for me, I’ve got at least four more books on Shakespeare and music to read but only one of them is free, so I might do a more general post about it somewhere down the line. But this book was a lot of fun, and I wanted to show what those ‘aha’ moments can be like, especially when you don’t expect them. Also, I really wanted to talk about theorbos.


  1. Does it bother anyone else that his middle initial is W and there’s a W in his first name? Just me? Cool.
  2. See George T. Wright, Shakespeare’s Metrial Art
  3. See Helen Vendler, The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets and Stephen Booth, Shakespeare’s Sonnets.
  4. See Dessen and Thompson, A Dictionary of Stage Directions in English Drama.
  5. Ba dum tss.

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