Musicians: play ‘Heart’s ease’! (4.5.96-107)

FIRST MUSICIAN       Faith, we may put up our pipes and be gone.

NURSE                        Honest good fellows, ah put up, put up,

                                    For well you know this is a pitiful case.      [Exit.]

FIRST MUSICIAN       Ay, by my troth, the case may be amended.


PETER                        Musicians, O musicians, ‘Heart’s ease’, ‘Heart’s ease’! O, and you will have me live, play ‘Heart’s ease’.

FIRST MUSICIAN       Why ‘Heart’s ease’?

PETER                        O musicians, because my heart itself plays ‘My heart is full’. O play me some merry dump to comfort me.

MUSICIANS                Not a dump we, ’tis no time to play now.

PETER                                    You will not then?

FIRST  MUSICIAN      No. (4.5.96-107)

Unsurprisingly, the Musicians are often cut. There’s quite a bit more of this… why’s it here? Within the world of the play, it’s a way of continuing to stage how shocking Juliet’s apparent death is. Here are the local musicians – presumably the same ones who provided the music for the Capulet ball, only a few days ago – who have been hired again for one of their regular, more cheerful (albeit early-morning) gigs, accompanying a bride to the church. And they’ve been abandoned here, relative outsiders in the household – although still, presumably, familiar – with the body of the bride, the Nurse in shock, and the terrible news just starting to spread through the rest of the household, who have been up all night preparing for the wedding but are presumably looking forward to the party nonetheless. Hence the arrival of Peter; he’s heard the commotion, he’s perhaps seen the Capulets leaving Juliet’s room, he’s come to see for himself. That’s a ‘real’ thought. In company terms: the second Quarto helpfully replaces Peter in the stage direction with Will Kempe, indicating that the role of Peter was played (and perhaps written for) the company’s resident clown, a crowd favourite, who hasn’t had much to do in the play so far. (Kempe probably played Bottom in Midsummer Night’s Dream, and hence Pyramus, a connection that some in the audience might make.) The rest of the scene is going to develop into some pretty standard comic chat nominally about music and musicians, but Peter’s initial lines are poignant. He wants to hear Heart’s ease, a lively country dance (which survives), because his heart is full, the name, it seems, of a sad tune or song (which doesn’t). He asks for a merry dump – oxymoron! a dump(as the name suggests) is a sad tune. And underpinning all of this, and the rest of the exchange, is the idea that music has the power to heal, that it has a powerful effect on bodies and minds. Shakespeare returns to this most powerfully in King Lear, and Pericles, but it’s here too.

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