Research Stream


Kathryn Roberts Parker
The University of Sydney

Alan Maddox (2012-2016)
The University of Sydney


Music and Festival Culture in Shakespearean Comedy

This project examines the influence of vernacular music that arises from Saturnalian festival culture in six comedies written by Shakespeare, performed by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and the King’s Men between the years 1594 and 1611. The research places Saturnalian festival practice as central to the representation of both vernacular and rhetorical forms of music in Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatic texts.



Kathryn has developed a cross-disciplinary methodology for examining music in early modern playtexts using a combination of literary and linguistic analysis, musicology and historically-informed performance practice. The thesis presents close readings of six Shakespearean comedies with the aim of developing a new form of musical dramaturgy that challenges our current assumptions about literary and musical forms represented in stage drama. The research is structured as six case studies, including A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Love’s Labour’s Lost, As You Like It, Twelfth Night, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest. The instances of music in these plays are compared to examples of performance with similar uses of vocabulary and stage directions in other contemporary plays of the period, to form a broader picture of practice on the stage in Elizabethan and Jacobean England. In each of the plays examined, the most apparent dramaturgical purpose for both festival and stage music was to facilitate an embodied sense of communion between performers and audience members, all of whom were active participants. There are multiple instances within the plays examined in this thesis which suggest that actors were often singing and/or dancing together onstage and that audiences may even have been joining in.

This project identifies delight as the central emotion being represented in texts and historical records relating to early modern festival music. This shows a strong relationship between the function of festival music and early modern beliefs about music more broadly, such as Simon Smith has identified in his examination of delight as the desired affect of rhetorical music in Jacobean theatre. It is clear in early modern treatises on vernacular music that delight was the emotion expected to be experienced by audiences, participants and performers in festival music, such as when participating in singing and dancing. This project contributes to a further expansion of this concept of delight, most traditionally associated with lute music or music of the spheres in scholarly discourse, to now include country dance music, ballad singing, hunting songs, catches and songs in unison.

The thesis argues that these forms were similarly powerful vehicles of delight due to their participatory nature and communal sensibility. Each of the chapters reveal the meanings and dramaturgical purposes of music in each play which have currently been overlooked due to a lack of an appropriate level of focus on vernacular music culture in the study of early modern dramatic texts. By placing the musical styles of early modern festivals at the centre of each play, this project hopes to challenge assumptions that have been made in the past about Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre music and move toward a more diverse consideration of musical influence in dramatic works at the turn of the seventeenth century.



Professor Liam Semler
Dr Alan Maddox


Image: Anon, The Northern Lasses Lamentation, c. 1675. University of California English Ballad Archive. Accessible online at