What’s love got to do with Greensleeves and Teenagers?
Originally published for The Shakespeare Standard’s “Rhapsody of Words” — 2 April 2015
The job of a Teaching Artist can be a challenging one, especially when it comes to teaching a lesson about Shakespeare and Elizabethan Music. Recently, I was hired by Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum to teach classroom enrichment at a high school in Reseda, California. I immediately went to my favorite collection: “A Golden Treasury of Elizabethan Music” and revisited “Greensleeves”. Many students recognized it as “that song people sing sometimes in A Christmas Carol”. Well played, Dickens. However, the relevance of a song like “Greensleeves” goes beyond holiday tradition.
“Greensleeves” (1580) is an English folk song by Richard Jones that describes a man’s love for the woman who wears green sleeves. The identity of Lady Green Sleeves is unclear. Was she Anne Boleyn? Or a lady of the night? What does seem clear — lyrically — is that the enamored man feels wronged because his beloved does not love him in return. “Alas my love, you do me wrong, To cast me off discourteously”. He is heartbroken and knows not what to do. Shakespeare references “Greensleeves” in The Merry Wives of Windsor (1602) when Falstaff gets ruffled by Mistress Ford. He shouts: “Let the sky rain potatoes! Let it thunder to the tune of ‘Greensleeves’!” The song was popular enough to get a “Shout Out” by the Bard himself. Yet it is Duke Orsino whose situation best fits this tale of woe.
Consider for a moment how Duke Orsino relates to music at the opening of Twelfth Night (1601–2). He says: “If music be the food of love, play on.” He is hungry for love, and all he wants is Olivia. Yet she loves him not. Sound familiar? Ahem, Lady Green Sleeves? Duke Orsino must then satisfy his love-sickness with music. After hearing a particularly melancholy sequence, he exclaims: “That strain again, it had a dying fall”. He asks his musician to play that sequence again, as if he finds pleasure in the pain it causes him in hearing it. He hits the “repeat button” to some degree.
So what’s love got to do with language and music and Shakespeare and teenagers in Reseda, California? Everything. Unrequited love is a staple of the American High School Experience. Lyrics and music offer a form of release. I asked the group of students if anybody uses Pandora or Spotify to listen to music. All hands go up. I ask: You know that feeling when a sad love song comes on, and you just want to hit repeat? Because listening to it makes you feel extra sad and for some reason that extra sadness feels so good? Giggles, nods, high fives and hands go up. This group of teenagers just got excited about Elizabethan music. And that, my friends, is what love and language can do.
Carolyn Marie Wright hails from upstate New York and is currently based in Phoenix where she serves as Theatre Director & English Teacher at Brophy Prep and Artistic Director of Humanity Play Project. Proud member of AEA, SAG-AFTRA, AATE, and Arizona Theatre Company’s Cohort Club.