Sigh no more

My linguistics reading of late is alerting me to survivals of archaic forms in popular culture.  The genius of Shakespeare and the King James Bible translation ensures that we never quite stop incorporating the English of 500 years ago into modern speech.  Last night I spent enjoyable hours watching Joss Whedon's recent production of Shakespeare's comedy "Much Ado About Nothing," staged in the present but using the original text.  Beatrice and Benedick are two young misfits everyone knows have to get together, though they think they hate each other.  They ultimately join forces to solve the problems of the secondary couple, Claudio and Hero, who have been tricked into an apparent tragedy that all comes right in the end.

Shakespeare often included bits of doggerel or folksong into his plays, with language that was archaic even in his time.  Modern adaptations tend to set them to tunes either in a style they take to be period-appropriate or in a style that's current for the production.  The song that caught my ear last night was "Sigh No More" (or, as we'd say today, with our Celtic restructuring of Germanic grammar:  "Baby Don't You Cry").  It uses the old-fashioned trochaic meter (DAH-duh), to which Shakespeare often switches from his usual iambic (dah-DUH) when giving voice to the old powers, like the witches in "Macbeth" ("Double, double, toil and trouble/Fire burn and cauldron bubble") or the fairies in A Midsummer Night's Dream ("Lord, what fools these mortals be!").

"Sigh no more" is a lament over the inconstancy of men, the counterpoint about male infidelity set into a play about the deadly consequences of even a false suspicion of female unchastity:

Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more;
    Men were deceivers ever;
One foot in sea and one on shore,
    To one thing constant never;

        Then sigh not so,
        But let them go,
    And be you blithe and bonny;
Converting all your sounds of woe
    Into "Hey nonny, nonny!"

Sing no more ditties, sing no more,
    Of dumps so dull and heavy;
The fraud of men was ever so,
    Since summer first was leavy.

        Then sigh not so, 
        But let them go,
    And be you blithe and bonny;
Converting all your sounds of woe
    Into "Hey, nonny, nonny!"

Kenneth Branagh's "Much Ado" of a few years back set "Sigh, No More" to a pretty, old-fashioned tune and has the partygoers break into a fine barbershop-quartet performance.  Great stuff.

Joss Whedon adapts the same song to a nice jazzy lounge number, suitable for some relaxing entertainment at an elegant house party, with pretty acrobats out by the pool.  (The film was shot in twelve days at Whedon's home while he was taking a break from final editing on "The Avengers."  The actors are many of his regulars.)

Here's a snappy 1940's take:

Branagh directed a playful "Love's Labour's Lost" (a financial flop) set in the 1939 and using show tunes and modern dance, including the "Charleston."  He emphasized the play's iambic beat by setting the lines "Have at you now, affection's men at arms" to a tap-dance exercise, then breaks into Irving Berlin's "Cheek to Cheek":

I'm sorry that film didn't do well.  It's the kind of thing that makes my husband run out of the room, but I love dramas in which people spontaneously burst into song and dancing.


Grim said...

"Hey nonny, nonny!" has become something of a watchword for ribald songs of the period. As I mention from time to time, I really enjoy those old bawdy songs. If the songs are any indication, there was a lot of very playful behavior going on in early modern England!

Eric Blair said...

It was going on everywhere. It just didn't get communicated to us today, the way that people in the future are going to be able to watch Miley Cyrus twerking.

However, I think the best reimagining of Shakespeare in a 'modern' setting, is Richard Loncraine's version of Richard III, with Ian Mckellen as Richard in a Fascist 1930's England:

Texan99 said...

Oh, yes, that was unbelievably good! I couldn't take my eyes off of Ian McKellen.

Cass said...

I haven't seen McKellen's Richard III but have always wanted to.