Thou Hast Horrid Harpsichord Technique (Shakespeare Sonnet 128)

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Shakespeare Sonnet 128:

How oft, when thou, my music, music play’st,
Upon that blessed wood whose motion sounds
With thy sweet fingers, when thou gently sway’st
The wiry concord that mine ear confounds,
Do I envy those jacks that nimble leap
To kiss the tender inward of thy hand,
Whilst my poor lips, which should that harvest reap,
At the wood’s boldness by thee blushing stand!
To be so tickled, they would change their state
And situation with those dancing chips,
O’er whom thy fingers walk with gentle gait,
Making dead wood more blest than living lips.
     Since saucy jacks so happy are in this,
     Give them thy fingers, me thy lips to kiss.

Well, then. To start, when the bard says “jacks” he errs, meaning “keys.”1 This is a forgivable enough mistake; metonymy is commonly used in literature, after all, and “Jack” is a man’s name–a rather excellent pun if the reader has braced himself for metonymy. 'Tis not every day when one sees a poet illuminate his work with such cleverness.

What bids me look askance at this poem is this line: “to kiss the tender inward of thy hand.” The “inward” of the hand would be the palms. Thus, Shakespeare’s “music”-love is playing with straight fingers on a flat hand (I preclude the possibility of the keys bouncing out of the instrument–this is most certainly not Alice in Wonderland!). As any instructor of any keyboard instrument would tell you, this is quite improper technique. To play with straight fingers results in imprecise playing, and, if continued, damage to the delicate tendons of the wrists. C.P.E. Bach and other early writers all concur: curved fingers are crucial for precision.

Such a flagrant disregard for precision reflects quite poorly on his “music’s” character. While this could be a beginner’s mistake, she seems to spend quite a lot of time playing the virginals, otherwise it would not hold this much significance for Shakespeare. Thus, I reason that she is likely a reasonably experienced player. If she is indeed an experienced player, this shows that she has ignored her teachers’ advices. Thus, she is both stubborn and imprecise. To not care for precision in music reflects that she may not care for precision in other areas of life. To not care about precision in other areas of life would cause inability to “rightly divide”2 the Holy Scriptures and thus exercise morality. In summary, her lack of musical precision shows that her character is more based on coquetry than holiness. I pity Shakespeare.


  1. Max. Kenyon, Harpsichord Music: A Survey of the Virginals, Spinet, Harpsichord, and Their Continental Equivalents, the People Who Played upon Them, the Composers for Them, and the Music They Wrote, (St. Clair Shores, Mich.: Scholarly Press, 1978),, 24-25. Jacks are the internal mechanism in the harpsichord.

  2. 2 Timothy 2:15.