Shakespeare/Pop Music: Hey Nonny Nonny


Unlike the other pages that focus on more specific areas of Shakespeare, popular music, and scholarship, this page examines popular music in Shakespeare's time and, in particular, the popular use of the phrase "Hey, Nonny Nonny" in numerous songs and poems of the Early Modern period.  "Heigh, heigh a nonny-no," is a phrase that is often found inserted as a bridge between verses of English, Irish and Scottish Folk Songs, such as found herehere, or  here.

The phrase is often thought to be trifling and nonsensical, and therefore unimportant.  When placed within the context of how it is used in the song "Sigh No More Ladies" found in Shakespeare’s comedy Much Ado About Nothing and the subsequent myriad versions (dare we say, "adaptations") of the song, one can see that "Hey, Nonny Nonny" points to a wide number of cultural referents that are worth deeper understanding. This page was designed as a tool for educators to use in their study of popular music in Much Ado About Nothing and its subsequent adaptations across a wide array of contexts. Why is this phrase (and indeed the song in which it is found) such an interesting topic of discussion?

In Much Ado About Nothing, Act II, Scene 3, Balthazar’s performance of Sigh No More Ladies, is perhaps the moment when the themes of the play are most clearly represented. From a feminist reading, a "proper" early modern wife should neither express doubt or dissatisfaction towards marriage, nor even release a simple sigh of displeasure.” Indeed, an ideal wife, “such as...Hero, should accept with a smile whatever troubles marriage may bring, be they domestic violence, wrongful accusation, or the loss of linguistic freedom. An early modern wife should "be ... blithe and bonny / Converting all her sounds of woe / Into Hey nonny, nonny" (2.3.68-9). She should dismiss with a "boys will be boys" attitude the "fraud of men" (Drouin 113).  Therefore, one might say that this song’s inclusion in the play was a lecture on the proper behaviour of married women in early modern times. But was it really included to dictate proper behaviour? Or was Shakespeare criticizing this attitude toward gender propriety?

 A close reading of the lyrics alone supports the feminist criticism. “Sigh no more ladies, sigh no more. Men were deceivers ever, one foot on sea and one on shore, to one thing constant never.”  In other words, pay no attention to the deception that will inevitably occur as a result of loving a man. Men will betray you, so you can choose to be brokenhearted, or you can choose to “convert all your songs of woe, into Hey Nonny, Nonny.”  Therefore, one could interpret this song as a sort of “counsel” for feminine behaviour of the day. Yet, when you examine the characters of Beatrice and Benedick, and especially Benedick’s reaction to the performance, a more provocative meaning emerges.

Beatrice and Benedick are Shakespeare’s critics of love. When criticizing how early modern society mistreats women and the absurdity of the male code of honour, Shakespeare uses Beatrice and Benedick as mouthpieces for counter-discourses. And immediately after this song is performed, when asked what he thinks of the performance, Benedick states:

                                And he had been a dog that should have howled thus,
                                they would have hanged him: and I pray God his bad
                                voice bode no mischief. I had as lief have heard the
                                night-raven, come what plague could have come after

Significantly, this song and Benedick’s immediate reaction, foreshadow the tragedy that will befall Hero on her wedding day. Benedick, as Shakespeare’s mouthpiece, criticizes the song and its message by calling Balthazar a “howling dog.” When Benedick prays that this terrible performance will not cause damage, we can expect that damage will indeed be caused. The song thus creates the possibility of a critical counter-discourse that opens up important new ways of interpreting what is going on in the play.

Similarly, the multiple interpretations of Sigh No More Ladies within the context of an early modern reading of the play, allows for the multiple interpretations of the song today, and of the key phrase associated with the song (which gets transmuted into different signifying contexts that implicate the song in a wider filed of intertexts). In the 1993 movie version of Much Ado About Nothing, for instance, Beatrice recites the song as a poem during the opening credits. The credits dissolve into a lovely pastoral scene that finds her reading the poem out loud to a laughing group of friends. She seems to be reading it ironically, but of course that is up to the interpreter to decide. This potentially ironic reading is a choice made in the movie adaptation, which places Beatrice firmly in the position of orator and hence someone with an important voice that needs to be listened to.

Students can use this choice as inspiration for their own critical adaptation (see lesson plans). We include the aforementioned movie clips below, along with other examples of how this song has been interpreted, from traditional versions to kitchen table jam sessions. How students feel about the message of the play will no doubt be indicated by what they choose to present in their own adaptation. Pedagogical choices that respect the critical range of interpretations evident in as specific a moment as Sigh No More Ladies is in Much Ado About Nothing can activate students’ capacity to respond in rich ways to the range of conflicting discourses about gender and sexuality to be found in Shakespeare.

“Shakespeare is here, now, always, what is currently being made of him.” -Graham Holderness (Fischlin and Fortier  5).”

Dictionary Definition (OED) 

A. int.    Used in songs as (part of) a refrain. Also in extended use. Cf. HEY int. 2, NONNY int., NONNY-NO n. 1. Now arch. Often with allusion to Shakespeare (see e.g. quot. 1600), and sometimes with punning allusion to sense B. 2.

1533 J. HEYWOOD Play of Wether sig. Diii, Gyue boys wether quoth a nonny nonny. 1600 SHAKESPEARE Much Ado about Nothing II. iii. 68 Conuerting all your soundes of woe, Into hey nony nony.

1823 W. M. PRAED Lillian 12 Nonny Nonny!{em}who shall tell Where the Summer breezes dwell?

1881 Harper's New Monthly Mag. June 54 The fading is the name of an Irish dance, but ‘with a fading’ seems to have been used as a burden to various songs, in the same was as ‘Derry down,’ ‘Hey nonny nonny no,’ etc. 

1958 Stud. in Renaissance 5 150 In the music as well as the lyric, the invitation to dalliance is playfully suggested in the ‘hey nonny, nonny’ refrain.

1985 R. CURTIS & B. ELTON Blackadder II in R. Curtis et al. Black-Adder (1998) 194/1 Hey nonny nonny, my lord{em}good news!

B. n.

 1. A refrain of ‘nonny-nonny’. Cf. NONNY-NO n. rare.

1535 COVERDALE Goostly Psalmes Introd. Epist. sig. iiv, They shulde be better occupied, then with hey nony nony, hey troly loly, & soch lyke fantasies.

1961 Eng. Lit. Hist. 28 87 There is no objection to jigging through God's world, or through Sterne's with a hey-nonny-nonny; on the contrary.

    2. euphem. The vulva. Obs. rare

1611 J. FLORIO Queen Anna's New World of Words, Fossa... Vsed also for a womans pleasure-pit, nony-nony or pallace of pleasure.


From Much Ado About Nothing, Act II, Scene iii

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.



Sigh no More (Hey Nonny Nonny) has inspired countless versions and adaptations. Here are a few examples from different historical moments:


YouTube Video


Much Ado About Nothing 1993, Movie Version (Beatrice).

In the first few minutes of this clip, you will find Beatrice's reading of the poem, "Sigh no More Ladies."

YouTube Video


Much Ado About Nothing, 1993  Movie Version (Balthazar).

In the first few minutes of this clip, you will find Balthazar's performance of "Sigh no More Ladies" and Benedick's subsequent reaction.


YouTube Video

Thomas Augustine Arne (traditional)

Work, Aria: Sigh No more ladies from Much ado about nothing.

Libretto: William Shakespeare

Tenor: Richard Morton

Orchestra: The Parley of Instruments

Conductor: Roy Goodman

YouTube Video

Violent Femmes

Here is a non-traditional adaptation by the Violent Femmes.


YouTube Video


Student Creations


YouTube Video

Large Choral Arrangement

(2007 California all state honour choir, music by Bob Crosby and Rene Clausen)

YouTube Video

Kitchen Table Jam


This is a list of examples of popular songs that have connection to Shakespeare. The
examples need further verification but give a useful sense of the breadth of Shakespeare's influence.

This a site that was/is part of a Masters Thesis project. English Scholar is primarily a
portal to other locations on the web. There is a valuable Shakespeare section, linked
from the homepage.

Here is a link to an interesting discussion of examples of Shakespeare in Popular Music

This is a link to another Masters Thesis entitled Teaching Shakespeare Through Song. The
goal of the Thesis is "to explore historical settings of Shakespearean song, relate the
process of setting Shakespeare’s song lyrics to my own original music, and discuss the
application of these song settings in a high school classroom."

This encyclopedia chronicles the presence of the Bard in contemporary popular culture,
including radio, film, television, and other media to which his works have been adapted.

A link to a compilation CD entitled: Shakespeare's Music: Classic and Popular Music Inspired
by the Plays [Soundtrack]

This is a link to information about a book entitled: Shakespeare and Popular Music
by Adam Hansen. It is described as such: "In the first book of its kind, Adam Hansen
shows what happens to Shakespeare when he exists in and becomes popular music, in all
its diverse and glorious forms. Exploring these interactions reveals as much about the
functions of the diverse genres of popular music as it does about Shakespeare as a global
cultural form."

Here is vast collection of lesson plans, all related to Shakespeare.

This is a link to a podcast of an interview with the Barenaked Ladies about their
experience writing music for Shakespeare.

Here is a Kennedy Centre site dedicated to their production of Romeo and Juliet. It
includes historical information and lesson plans.

This is a link to The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare and Popular Culture (review)
Shakespeare Quarterly - Volume 59, Number 3, Fall 2008, pp. 337-339. This publication
includes a collection of essays that, " draws together thoughtful and engaging new
work by an impressive list of contributors. Each of the essays investigates the
relationship between Shakespeare and some aspect of popular culture and examines how
the culture re-creates him or his work in material products, writing, art, music,
radio, television, and digital technology."


Drouin, Jennifer. 'Sigh no More Ladies:’ Marriages of Submission in Shakespeare’s The

      Taming of the Shrew and Much Ado About Nothing. MA. Acadia University, 2000. Web.

Fischlin, Daniel and Mark Fortier, eds. Adaptations of Shakespeare: A Critical anthology of plays

      from the seventeenth century to the present. New York: Routledge, 2000. Print.

"Nonny-nonny." The Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press. 3rd ed., 2000. Print.



Relevant lesson plans and other education material can be found here, Lesson Plans - Hey Nonny-Nonny.

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Jennifer S,
Mar 22, 2010, 10:59 AM
Jennifer S,
Apr 5, 2010, 12:36 PM
Jennifer S,
Apr 6, 2010, 2:45 AM