The inclusion of music and songs not only helps to enliven even the most tedious of theatrical performances; it also grasps the audiences attention and sometimes adds greater depth and meaning to the theme of the play. Shakespeare includes songs and catch-lines of songs in many of his plays (both in comedies as well as in tragedies) to give a deeper meaning to the dramatic action and situation. With the exception of The Tempest, Twelfth Night is perhaps Shakespeare’s most musical play. It is the only Shakespearean drama which begins and ends with music.
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There are two categories of songs in Twelfth Night. The first category of songs are the complete songs sung by the clown Feste and the second category of songs comprises of fragmented lyrics sung by Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Feste in a drunken state. This paper focuses on the first category of songs, that is, the larger segment of songs sung by Feste. Feste sings a total of five songs in the play- “O Mistress Mine” (Act II, scene iii, lines 40-45,49-53 ), “Come Away Death” (Act II, scene iv, lines 52-68), “Hey Robin, Jolly Robin” (Act IV, scene ii, lines 78,79,81,83,85), “I am Gone Sir” (Act IV, scene ii, lines 130-141) and “When That I Was and a Little Tiny Boy” (Act V, scene I, lines 398-417)). Apart from contributing to the musical atmosphere of the play, the songs perform a number of functions. Firstly, they help to emphasize the theme of the play, especially the theme of festive comedy with melancholic strains. Secondly, they highlight the moods of the characters in the situation on which the song is sung. Thirdly, in the hands of Feste the songs serve as a satiric tool to mock certain characters of the play and finally the songs help in providing a unity to the play. This paper analyses in detail each of the five songs sung by Feste in the light of the above statements.
Significance of Feste’s Songs in Twelfth Night
Music played an integral part in the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Just as today’s theatrical performances and cinemas entertain the audience with a visual treat, “in the playhouses of the late 16th and early 17th centuries, the aural dimension carried out a more significant function” (Wilson and Calore 3). Wilson and Calore further state that the songs “served the purpose of underlying the mood of a character or situation” and the “cues for sound effects and music often occup[ied] a prominent position on the page [of the text]” (4). With the exception of The Tempest, Twelfth Night is perhaps Shakespeare’s most musical play. It is the only Shakespearean drama which begins and ends with music.
According to John R. Ford, there are two categories of songs in Twelfth Night (36). The first category of songs are the complete songs sung by the clown Feste and the second category of songs comprises of fragmented lyrics sung by Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Feste, “Songs fuelled by ale and limited by memoryâ€¦ that occur to one of the revelers in the heat of the moment and then vanish” (Ford 37). However it is the five songs of Feste that captures the audience’s attention. According to Ford, “in the hands of Festeâ€¦ music becomes a deft satiric tool, mocking the sentimentality of Orsinoâ€¦ the fecklessness of the revelers and the secret… desires of Malvolio” (36).
The first song sung by Feste “O Mistress Mine” (Act II scene iii, lines 40-45, 49-53) highlights the festive spirit of the play, hints at the melancholic strains and even mocks Olivia’s attitude towards love. The song is an excellent example of the notion of carpe diem (translated as “seize the day”), an exhortation to make the most of the moment, of fleeting youth and time. There has been an argument over whether the song was composed by Shakespeare or not. Verity states that this song was “found in Morley’s Consort Lessons, printed in 1599, that is, before the probable date of Twelfth Night” and that it was probably “an old ballad not composed by Shakespeareâ€¦ but possibly, Shakespeare was the author and re-used the song when he came to write this play” (97-98). In this song, the lover tries to make his beloved realize that with the passage of time their youth will perish and they will eventually die. Thus they should enjoy both life and love as long as they are still youthful- “In delay there lies no plenty; / Then come and kiss me, sweet and twenty, / Youth’s a stuff will not endure” (Act II scene iii, lines 51-53). The hedonistic doctrine of enjoying the moment (particularly the short-lived youth) before it is gone irretrievably, contrasts to the morbid attitude towards love shown by Olivia.
According to Donno, the words of the song appear to have a particular relevance to Olivia’s folly in shunning the ” ‘sight/ And company of men’, to which Feste alluded in I.5.27-30″ (74). Through this song, Feste seems to mock Olivia’s decision to veil her face for seven years and avoid the sight of men in order to mourn for her brother’s death. In Act I scene v, Feste openly criticizes the absurd nature of Olivia’s vow- “The more fool, Madonna, to mourn for your brother’s soul being in heaven” (lines 76-78). The words of the song seem to urge Olivia to put an end to her frivolous promise and make the most of her youth and beauty while it still lasts. David Daiches however, calls this song “the most haunting of all Shakespeare’s songs” (259). While other critics prefer to interpret this song as an embodiment of the festive spirit of the play by highlighting the theme of carpe diem, Daiches is of the opinion that this song makes the audience aware of the “sadder notes underlying the romantic” (260). In spite of ending on a happy note (except in the case of Malvolio), Twelfth Night is filled with “danger, misadventure, self-delusion, self-indulgence [and] misunderstanding” (Daiches 259). Through this song Feste prepares the audience to face a world where “What’s to come is still unsure” (Act II scene iii, line 50).
The next song sung by Feste “Come Away, Come Away, Death” (Act II scene iv. lines 52-68) seem to echo the Duke’s fruitless love for Olivia and Viola’s equally hopeless love for the duke. Donno states that it was a “â€¦ folk song sung by women [and] the words suggest patient devotion towards men who treat them badly” (83). It is a melancholy song which highlights the Duke’s mood and its sad lyrics makes Viola confess her unrequited love for the Duke. Although Twelfth Night is a romantic comedy, Shakespeare in this play presents love as something which causes pain and suffering and this reflects the melancholic undertones of the play. Through this song, Feste seems to deliberately sing the present state of the duke’s one-sided love for Olivia. This song depicts love as a suffering that is caused by a fair maid and the lover considers himself dead because of the cruelty of the beloved who pays no heed to the lover. The lover is so depressed and hopeless that he wishes death to take him away. The Duke immediately identifies himself with the song and says: “Me thought it did relieve my passion much” (Act II scene iv, lines 93-95). The “fair cruel maid” (line 55) of the song is none other than Olivia whose refusal to accept Orsino’s love has spiritually killed the latter (or at least that is what the Duke wants to believe in). This song with its highly emotive tone almost makes Viola reveal her feelings for the Duke. The melancholic nature of this song stands as a sharp contrast to the festive spirit of the previous song. If the previous song dealt primarily with merriment this song deals with sadness and death.
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After a gap of a whole act, the next song “Hey Robin, Jolly Robin” (lines 78-79, 81, 83, 85) sung by Feste again takes place in Act IV scene ii. This scene deals with the gulling of Malvolio who has been locked in a dark room by Maria, Feste, Sir Toby and Sir Andrew. Disguised as Sir Topas the curate, Feste tries to convince Malvolio that he is mad and possessed by the Devil. By singing this song, Feste makes himself known (as the Fool) to Malvolio. According to Verity this song was “â€¦ a dialogue between the two lovers, Robin and his friend, who discuss their love affairs in question and answer” (125). This song continues with the message of pain that results from unrequited love. The lines “My lady is unkind, perdy” (line 81) and “She loves another” (line 85) is an indirect reference to Olivia and her love for Cesario. Therefore through this song, Feste mocks Malvolio’s pitiable condition in which he is fooled into believing that Olivia is in love with him.
The next song sung by Feste “I am Gone Sir” (lines 130-141) takes place in the same scene. While the previous song marked the presence of the clown, this song prepares for his exit. Malvolio, who is desperate to get out of the dark room, sends the clown to bring him paper, ink and light so that he can write a letter to Olivia requesting his release. In reply to this request, Feste sings this song. In this song there is a reference to the activities of the Vice and the Devil of the Morality Plays. According to Verity, the Vice and the Devil represented the “popular comic element” of the play (126). The Vice carried a “dagger of lath” that is a soft wood in his hand and the Devil would dress up as a bear with long talons and carried a club. The Vice would try to cut off the Devil’s talons with his dagger of lath. By identifying himself with the Vice, Feste establishes two things- first, that the Fool or the clown of Shakespeare’s plays was developed from the character of the Vice in old Morality Plays (Verity 126). Secondly, like the Vice who would attack the Devil, Feste too takes his revenge upon Malvolio by tormenting him in a dark room disguised as Sir Topas.
The final song sung by Feste in Act V scene I “When That I Was and a Little Tiny Boy” (lines 398-417) forms the epilogue of the play. According to Ratri Ray this epilogue is “unique” as “it is the only play which has a song at the end” (194). According to Verity this song was another popular ballad which Shakespeare adapted in this play, as a similar stanza is also sung by the Fool in King Lear in Act III scene ii, lines 74-77 in the so-called Storm Scene (135). In the last song Feste traces step by step the frustrations of an ordinary person’s mean existence from boyhood to old age. During childhood “a childish prank was accepted as something trivial” (Donno 149). However when the child grows into an adult, such pranks were “considered proper only to knaves and thieves” (Donno 149). When the child grows up to become a man and desires a wife, his wishes remain unfulfilled and finally in his old age he becomes a loveless drunkard. The two refrains in the first four stanzas- “With hey, ho, the wing and the rain” and “For the rain it raineth every day” bring out the futility of human life where the wind and the rain (in other words nature) display a sublime and heartless indifference to the daily affairs of human existence. Through this song Feste presents a disturbing picture of a dull and dreary life. Most of the characters in Twelfth Night are made to undergo a period of frustration. Orsino is frustrated with his unrequited love for Olivia, Olivia desperately tries to woo Cesario, but in vain, Viola is forced to suppress her love for the Duke, Malvolio finds to his dismay that that he is fooled into believing that Olivia loves him and Sir Andrew too hopelessly loves Olivia. However, keeping in tune with the festive mood of the play, Feste discards the pessimistic view of life by saying- “But that’s all one, our play is done, / And we’ll strive to please you everyday”. Thus, life will continue with its ups and downs just as the rain continues to fall every day. However since that is not the play’s concern Feste rings down the curtain, signaling the return to the briars of quotidian existence.
There has been a lot of debate over whether Shakespeare wrote the lyrics of the songs or whether he merely added the popular songs of his day because they bore resemblance to the theme or character of the play or whether the music was composed by notable musicians of the day like Robert Morlay and William Byrd (Ford 36). However such speculations must be laid aside and the songs should be enjoyed and viewed by the readers as excellent commentaries to the events that take place in the course of the play.
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