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The availability of a good singer in Shakespeare’s acting company was uncertain, so most of Shakespeare’s comedies did not include songs.  Twelfth Night, however, is the exception.  This is the most musical of all Shakespeare’s plays and almost every act contains a song – usually sung by Feste, the Fool.  Twelfth Night begins with music and ends with music, and music is strewn throughout the action of the play.  Shakespeare often used popular tunes of the day to accompany his lyrics, at other times it is assumed that Shakespeare originated both the tune and the lyrics.

“Shakespeare’s songs are widely available on CDs and cassettes.  Some recordings even use instruments from Shakespeare’s time, such as lutes (a half-pear shaped guitar) and sackbuts (the forerunner to the trombone), to get authentic sounds.  For a special treat, check out Aaron Copeland’s brilliant arrangements of Shakespeare’s songs” (Rozakis 141).

Song 1: (Act I scene 1):

The first song has no name and no lyrics, but is obviously a maudlin love song.  Orsino wants to both stimulate and fuel his pain of unrequited love that he seems to enjoy so very much.  Later Feste, the ultimate voice of wisdom in the play, asks “Would you have a love song, or a song of good life?”  To which Toby and Andrew reply, “A love song, a love song.”  “Ay, ay, I care not for good life.” (Act II, sc. 3, lines 36-38).  Orsino apparently has the “good life”  since he obviously wants for nothing, except his romanticized ideal of love.  This lack of love, amid his opulence, at least gives him something for which to strive. 

Song 2: O Mistress Mine”  (Act II, scene 3, lines 40-53):

This is a prime example of carpe diem (literally translated as “seize the day”).  The whole concept of carpe diem implies that we will all age and eventually die.  Therefore it is important that we take advantage of youth and enjoy both life and love while we are able.  This directly contradicts Orsino’s attitude toward love.  He prefers to love the unattainable, to languish in the pain and pleasure of his breaking heart.  Feste’s song, “O Mistress Mine,” advises that we love now while we can, without delay.

Song 3: “Hold Thy Peace” (Act II, scene 3, lines 65-70)

This is a “catch” (or “round,” perhaps similar to “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”).  It is obviously a party song meant to accompany a night of drinking and carousing.  Perhaps the class can give other examples of riotous party songs: “Louie Louie,” “Ninety-nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall,” “Show Me the Way to Go Home,” “I Get Knocked Down…But I Get Up Again,” etc.).

Song 4: “Come Away Death” (Act II, scene 4, lines 51-66)

Orsino says of this song:

                        . . . it did relieve my passion much,

                        More than light airs and recollected terms

                        Of those most brisk and giddy-paced times. (Act II, sc. 4, lines 4-6)

The gist of the song, “Come Away Death,” is that unrequited love will lead to death.  This is absurd.  Rosalind, the leading character in As You Like It, asserts that “the poor world is almost six thousand years old, and in all this time there was not any man died in his own person, videlicet [namely], in a love-cause. .  . . These are all lies; men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love” (IV, 1. 93-108). 

Feste, through this song, is deliberately fueling Orsino’s distorted and unrealistic delusions about romantic love. He has delusions that his one-sided adoration of Olivia is of epic proportion.  Orsino perversely enjoys the heartache he suffers through his unrequited love for Olivia; Feste, on the other hand, receives generous payment from Orsino for his artful singing of this song.  The motivations and the actions of these two characters in this scene begs the question, “Who of the two is truly the fool: Feste who skillfully earns a living through his art or Orsino who enjoys wallowing in unrequited love and self-pity?” 

Song 5: “Hey Robin, Jolly Robin” (Act IV, sc. 2,  75-82)

Feste removes his disguise as the curate, Sir Topas, and speaks in his own voice to the imprisoned Malvolio.  His nonchalant attitude in the entrance is evinced through his casually singing an old ballad, extant in Shakespeare’s time.  The song continues the message of the pain of unrequited love, although the delivery is choppy and frivolous.

Song 6: “I am Gone Sir” (Act IV, sc 3, 123-134)

Malvolio has been begging Feste to make haste and to plead with Olivia to intervene for his release from prison.  Feste pretends to be obtuse until Malvolio promises to pay him well: “I’ll requite it in the highest degree” (IV, 2, 121).  Feste  makes light of Malvolio’s desperate state as he exits the stage.  Even Malvolio’s alleged demon possession is mocked by this exit song that Feste sings.  

Song 7: “When That I was and a Little Tiny Boy” (Act V, scene 1, lines 391-410)

This final song runs flippantly through the cycle of a man’s life, and ultimately through all of  human history.  If we are intended to take the words seriously, Feste’s ditty is quite disturbing.  With the coming of adulthood, we sacrifice any delusions of pride and we attain only a consciousness of class, and eventually a perpetual state of drunkenness.  Seems rather bleak, but “that’s all one.”  The final stanza reminds the audience that this is merely a play whose intention is purely to entertain (much like Puck’s final speech in A Midsummer Night’s Dream).  Once again, we are reminded that nothing in Twelfth Night is to be taken seriously, including Feste’s pessimistic prediction for our future as a species of loveless drunkards.  Life goes on, the community will continue, and the rain will continue to fall everyday.  What becomes of each individual is of very little consequence.

Note: A shortened version of this song also appears in King Lear.