“AY, PRITHEE, SING.”
An examination of Feste’s songs in Twelfth Night.
Professor Katherine Acheson
Monday, October 31, 2005
Music, be it the “food of love” or otherwise, is one of Shakespeare’s most powerful tools. Whether his written lyrics are spoken in verse, read in rhythm or sung in song, Shakespeare wields an impressive power for drawing his audience into his work with his poetic and lyrical style. Often, Shakespeare cloaks his true meanings and thematic demonstrations behind the veil of song, careful leaving a trail of bread-crumbs for the diligent to follow. Once the trail is followed, though, Shakespeare’s works reveal themselves to be carefully devised masterpieces, and this mastery stands as the foundation to why his work is regarded so highly. Twelfth Night: or, What you Will is no exception to this formula: Shakespeare uses the character Feste as his vessel for song, carefully plotting every dialogue involving him to create openings to the inner workings behind the opaque walls of the play. Through Feste, much like many of his other musical characters, Shakespeare reveals the thematic enterprises that power the play.
To understand how Shakespeare’s song mechanism works in Twelfth Night, it is necessary to examine his vehicle of Feste on three levels: examining the character as simply a character in the play, examining the character’s effect on other characters, and, most importantly, examining the character’s speech in relation to the thematic overtones of the entire piece. By understanding these three planes of character existence and execution, Feste will reveal himself as the prominent player in demonstrating the play’s themes. For the purposes of this investigation, it is necessary to consider Feste’s two songs: “Come away, come away, death” (II, iv, 49-64) and “When I was a little tiny boy” (V, i, 358-377).
As a character, Feste’s duty as a fool reveals a great deal about him. Initially, as an audience begins to form their own opinion about each of the characters, Feste appears to serve little purpose: he simply moves around from lordship to lordship berating the court’s attendance with lingual blows, as his job requires, and occasionally singing a song at the recompense of his master. Beyond those acts of duty, Feste’s only other purpose seems to be that he acts as the play closer, singing a transparent song which simply ends the play. However, from these duties and services, Feste presents himself as a loyal servant who has led an interesting life and has a rather cynical outlook towards everything. His first song, “Come away, come away, death”, takes a very personal tone, and seems to suggest that perhaps he has led a difficult life, and has used such a life to inspire his music.
Not a flower, not a flower sweet
On my black coffin let there be strown;
Not a friend, not a friend greet
My poor corpse, where my bones shall be thrown.
(II, iv, 57-60)
Despite this seemingly personal element to his songs, Feste explicitly states that he enjoys passing on this knowledge, which is illustrated when Orsino offers to pay him for his “pains”, to which he responds: “No pains, sir. I take pleasure in singing, sir.” (II. iv, 66) From all this, the audience gathers that Feste uses his wit and experience to twist the world of his master around, making life’s troubles seem less troubling and life’s joys seem more enjoyable. The most prominent example of this is, of course, when Feste services Olivia by demonstrating that the mourning for someone in a place as good as heaven is ridiculous.
In fact, dealing with the other characters is a talent that Feste uses quite adamantly. Every appearance that Feste makes serves to inspire, educate or assist the other characters in the play. His songs, in particular, serve to entertain and soothe his weary masters. It is important to note, though, that both instances when Feste...
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