The Integration of Music in Shakespeare’s Play Twelfth Night

Shakespeare, known for his remarkable creativity, strategically incorporated a notable number of songs in “Twelfth Night” to capitalize on the vocal talents of a particular actor in his company. These songs serve as standalone pieces, mirroring the way songs are woven into real life. As Coleridge aptly observed, some of these songs bear the distinctiveness of the characters who perform or request them. The Clown, in particular, contributes numerous fragments of songs throughout the play. This is because the stage Clown is descended from the domestic Jester, whose primary duty was to entertain the household. Among the troupe of actors performing Shakespeare’s plays, there was one gifted with a splendid voice who portrayed the role of the Clown. Many of these song fragments can be found in Percy’s “Reliques” and also appear in the works of other playwrights, their origins shrouded in obscurity.

During the Elizabethan era, a popular collection titled “Songs and Sonnets” by the Right Honourable Henry Howard, late Earl Surrey, and others, was widely circulated. Slender, a character in “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” makes reference to this collection, indicating its fashionable status as a lover’s manual in Elizabethan times. Shakespeare often modifies the songs to suit the mood or to provide illumination to the scene’s narrative. In the play, the Duke’s lines, “The spinsters and the knitters in the sun. Do use to chant it,” illustrate the custom of a spinning maid who, during early winter evenings, defiantly sings to challenge the capricious wheel of fortune.

The songs in the comedy can be classified into three categories: purely comic songs. Collectively, these songs capture the essence of the characters and scenes, enhance the play’s romantic, humorous, and musical elements, and imbue an overall atmosphere of both comedy and romantic love.

The play opens with the strains of music that momentarily touch the lovelorn soul of Orsino. Significantly, all three songs are sung by the Clown. In the first song, which appears in Act II, Scene III, a subtle undercurrent of melancholy adds poignancy to the happiness, reminding us of the ephemeral nature of mortal affairs. The second song, sung by Feste in Act II, Scene IV, serves as a melancholic tune performed with taste and feeling to please the Duke. This song helps to shed light on the true nature of the jester. By entrusting this lamenting dirge to the Clown, Shakespeare suggests that the character possesses both cultural refinement and innate talents that have been overshadowed by imperious and indelible quirks, exacerbated by circumstantial influences. Despite his foibles, the Clown’s capacity for thought and sentiment, evident in his musical abilities and the emotive rendition of this song, indicate the versatility of his mind and character. This exquisite poem stands as one of Shakespeare’s most beautiful lyrics, expressing the gentle and melancholic sighs that permeate the Duke’s days, enveloped in a numbing melancholy. “It echoes the very essence of love’s throne.”

The third song, also sung by the Clown at the play’s conclusion, can be considered the most philosophical Clown’s song ever recorded. It holds profound wisdom that could inspire an entire treatise. It traces the journey of a life, from being a little child to the struggles of adulthood, leading to the inevitable decay of old age. The underlying message suggests that what is true for an individual is true for humanity as a whole: what existed yesterday harkens back to generations long past, for “A great while ago the world began.” This song resonates with the forlorn pathos reminiscent of “King Lear.” The incessant rain, the gates shut against scoundrels and thieves, and the distant memory of a world that commenced eons ago all converge as disconnected and hazy recollections, troubling the mind of a child.

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Apparent Inconsistencies in the Play:

As with any Shakespearean work, “Twelfth Night” contains flaws, inconsistencies, and anomalies that occasionally stray from probability. However, it is crucial to remember that this is a Romantic Comedy, a genre that allows for greater artistic freedom than a historical play. The primary purpose of a comedy is to delight the audience. Here are some of the flaws, blemishes, and improbabilities noted by critics:

  1. “Twelfth Night” often exhibits extravagance and improbability in its development of romantic incidents, deviating from pure creativity and absolute truthfulness found in less striking productions of Shakespeare’s genius.
  2. The marriage of Sir Toby and Maria is deemed inconsistent since, by the time Fabian refers to Sir Toby (Act V, Sc. I), he has already married, gotten drunk, received a bloody coxcomb, and retired to bed.
  3. Shakespeare appears not to have thoroughly revised “Twelfth Night.” Orsino is interchangeably described as a Count or a Duke. In Act I, Sc. II, Orsino is referred to as “A noble Duke, in nature as in name.”
  4. Another criticism pertains to the arrangement of acts and scenes in the play, with proposed suggestions for emendations. For instance, at the end of the first act, Malvolio is instructed to chase after Cesario with Olivia’s ring. Yet, in the second scene of the second act, Malvolio has only just caught up with Cesario.
  5. Similarly, at the end of the third act, Sir Andrew pursues Cesario (who had just left the stage) to engage in a fight, with Sir Toby and Fabian following to witness the outcome. However, at the beginning of the fourth act, they all find themselves back where they were, and Sir Andrew, still brimming with valor, mistakes Sebastian for Cesario and strikes him.
  6. The Clown’s song, “Come away, come away, death,” does not align with the Duke’s description of it as a playful dalliance with the innocence of love.

In conclusion, the integration of songs in “Twelfth Night” adds depth and richness to the play. Shakespeare masterfully employs music to reflect the moods of characters and scenes, heighten the comedic and romantic elements, and create an enchanting atmosphere. While some inconsistencies may exist within the play, they are inherent to the genre and serve the ultimate purpose of delighting the audience. “Twelfth Night” remains a testament to Shakespeare’s ingenious storytelling and enduring legacy in the world of literature.



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