As we near 170 audio pieces posted here, we now get our second set of Shakespeare’s words, but instead of one of his sonnets, here’s a short scene from one of his plays (Twelfth Night) which, by his design, includes a song.
The play’s title indicates it was an occasional piece for an English holiday that takes place on the 12th day after Christmas. I read that the traditional English Twelfth Night partakes of various “floating” winter/winter solstice traditions, some dating back to Roman Saturnalia, with much party-play acting of role-reversals, selections of short-term random royalty, eating, drinking, and song.
Here in modern commercial America, the extending of Christmas is via a prelude, with ever extended shopping days before the holiday; but in the past, Christmas was instead broadened after the December 25th date, with the “Twelfth Night” being the end of the “12 Days of Christmas”—yes, those same 12 days the famous listing song counts off. Given the dreary length of winter in northern climes, the holiday season was sometimes extended even further to February 2nd, Candlemas.
And it was on Candlemas, 416 years ago that Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night was first performed. The play has a complex series of plots, but the one central to today’s audio piece is that of a young woman, Viola, who’s been shipwrecked in a foreign land, has taken to dressing as a man, Cesario; and while still disguised and cross-dressing, she has fallen in love with Orsino, an older Duke of the foreign land. Orsino is sad because he’s in love with Olivia, a local lady, who refuses his attentions. Only one thing keeps Orsino going in his melancholy: music.
As we enter into the play with today’s audio piece, the “meta” gets laid on thick. Orsino, though unlucky in love himself, seeks to give the “young man” Cesario advice in love. And Cesario (infatuated Viola in disguise as a young man) tolerates this mansplaining in hope that Orsino might someday see something in her/him. And in Shakespeare’s time the young woman passing as a young man would have been played by—well, a young man passing for a woman.
As the scene ends, Orsino asks for an “old song” to cheer him up.
The song Orsino requests “Come, Come Away Death” is so dour I wonder if Shakespeare is making more comedy against the excess of melancholy and the foolish suffering of unrequited love. It’s a cheery little ditty about refused love causing or requiring death, and the spurned lover wishing only that his grave be unknown so that there’s no chance his unresponsive sweetie will ever hypocritically mourn there.
Representative lyrics: “On my black coffin, let there be strown./Not a friend, not a friend greet/My poor corpse, where my bones shall be thrown.” If Judas Priest had recorded this, it certainly would have been brought up in the 1990’s trial where the heavy metal band was accused of driving listeners to suicide.
But, after all, Twelfth Night is a comedy. No spoilers here, but despite multiple love triangles and more disguises and misunderstandings, fate is kind to multiple sets of lovers, something we can all wish for lovers this upcoming year.
Since Orsino in the play’s text asks for “Come, Come Away Death” to be sung, we know it was indeed sung with music in Shakespeare’s time, and there are several settings of it. The ones I’ve heard are in the Elizabethan style, usually for a high, plaintive tenor—and even when Elvis Costello sang it, it was in this manner. I went counter to this, taking a more rock stance, allowing the singer to mix some anger into his self-pity.