“We’ll Strive to Please You Every Day”: Music and its Implications in Twelfth Night

28 March 2016

“We’ll Strive to Please You Every Day”: Music and its Implications in Twelfth Night

From the first line of William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, or What You Will, the importance of music is introduced. As in any production, music is integral in setting the scene, and this play features it abundantly. Music begins the play as well as concludes it, and there are several songs inserted into the dialogue in the middle. The songs of this play work in several ways. Different characters’ varied reactions and amount of involvement in the music help the audience interpret their characterization. Music also establishes the tone of a given scene which tells the audience how to view the characters involved as well as the work as a whole. After witnessing a 2012 production of this play at the Globe Theatre and getting to hear these songs performed, these musical elements become much more easily understood.

The Duke of Illyria begins the play by mentioning music in the very first line.

If music be the food of love, play on,

Give me excess of it; that surfeiting,

The appetite may sicken, and so die.

That strain again, it had a dying fall;

O, it came o’er my ear like the sweet sound

That breathes upon a bank of violets,

Stealing and giving odor. Enough, no more,

’Tis not so sweet now as it was before. (I.i.1-8)

This passage connects music with love, which the Duke perceives as overly pleasant. Orsino’s elaborate language gives the impression that he is more absorbed in the feeling of being in love than with love itself. He wants the musicians to “play on” so that he can become overwhelmed with the feeling of love he desires, so much so that “[t]he appetite may sicken, and so die,” or until he gets sick and tired of it. This odd desire supports the notion that Orsino doesn’t truly want to be in love, but only fantasizes about it with flowery language. He demands much of the musicians, asking for “[t]hat strain again,” and finally requesting “no more” after only just praising their work. This fickleness implies that he is not even listening to the music, but only registering what it reminds him of: excessively romantic love. During the live performance, one gets to experience Orsino actually command the music to play and to stop, which justifies the fact that he isn’t really engaging with it, but only hearing in it what he wishes to hear. It represents his longing for romance in a discernible way which could otherwise only be understood through his words. Furthermore, the music sets an unsatisfied tone that resembles the characters’ lack of satisfaction in their current states at the beginning of the play.

Later, when Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and Feste cause a commotion by singing in the middle of the night, their actions and the other characters’ reactions reveal how music distinguishes one from another. When Feste sings a love song upon Toby’s request, it sets the rambunctious, carefree mood of the scene. Then, when Maria and Malvolio wake up from the noise, the exchange between the group utilizes music to maintain the scene’s mood.

Mal.   Sir Toby, I must be round with you. My lady bade me tell you, that though she harbors you as her kinsman, she’s nothing allied to your disorders. If you can separate yourself and your misdemeanors, you are welcome to the house; if not, and it would please you to take leave of her, she is very willing to bid you farewell.

Sir To.  [Sings.]   “Farewell, dear heart, since I must needs be gone.”

Mar.   Nay, good Sir Toby.

Clo.   [Sings.]   “His eyes do show his days are almost done.”

Mal.   Is’t even so?

Sir To.   [Sings.]   “But I will never die.” (II.iii.95-106)

Malvolio’s cold, sober speech that precedes Toby and the Clown’s jovial song seems quite out of place within this scene. Singing these lines after Malvolio’s grave warning creates a comedic effect and lets the reader know that the jovial atmosphere remains unchanged even though Malvolio has a different mindset. Toby first plays on Malvolio’s very serious “farewell” by singing about his own demise. Maria does not join in on the singing, so she is not quite at the level of celebration as the three gentlemen are, but responds with kind words. In this way, she doesn’t disturb the excited atmosphere the way that Malvolio does, but demonstrates that she doesn’t mind their commotion as harshly as he does. The clown livens up the moment by continuing to make a song out of Toby’s approaching death, to which Malvolio’s “Is’t even so?” reinforces his disconnection with the rest of the group. This spoken line among the rest of the song sets him apart, and his question further demonstrates that he is not in on or part of the joke taking place. Having certain characters sing their lines and others speak theirs creates a detectable division between those who are of one mindset from those of another.

This scene also raises the question of why the characters sing about such a morbid subject in the first place. Perhaps Toby and Feste sing about Toby’s impending death to make light of a serious fear of theirs: dying without having lived a fulfilling life. Feste strengthens this notion with lyrics like “What’s to come is still unsure” (II.iii.48) and “Youth’s a stuff will not endure” (II.iii.51) in the song, “O Mistress Mine,” sung before Malvolio and Maria enter the scene. Though the scene is playful, the lyrics of this song reveal the true fear in the characters of the uncertainty of the future. When Feste sings it onstage, he captures the characters’ attention immediately, which pulls them out of their jolly state and into a more reflective one. One gets the sense that the characters want the fool to amuse and distract them because, perhaps deep down, they wish to make light of the true unhappiness they feel from being alone.

Another instance of contrast due to music appears in Act IV, Scene ii during Feste’s exchange with Malvolio when Olivia sends him below to the dungeon. After having just fooled him into thinking he was Sir Topas, Feste reenters with a song:

Clo.   [Sings.]

          “Hey, Robin, jolly Robin,

Tell me how thy lady does.”

Mal.   Fool!

Clo.   “My lady is unkind, perdie.”

Mal.   Fool!

Clo.   “Alas, why is she so?”

Mal.   Fool, I say!

Clo.   “She loves another”—Who calls, ha? (IV.ii.72-79)

Once again, alternating between song and speech brings forth the differences in demeanor between these two characters. It is comical since Malvolio calls Feste a fool three times, yet the clown, who is very wise in reality, has just duped him. It also makes him seem simple and narrow-minded to interrupt Feste’s song with such blunt outbursts. The song in this passage is particularly interesting because of its melancholic quality, while a clown’s singing usually connotes a festive, joyful atmosphere. The first line, “Hey, Robin, jolly Robin,” remains cheerful, but the rest of the song inquires after the singer’s lady’s infidelity without much humor. The bleak quality in the rest of the lyrics do not match the comical context in which the song is placed.

The Globe Theatre production devised an interesting solution to this conflict: in the performance, the entire cast comes on stage momentarily and sings the song in harmony without Malvolio’s interruptions. This performance contrasts with the scene in Act II in which the characters singing are so clearly enjoying themselves. In this instance, the characters simply stand in a block and sing quite chorally, without emoting whatsoever. This puts forth a very introspective quality – one we haven’t seen much thus far in the playful and humorous play. The song is sung in a Minor key, which helps to achieve the somber tone, and the more reflective aspect comes at the last note of each phrase, which switches to a Major key. This use of musical connotation introduces the audience to a fresh perspective of the comedy; the theme of unreciprocated love has already existed in this play with characters such as Olivia and Cesario, yet its portrayal has been comical up until this moment. This shift, made possible with this particular musical performance, allows the audience to relate to the characters in a way they could not if they are only meant to see their misfortunes as humorous.

Finally, and fittingly, the play concludes with a song sung by Feste.

With that I was a little tine boy,

  With hey ho, the wind and the rain,

A foolish thing was but a toy,

  For the rain it raineth every day.

But when I came to man’s estate,

  With hey ho, etc.

‘Gainst knaves and thieves men shut their gate,

  For the rain, etc. …

A great while ago the world begun,

  [With] hey ho, etc.

But that’s all one, our play is done,

  And we’ll strive to please you every day. (V.i.389-408)

This song holds much more true to the rest of the play and creates the liveliest scene yet. Many of the lyrics, like “With that I was a little tine boy,” have a nostalgic quality, and it has quite a merry tune which creates a fun, light atmosphere. However, according to the text, Feste remains alone onstage which adds an element of introspection; this scene is meant to be a celebration, yet at this point there is no one there with which he can celebrate. Alternatively, in the Globe Theatre production, though everyone leaves as he starts the song, they return in the middle of it and dance as he continues. This keeps the tone from getting too detached and helps make it light and festive. It is only fitting that Feste create this festive world at the end; one where continuous dancing and happy endings exist. However, for the last stanza of the song, the musical accompaniment as well as the dancing ceases so that Feste sings a cappella. This calls attention to the lyrics, which break the fourth wall of the play: “our play is done, / And we’ll strive to please you every day.” Since these are the last lines of the play, they leave the reader with a very pointed message: the purpose of the play is to entertain the audience. This calls forth the question: what pleases the audience? Does the audience prefer pure silliness and constant comedy, or moments of seriousness interspersed throughout the humor that make the audience contemplate the narrative more closely? If pleasing also means thought-provoking, the latter becomes the answer, and therefore the play seems quite successful in its endeavor.

In a play, music influences how the characters act, which tells the audience what to gain from a particular scene. Twelfth Night incorporates music similarly to the way a musical or even a film utilizes music. The ways in which the mode of a song can enforce a particular mood, like how the “Robin” song works in the Globe Theatre production, hold the same amount of importance to this plot as the film score has to many films. The placement of songs also has great significance. In a musical, a song usually means to emphasize a certain thought or emotion of a character, so the content of the song as well as its placement is essential to comprehending its meaning. The fact that “music” is one of the first words of the play is not coincidence, just as the breaking of the fourth wall in the song at the end isn’t either; these choices guide the audience’s interpretation of the characters as well as the production as a whole.

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