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Contagious Breath: Love and Song in Twelfth Night ADM

Savage 17
November 1992

“I am indeed not her fool, but her corrupter of words” (III.i.36). The
distinction is an important one, not only for Feste, but for each
character whom his songs describe, cajole, ire, or teach. Feste does not
meander about the stage, tripping over himself while laughing maniacally
and playing the mumbling lunatic; to the contrary, he is the wittiest of
all the characters, and arguably the wisest. He carries the thematic
unity of the play as he reflects on prior action, forewarns others of
impending folly, advises friends through decisions, and kowtows to no
higher rank. His lightning punnery and word-twisting would suffice for
the typical fool, the “foolish wit”, but Feste takes his role one step
further: he composes and performs thematically significant songs, songs
that allow the characters and the audience to understand the plot and its
motivations. He weaves into his music the primary theme of the play,
love, and in so doing posits music as a secondary theme. By play’s end,
song and love are thematically and theatrically intertwined, entirely as
a result of Feste’s insistence on commingling the two. He further
manipulates his words to obscure identity and values, an effort that
confuses both Feste’s audience and the targets of his wit. Whether he
or another character brings a particular element into the play’s world,
Feste invariably is the one who exploits it and cements it in the action
and lends it whatever significance it may have, usually by means of his
His enterprise of joining music and love through the corruption of
words begins because of a receptive and powerful agent, Orsino, Duke of
Illyria, who introduces the theme as he introduces the play. Orsino as a
well-to-do duke probably has three major concerns in life, each
enumerated in the play’s opening line, a flag of thematic meaning in
itself: “If music be the food of love, play on.” The Duke wants as much
love as he can handle; in fact, he wants more than he can handle. “Give
me excess of it; that surfeiting,/ The appetite may sicken, and so die.”
He asks that love’s appetite for and connection with music fail. The
Duke’s sensations as he simultaneous experiences love and music seem
almost to overwhelm him. The imagery he uses to describe his cadence of
emotion shifts quickly from culinary, to musical, to windy, to floral, to
nautical, to pecuniary, all within fifteen lines.
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....
O spirit of love, how quick and fresh art thou,
That notwithstanding thy capacity
Receiveth as the sea, nought enters there,
Of what validity and pitch soe’er,
But falls into abatement and low price... (I.i.4-15)

The passage highlights the Duke’s urge to be stuffed with a love that
samples all that is available to him, but it seems also to point to
Orsino’s inability to rein love’s “quick and fresh” spirit, especially in
this particular circumstance where he reflects on the nature of his love
while enjoying attendant musicians.
Before Feste has opportunity to sing even his first love song,
other characters strengthen the connection between music and love. In
outlining her plan to the Captain, Viola suggests that, Thou shalt
present me as an eunuch to him,/ It may be worth thy pains; for I can
sing/ and speak to him in many sorts of music...” (I.ii.57-58). Viola,
of course, later falls into unrequited love with Orsino, who resists her,
despite her wooing “in many sorts of music.” Sir Andrew and Sir Toby
discuss dance after a more superficial, and at times more lascivious,
approach to love. Almost immediately after Toby lightheartedly reveals
his hope “to see a huswife take [Andrew] between her legs,” (I.iii.103)
the pair analyze the relationship between Orsino and Olivia. From love,
they move to dance, as Toby asks of “kickshawses” and of Andrew’s
“excellence in a galliard.” Andrew responds that he has “the back-trick
simply as strong as any man in Illyria” (I.iii.124) This last claim can
be interpreted as a boast of dance proficiency, but it not inconceivable
that Andrew joins love (or at least his idea of love) with dance, and
makes a pun in reference to some coital “trick.” Interestingly, their
conversation ends with an anatomical / cosmological discussion of the
zodiac and “the star of a galliard.” This remark adds a curious
astrologic undercurrent to the relationship of love, music, and the stars
when Orsino confides in Viola forty lines later, “Thy small pipe is as
the maiden’s organ, shrill and sound...I know thy constellation is right
apt / for this affair” (I.iv.35-36). With the theme introduced in Act I,
Feste is prepared to offer his lyric interpretation of love.
Feste, as Olivia’s “trapping,” continually is in a position to
witness every side of every issue in her life. He can follow her, listen
in, and the scurry away to hear what others have planned for her. Feste
is as close as any character to omniscience, and this, combined with his
easy-going lyricism, makes him the perfect bridge between the stage and
the audience, and the perfect foil for the despised characters. His
purpose is not to moralize, but to enlighten; hence Toby and Andrew’s
request for a love-song rather than a “song of good life,” i.e. a preachy
ditty of moral rectitude. And because the plot has begun to develop and
may be unclear to some, the clown, as asked, sings a nameless song with
nameless characters to clearly describe Olivia’s situation and to lay out
a theme of the play and his future songs. He begins by addressing a
love-seeking and appropriately absent Olivia. “O mistress mine, where
are you roaming?” He then advises her to “stay and hear” because “your
true-love is coming, that can sing both high and low” — an imperative
that focuses on the auditory (rather than ocular) sense, coupled with a
description that corresponds almost directly with Viola’s “many sorts of
music.” In lines somewhat illuminated near the close of the play, he
again advises Olivia to abandon her search, to “trip no further, pretty
sweeting; Journey’s end in lovers meeting.” So as not to offend any
particular countess, he closes his first stanza with an attempt to assure
the generic wisdom and nature of his song: “[All this] every wise man’s
son doth know.” The “wise man” alluded to is likely no one more than a
man who knew when his journey should “end in lovers meeting.”
The second stanza, much less targeted than the first, deals with
love on a more philosophical plane, though it could be said to have a
moral, it is not necessarily didactic. Feste asks the musical question,
“What is love?” and answers it himself first in the negative, than the
affirmative. “’Tis not hereafter; Present mirth and present laughter.”
For Feste, happiness can be found only in youth and in the present. But
he does not suggest one can gain from remembering youth; rather, he seems
to imply a person should be young as long as possible, and the way to to
do so is to live in and for the present, since “what’s to come is still
unsure” and “youth’s a stuff will not endure” (II.iii.46-50). He
reiterates this later when Toby sings, “I will never die,” and Feste
quickly replies, “Sir Toby, there you lie.” The “present mirth” then,
should cause a desire to “come kiss me sweet and twenty,” with a growing
intensity that reflects the lover’s commitment to each other’s joy. His
sentiment and “mellifluous voice” apparently are contagious enough to
move Andrew and Toby to song. Their initial catch, “Thou knave,” reveals
the effect of Feste’s song, and hearkens back to the time before they
were knights, when as youths they were mere knaves. The addendum to the
catch, “Hold thy peace,” is perhaps a plea to relax and enjoy the
present. All the singing has sufficiently regaled the trio, and next
they belt out “Three merry men be we.”
The character’s reaction to all this bespeaks their respective
personalities. Maria dismisses this as “caterwauling,” though ill-willed
Malvolio enters, typical of him, with harsher words. He is so baffled,
he can speak in nothing but interrogative: “My masters, are you mad? Or
what are you? Have you no wit, manners, nor honesty, but to gabble like
tinkers at this time of night? Do ye make an alehouse of my lady’s
house, that ye squeak out your cozier’s catches without any mitigation or
remorse of voice? Is there no respect of place, persons, nor time in
you?” (II.iii.86-91). Toby responds with his trademark approach to what
Feste later calls “the whirligig of time” by arguing, “We did keep time
sir, in our catches.” Malvolio cannot understand the joy of song, the
pleasure of community, or even Toby’s perspective, and so can only judge
it as lunacy and disrespect. Feste later twists, corrupts, and reflects
Malvolio’s talk of madness until Malvolio’s credibility evaporates and he
is thought possessed.
For the Duke, as for the audience, the music has come to have a
more calming effect than it did earlier, although he continues to
associate music very strongly with love. It is as though he cannot start
the day, or discussion of love, without musical accompaniment. “Give me
some music. Now good morrow, friends.” The music takes the edge off
“these most brisk and giddy -paced times,” and allows him to wax poetic
about the trials of love. Just as Feste uses song to make universal
points, so does the Duke wish to make himself universal with music as
backdrop. He asks of and advises disguised Viola, “If ever shalt thou
love, / In the sweet pangs of it remember me; / For such as I am, all
true lovers are” (II.iv.15-17). Revealing how closely he associates music
with love, he follows this immediately by asking Viola, “How dost thou
like this tune?”
The song the clown sings for the Duke is a lament of unrequited
love, and although the Duke perhaps is not exceedingly close to death,
the song hits him powerfully. One strong sentiment carried through is, “I
am slain by a fair cruel maid,” which combines effectively with the
oxymoron “fair cruel maid” and the alternate lyric reading, “The fair
cruel made / my shroud of white, stuck all with yew (you).” It appears
that because Feste can so move an audience and “echo the seat where Love
is thron’d,” he enjoys the singing and composition, no matter how weighty
or somber his subject may be.
Of course, Feste still enjoys poking fun at the arrogant and
pretentious. He sings to the humiliated Malvolio, perhaps in reference
to Malvolio’s reference to himself in III.iv as “a nightingale,” “Hey
Robin, jolly Robin / Tell me how thy lady does.” The thick sarcasm
pervades this five line song, serving only to further humiliate and
further enrage Malvolio. Malvolio, who earlier accused Andrew, Toby,
and Feste of madness because they were jolly now finds himself indirectly
called mad. “Thy lady” is not his lady at all, though he believes she
is; neither is she unkind, but rather frightened of Malvolio’s behavior.
And why is the lady “unkind”? It is because “she loves another” (lady).
Feste follows this song with one that compares Malvolio to the devil and
Feste to the dagger-wielding, nail-clipping Vice. It is not difficult to
picture Feste lightly envisioning himself as a conqueror of darkness,
hatred, and ill-will, manifest is the form of Malvolio. With words for
daggers, Feste attacks Malvolio in the darkness, at last bidding him,
“Adieu, goodman devil.” Feste words completely reverse the image
Malvolio had of his own identity, and Malvolio can do little but hope to
seek revenge the pranksters who humiliated him.
In Act V, several characters refer unknowingly to Feste’s love-song
from Act II. Just after the priest fulfills Feste’s prophesy “Journeys
end in lovers meeting,” declares he has “toward [his] grave /
...travell’d but two hours,” the Duke, reminiscent of the clown’s “Trip
no further,” suggests to Viola that “Thine own trip [i.e. attempt to trap
another] shall be thine overthrow.” Viola, as well as Olivia, need trip
no further. Soon after, Sebastian addresses Olivia as “sweet one,” near
equivalent to Feste’s “sweeting,” or “sweet thing.” When all but Feste
depart, he alone on stage addresses the audience.
He compresses the action of the play into autobiography, as if to
allow the audience to relate better to it and him. “When that I was and
a little tine boy,” he begins. “A foolish thing was but a toy.” Feste
perhaps suggests tat in the early stages of the play, a “foolish thing”
such as the prank of Malvolio or Viola’s disguise, was not a serious
matter. “But when I came to man’s estate,” when the play developed
further with the introduction of Andrew and Toby who speak explicitly of
their “estate, “’Gainst knaves and thieves men shut their gate.” The
knaves could be Feste himself, Andrew, and Toby, and probably Viola, who
had trouble with Orsino’s closed-mind and Olivia’s closed gate. “But
when I came alas to wive,” i.e. in Act V, when marriages began to be
arranged, “by swaggering could I never thrive.” This quatrain seems to
replace or rectify the opening lines of the play, which describe the
Duke’s dabbling, if not voracious, notion of love. “But when I came unto
my beds,” may refer to the very end of the play, when the audience and
Feste prepare to leave. The “toss-pots”, the drunkards, signifies both
the inebriated Sir Toby, and maybe even the drunks in the audience who
are nearly as drunk at the close of the play as they were at the outset,
perhaps even more so. The final stanza, “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” and whether “the world” is the
world of the play or the off-stage world is “all one.” Feste’s gracious
“thank you” in the closing line ends the play, and serves as his last
opportunity to blend love— his love for the audience and the stage — into