Twelfth Night: Come away, come away, death

ETA: I’ve been a little surprised to see the number of hits on this post, and maybe it’s made me a little paranoid. But paranoid or not, I need to say: I’m hereby placing a curse on any homework this might be illicitly recycled into. May your paper shrivel; may your ink fade; may your dog suddenly be really, really hungry for a nice chunky essay, and may your teacher be perspicacious enough to catch you in the act. So mote it be. And shame on you.

Everybody else – welcome, and enjoy!

O Death, where is thy sting?

No, seriously, where is it?


Death, dying, is mentioned twice in the first few lines of the play’s dialogue: “sicken and so die”, “It had a dying fall”.  Death’s ever-present, yet not a real spectre here …

Though Olivia’s father and brother are about a year dead (at least, that’s how I interpret the chronology given for their deaths: brother died shortly after father, who died a twelvemonth hence), and her mourning for them is genuine, events seem to prove that she is about ready to cast off her weeds and return to normal life, whether she wants to admit it or not.

Sebastian and Viola each presume the other dead in the shipwreck – and both are wrong.  Most of the others on the ship seem to have died indeed, but we don’t hear about them.

In Sir Toby’s midnight song with the Fool he warbles “But I will never die” (Fool: “Sir Toby, there you lie!” Which, as usual with a. Shakespeare and b. Feste, has a double meaning).

OLIVIA: What think you of this fool, Malvolio? doth he not mend?
MALVOLIO: Yes, and shall do till the pangs of death shake him:

– Age and infirmity increase foolishness, and so, logically, the Fool will grow more foolish as he ages until he dies.  Depending on the production, the delivery here can indicate that Malvolio rather hopes that that will be soon.

Feste’s song, “Come away death”, is about a man who dies for his uncaring love, and wants to be buried far away anonymously.

Come away, come away, death,
And in sad cypress let me be laid;
Fly away, fly away breath;
I am slain by a fair cruel maid.
My shroud of white, stuck all with yew,
O, prepare it!
My part of death, no one so true
Did share it.
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:
A thousand thousand sighs to save,
Lay me, O, where
Sad true lover never find my grave,
To weep there!

Orsino’s assertion is that women die just when they to perfection grow – and their love dies sooner than a man’s.  “But died thy sister of her love, boy?”  Well … Kind of.   As the song said, love often does lead to death, at least in Shakespeare.

The play features a deadly sword battle between two fierce opponents – which is all farce: neither opponent is at all fierce, and the sword battle is neither deadly nor a battle.

What made me take notice of the theme – toothless death – is that (as mentioned in the Money post) Antonio’s proscripture from Illyria wasn’t because he killed lots of Orsino’s men in a pitched sea battle.  There was a battle, and Antonio apparently was in the thick of the fighting (besmear’d / As black as Vulcan in the smoke of war), but no one was killed (though Orsino’s nephew Titus lost a leg).  No, the Issue for Antonio is that everyone else on the losing side paid a fee – and Antonio refused.  It’s not blood but money that makes him a wanted man in Illyria.  Antonio does, however, feel he risks death by following Sebastian to the court; in the event, he ends up free and fine, if possibly heartsore.

Orsino threatens to kill Cesario in order to hurt Olivia – and Viola … Well, she’s had a rough day.

And I, most jocund, apt and willingly,
To do you rest, a thousand deaths would die

Once the word “husband” is bandied about, interestingly, Orsino no longer feels like killing Cesario; he’s too angry.  He just wants him out of his sight.  Next time they crossed paths there might have been bloodshed, but for now his anger is … toothless.

And in the end Sebastian is alive, and has found Viola alive, and in fact everyone’s alive … Everyone, in fact, who started the play ends it.  It’s just Malvolio’s hopes and career, and Sir Toby’s bachelor existence, and Sir Andrew’s hopes and bankroll that are dead.

But I still don’t think it’s quite a comedy.

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10 Responses to Twelfth Night: Come away, come away, death

  1. Joseph Karl says:

    I have used the information here to help explain the song in II.iv to my class, and in the submission, I have *fully attributed* the reference to you and your efforts. Many, many thanks!

    Joseph Karl.

  2. stewartry says:

    Thanks for letting me know! Good luck with it, and do let me know if I went horribly wrong anywhere …!

  3. Shawn says:

    Saw this eclectic production of Twelfth Night a couple of years ago with a beautiful setting for the song Come Away Death:

  4. stewartry says:

    The Stratford Shakespeare Festival! I’d love to get there someday. In the meantime, I have a dvd of this production; eclectic is right! It was excellent. Thanks!

  5. Vic Harris says:

    My daughter, 12, has referenced your site in her project on Shakespeare’s plays. She has attributed your site in her bibliography. Many thanks.

  6. stewartry says:

    That’s great! I hope she aces it – let me know!

  7. kittykat300bs says:

    Hey, I’m just researching the song part “Come Away, Death” so I can better understand what’s going on and I find you warning for homework humorous, thank you for posting this!

  8. stewartry says:

    Hee – thank you! I hope it’s useful. Break a leg!

  9. Zac says:

    Hello there!
    I love your curse at the beginning, but I wanted to put your mind at ease and let you know one reason you may be receiving high traffic on this awesome post.

    I am an English education major as well as a music performance major. This poem by Shakespeare has been set to music by several composers, and us singers always like to be able to add context to our emotion on stage. Since I have not yet read this work by Shakespeare, I came here for a little extra info on the piece so that I could make it relevant to me and express that on stage.

    As a soon-to-be English teacher, I hope your curse carries through to my students someday!

    Thanks for the info,

  10. stewartry says:

    Hi! What an amazing comment, thank you! I wish there was a little more about the actual song in the post – I doubt I was too useful to you – but thank you for giving me a bit more insight. I really appreciate your taking the time. Best of luck to you.

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