What role do music and songs play in Twelfth Night?

Quick answer:

In a nutshell, it is explained that music in the play Twelfth Night serves several purposes. It is mentioned as part of the setting and theme of the story. It also helps define Feste's character and his role in the play.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The thread on this question offers solid answers of how the songs in Twelfth Night contribute to the complex mood of the play. This play begins with melancholy and death—including the presumed death of Sebastian as well as the real death of Olivia's brother and father.

Love intervenes and pushes these gloomy elements to the back burner as Olivia falls in love with Cesario and Orsino seems to grow out of his narcissism through a developing friendship with Cesario. Viola/Cesario serves as an intermediary to Orsino's and Olivia's growth. The songs offer both tonal enhancements to these moods—joyful rebellion against death and mourning (Sir Toby's drinking songs)—and philosophical meditations on life and the nature of time (Feste's songs).

The other role music plays in Elizabethan comedy is to stop the action. This play, along with As You Like It and The Merchant of Venice, demonstrates the ability to stop the forward motion of the plot—while it teeters between farce or tragedy—to offer an emotional parallel to the characters' dilemmas.

When reading a play on the page, it is easy to bypass the song lyrics or to see them as interludes rather than a crucial part of the performance experience. The Elizabethans used musical accompaniments in powerful ways in order to create a larger aesthetic experience for the audience and to keep them emotionally connected to the work on the stage—not unlike the use of music in film today.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Music and songs both add to and, at the same, undercut the festive atmosphere of this play, which celebrates the holiday of the twelfth and final night of Christmas. The play opens with a song ("If music be the food of love, play on”), and four songs within it reinforce the underlying melancholic theme that simmers beneath the madcap comedy: time is short and speeds by quickly, so let's grab love and pleasure while we can.

For example, the song sung by Feste in Act II, scene 3, "O Mistress Mine," openly articulates the "carpe diem" or "seize the day" theme that underlies much of the play's merriment. We are merry because our time on this earth is short. Feste sings:

What's to come is still unsure/in delay there lies no plenty/then come kiss me . . .

In "Come away, come away," the song Orsino wishes sung in Act II, scene 4, Shakespeare is able to express more openly the theme of sexual desire. He plays with the idea of "death" as both orgasm and the end of life: both life and love pass quickly. In Act iv, scene 2, the song "Ah Robin" mourns unrequited love, and the lyrics also emphasize that a woman's love is not long-lasting: it is "but a blast . . . that turneth. " The song "When that I Was" at the play's end is also about time's passage: "A great while ago the world begun . . ."

The songs provide a context that add a bittersweet note to the play, being at once both celebratory and melancholy.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In modern times, we can use the music to help transport our audience back to the Elizabethan times of Shakespeare.  Since the play centers around a holday, it should be festive.  The songs also allow us to learn more about the characters.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Music and songs have special implications in the play Twelfth Night. They help to create the festive atmosphere of the play. It should be noted in this regard that Twelfth Night opens and ends with songs. The opening song (“If music be the food of love, play on”) creates the original mood of the play. The audience understands that they have come to see a romantic comedy. The final song (“When that I was and a little tiny boy”), sung by Feste, projects the realistic mood of the play. It reveals that Shakespeare has presented on stage a romantic comedy which is not detached from our everyday reality. Thus, songs are used by Shakespeare not only for the purpose of entertaining the audience, but they are also closely linked to the play’s theme.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Explain the function of music in Twelfth Night.

Though we seldom seem to think about it, history tells us that many of the productions of Shakespeare's plays included music. Most of the music itself has been lost, but, in fact, song lyrics are a big part of the play Twelfth Night. Most of the music also centers around the character of Feste the Fool. He is an entertainer and he "lives by the tabor," in other words, he makes some of his money singing and playing for the various households. He is mentioned in passing as a performer, and he is seen playing an instrument and singing in several scenes. So, in addition to the function of entertaining the audience, and setting the tone of the action in the various scenes where it occurs, music has another function in the play in that it further defines Feste's character and reinforces that he is, indeed, an "allowed fool" rather than just foolish.

 

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Posted on