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Analysis: Writing Style

Poetic, Musical, Sometimes Bawdy

Critics like to say that Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare's most poetical and musical plays. What the heck does that mean? Well, it means that Big Willy puts some gorgeous lines in the mouths of characters like Viola, Olivia, and Orsino, who often sound more like skillful poets than the average lovelorn character.

Don't be put off or intimidated by this. Some of the most eloquent moments in the play are often the places where Shakespeare makes fun of the shallowness of love poetry, even as he knocks our socks off with his own skill as a writer. Consider the nice little rhymed couplet that marks the end of one of Duke Orsino's musings on love.

Note: a "couplet" is simply two (a couple) lines of verse with the same "meter" (rhythm). A "rhymed couplet," then, is two lines of verse with rhymed endings – like flowers and bowers below:

Away before me to sweet beds of flowers!
Love thoughts lie rich when canopied with bowers.

Sounds nice, right? It sure is. But, there's also something kind of silly about the whole thing. Duke Orsino announces he's off to loll around on a "sweet bed" of flowers, which, apparently, is more comfortable than a couch and more conducive to day-dreaming about love. Of course, Shakespeare knows this is silly and cliché and he invites the audience to laugh at Orsino's over-the-top musings even while they enjoy the sound of his poetry.

There's also plenty of singing in the play. It's difficult to tell which song lyrics are original to Shakespeare and which are borrowed or adapted from popular tunes. Most critics agree that "O Mistress Mine," performed by Feste is Shakespeare's invention:

O mistress mine, where are you roaming?
O, stay and hear! Your true love's coming,
That can sing both high and low.
Trip no further, pretty sweeting.
Journeys end in lovers meeting,
Every wise man's son doth know.

Of course, not all songs are this complete or coherent. Toby and Andrew often belt out little bits and pieces of popular tunes during their drunken carousing. In a nod to "The Twelve Days of Christmas," Toby's rowdy singing is interrupted when Maria tells him to pipe down:

[Sings] 'O, the twelfth day of December,'--
For the love o' God, peace!

Of course, Twelfth Night wouldn't be a Shakespeare play if it wasn't full of dirty jokes and bawdy word play. Check out this clever conversation between Maria and Feste:

my lady will hang thee for thy
Let her hang me. He that is well hanged in this
world needs to fear no colors.

Yet you will be hanged for being so long absent.
Or, to be turned away, is not that as good as a
hanging to you?

Many a good hanging prevents a bad marriage; and,
for turning away, let summer bear it out. (1.5.3-6; 16-20)

When Maria warns Feste that Olivia will "hang" him with a noose or fire him for playing hooky from work, Feste turns the comment into a joke about the size of his penis. His quip that "many a hanging prevents a bad marriage," has a double meaning. First, he suggests that in romantic relationships, it's often a good thing when a woman "turns away" a man because it prevents couples from entering into lousy marriages. Shakespeare's second implication is that a "well-hung" man can "prevent" a bad marriage by pleasing his wife in bed.

Feste's word play is definitely entertaining, but it also reveals something important about the play's ideas about language and authority. Feste is rebellious and makes a joke out of a warning that he's in trouble with his "lady" (the woman he serves). Besides being fun, language plays an important role in subverting (overturning) authority, which is what the "festive" play is all about.

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