SHAKESPEARE AS LYRIC POET: TWELFTH NIGHT
Shakespeare began the work of life as a lyric poet. It was to be
expected therefore that when he took up playwriting he would use the
play from time to time as an opportunity for a lyric, and in fact this
was his constant habit. From the beginning to the end of his career he
was as much a lyric poet as a dramatist. His first comedies are feeble
and thin in character-drawing and the lyrical sweetness is everywhere
predominant. His apprenticeship period may be said to have closed with
his first tragedy, "Romeo and Juliet." I am usually content to follow
Mr. Furnival's "Trial Table of the order of Shakspere's Plays," in which
"Richard II.," "Richard III.," and "King John" are all placed later than
"Romeo and Juliet," and yet included in the first period that stretches
from 1585 to 1595. But "Romeo and Juliet" seems to me to be far more
characteristic of the poet's genius than any of these histories; it is
not only a finer work of art than any of them, and therefore of higher
promise, but in its lyrical sweetness far more truly representative of
Shakespeare's youth than any of the early comedies or historical plays.
Whatever their form may be, nearly all Shakespeare's early works are
love-songs, "Venus and Adonis," "Lucrece," "Love's Labour's Lost," "The
Two Gentlemen of Verona," and he may be said to have ended his
apprenticeship with the imperishable tragedy of first love "Romeo and
In the years from 1585 to 1595 Shakespeare brought the lyric element
into something like due subordination and managed to free himself almost
completely from his early habit of rhyming. Mr. Swinburne has written of
Shakespeare's use of rhymed verse with a fullness of knowledge and
sympathy that leaves little to be desired. He compares it aptly to the
use of the left hand instead of the right, and doubts cogently whether
Shakespeare ever attained such mastery of rhyme as Marlowe in "Hero and
Leander." But I like to think that Shakespeare's singing quickly became
too sincere in its emotion and too complex in its harmonies to tolerate
the definite limits set by rhyme. In any case by 1595 Shakespeare had
learned to prefer blank verse to rhyme, at least for play-writing; he
thus made the first great step towards a superb knowledge of his
The period of Shakespeare's maturity defines itself sharply; it
stretches from 1595 to 1608 and falls naturally into two parts; the
first part includes the trilogy "Henry IV." and "Henry V." and his
golden comedies; the second, from 1600 to 1608, is entirely filled with
his great tragedies. The characteristic of this period so far as regards
the instrument is that Shakespeare has come to understand the proper
function of prose. He sees first that it is the only language suited to
broad comedy, and goes on to use it in moments of sudden excitement, or
when dramatic truth to character seems to him all important. At his best
he uses blank verse when some emotion sings itself to him, and prose as
the ordinary language of life, the language of surprise, laughter,
strife, and of all the commoner feelings. During these twelve or
fourteen years the lyric note is not obtrusive; it is usually
subordinated to character and suited to action.
His third and last period begins with "Pericles" and ends with the
"Tempest"; it is characterized, as we shall see later, by bodily
weakness and by a certain contempt for the dramatic fiction. But the
knowledge of the instrument once acquired never left Shakespeare. It is
true that the lyric note becomes increasingly clear in his late
comedies; but prose too is used by him with the same mastery that he
showed in his maturity.
In the first period Shakespeare was often unable to give his puppets
individual life; in maturity he was interested in the puppets themselves
and used them with considerable artistry; in the third period he had
grown a little weary of them and in "The Tempest" showed himself
inclined, just as Goethe in later life was inclined, to turn his
characters into symbols or types.
The place of "Twelfth Night" is as clearly marked in Shakespeare's works
as "Romeo and Juliet" or "The Tempest." It stands on the dividing line
between his light, joyous comedies and the great tragedies; it was all
done at the topmost height of happy hours, but there are hints in it
which we shall have to notice later, which show that when writing it
Shakespeare had already looked into the valley of disillusion which he
was about to tread. But "Twelfth Night" is written in the spirit of "As
You Like It" or "Much Ado," only it is still more personal-ingenuous and
less dramatic than these; it is, indeed, a lyric of love and the joy of
There is no intenser delight to a lover of letters than to find
Shakespeare singing, with happy unconcern, of the things he loved
best--not the Shakespeare of Hamlet or Macbeth, whose intellect speaks
in critical judgements of men and of life, and whose heart we are fain
to divine from slight indications; nor Shakespeare the dramatist, who
tried now and again to give life to puppets like Coriolanus and Iago,
with whom he had little sympathy; but Shakespeare the poet, Shakespeare
the lover, Shakespeare whom Ben Jonson called "the gentle," Shakespeare
the sweet-hearted singer, as he lived and suffered and enjoyed. If I
were asked to complete the portrait given to us by Shakespeare of
himself in Hamlet-Macbeth with one single passage, I should certainly
choose the first words of the Duke in "Twelfth Night." I must transcribe
the poem, though it will be in every reader's remembrance; for it
contains the completest, the most characteristic, confession of
Shakespeare's feelings ever given in a few lines:
"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:
Oh, it came o'er my ear like the sweet south
That breathes upon a bank of violets,
Stealing and giving odour.--Enough! no more
'Tis not so sweet now as it was before."
Every one will notice that Shakespeare as we know him in Romeo is here
depicted again with insistence on a few salient traits; here, too, we
have the poet of the Sonnets masquerading as a Duke and the protagonist
of yet another play. There is still less art used in characterizing this
Duke than there is in characterizing Macbeth; Shakespeare merely lets
himself go and sings his feelings in the most beautiful words. This is
his philosophy of music and of love:
"Give me excess of it, that surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die";
"Enough, no more; 'Tis not so sweet now as it was before."
--the quick revulsion of the delicate artist-voluptuary who wishes to
keep unblunted in memory the most exquisite pang of pleasure.
Speech after speech discovers the same happy freedom and absolute
abandonment to the "sense of beauty." Curio proposes hunting the hart,
and at once the Duke breaks out:
"Why, so I do, the noblest that I have.
O, when mine eyes did see Olivia first,
Methought she purged the air of pestilence.
That instant was I turned into a hart,
And my desires, like fell and cruel hounds,
E'er since pursue me."--
Valentine then comes to tell him that Olivia is still mourning for her
brother, and the Duke seizes the opportunity for another lyric:
"O, she that hath a heart of that fine frame
To pay this debt of love but to a brother,
How will she love, when the rich golden shaft
Hath killed the flock of all affections else
That live in her; when liver, brain, and heart,
These sovereign thrones, are all supplied and filled--
Her sweet perfections--with one self King!--
Away before me to sweet beds of flowers,
Love-thoughts lie rich when canopied with bowers."
The last two lines show clearly enough that Shakespeare was not troubled
with any thought of reality as he wrote: he was transported by Fancy
into that enchanted country of romance where beds of flowers are couches
and bowers, canopies of love. But what a sensuality there is in him!
"When liver, brain, and heart,
These sovereign thrones, are all supplied and filled--
Her sweet perfections--with one self King!--"
Of course, too, this Duke is inconstant, and swings from persistent
pursuit of Olivia to love of Viola without any other reason than the
discovery of Viola's sex. In the same way Romeo turns from Rosaline to
Juliet at first sight. This trait has been praised by Coleridge and
others as showing singular knowledge of a young man's character, but I
should rather say that inconstancy was a characteristic of sensuality
and belonged to Shakespeare himself, for Orsino, like Romeo, has no
reason to change his love; and the curious part of the matter is that
Shakespeare does not seem to think that the quick change in Orsino
requires any explanation at all. Moreover, the love of Duke Orsino for
Olivia is merely the desire of her bodily beauty--the counterpart of the
sensual jealousy of Othello. Speaking from Shakespeare's very heart, the
"Tell her, my love, more noble than the world,
Prizes not quantity of dirty lands;
The parts that Fortune hath bestowed upon her,
Tell her, I hold as giddily as Fortune;
But 'tis that miracle and queen of gems
That nature pranks her in attracts my soul."
So the body wins the soul according to this Orsino, who is, I repeat
again, Shakespeare in his most ingenuous and frankest mood; the contempt
of wealth--"dirty lands"--and the sensuality--"that miracle and queen of
gems"--are alike characteristic. A few more touches and the portrait of
this Duke will be complete; he says to the pretended Cesario when
sending him as ambassador to Olivia:
"Cesario, Thou knowest no less but all; I have unclasped
To thee the book even of my secret soul; Therefore, good youth,"--
and so forth.
It is a matter of course that this Duke should tell everything to his
friend; a matter of course, too, that he should love books and bookish
metaphors. Without being told, one knows that he delights in all
beautiful things--pictures with their faërie false presentment of forms
and life; the flesh-firm outline of marble, the warmth of ivory and the
sea-green patine of bronze--was not the poop of the vessel beaten gold,
the sails purple, the oars silver, and the very water amorous?
This Duke shows us Shakespeare's most intimate traits even when the
action does not suggest the self-revelation. When sending Viola to woo
Olivia for him he adds:
"Some four or five, attend him;
All if you will; for I myself am best
When least in company."
Like Vincentio, that other mask of Shakespeare, this Duke too loves
solitude and "the life removed"; he is "best when least in company."
If there is any one who still doubts the essential identity of Duke
Orsino and Shakespeare, let him consider the likeness in thought and
form between the Duke's lyric effusions and the Sonnets, and if that
does not convince him I might use a hitherto untried argument. When a
dramatist creates a man's character he is apt to make him, as the French
say, too much of a piece--too logical. But, in this instance, though
Shakespeare has given the Duke only a short part, he has made him
contradict himself with the charming ease that belongs peculiarly to
self-revealing. The Duke tells us:
"For such as I am all true lovers are,
--Unstaid and skittish in all motions else,
Save in the constant image of the creature
That is beloved."
The next moment he repeats this:
"For, boy, however we do praise ourselves,
Our fancies are more giddy and unfirm,
More longing, wavering, sooner lost and won,
Than women's are."
And the moment after he asserts:
"There is no woman's sides
Can bide the beating of so strong a passion
As love doth give my heart; no woman's heart
So big, to hold so much; they lack retention.
Alas! their love may be called appetite,
No motion of the liver, but the palate,
That suffers surfeit, cloyment, and revolt!"
Hamlet contradicts himself, too: at one moment he declares that his soul
is immortal, and at the next is full of despair. But Hamlet is so
elaborate a portrait, built up of so many minute touches, that
self-contradiction is a part, and a necessary part, of his many-sided
complexity. But the Duke in "Twelfth Night" reveals himself as it were
accidentally; we know little more of him than that he loves music and
love, books and flowers, and that he despises wealth and company;
accordingly, when he contradicts himself, we may suspect that
Shakespeare is letting himself speak freely without much care for the
coherence of characterization. And the result of this frankness is that
he has given a more intimate, a more confidential, sketch of himself in
Duke Orsino of "Twelfth Night" than he has given us in any play except
perhaps "Hamlet" and "Macbeth."
I hardly need to prove that Shakespeare in his earliest plays, as in his
latest, in his Sonnets as in his darkest tragedy, loved flowers and
music. In almost every play he speaks of flowers with affection and
delight. One only needs to recall the song in "A Midsummer's Night's
Dream," "I know a bank," or Perdita's exquisite words:
That come before the swallow dares, and take
The winds of March with beauty; violets dim,
But sweeter than the lids of Juno's eyes
Or Cytherea's breath; pale primroses,
That die unmarried ere they can behold
Bright Phoebus in his strength, a malady
Most incident to maids; bold oxlips, and
The crown-imperial; lilies of all kinds,
The flower-de-luce being one";
or Arviragus' praise of Imogen:
"Thou shalt not lack
The flower that's like thy face, pale primrose, nor
The azured harebell like thy veins; no, nor
The leaf of eglantine, whom not to slander
Outsweetened not thy breath."
Shakespeare praises music so frequently and so enthusiastically that we
must regard the trait as characteristic of his deepest nature. Take this
play which we are handling now. Not only the Duke, but both the
heroines, Viola and Olivia, love music. Viola can sing "in many sorts of
music," and Olivia admits that she would rather hear Viola solicit love
than "music from the spheres." Romeo almost confounds music with love,
as does Duke Orsino:
"How silver-sweet sound lovers' tongues by night,
Like softest music to attending ears!"
"And let rich music's tongue
Unfold the imagin'd happiness that both
Receive in either by this dear encounter."
It is a curious and characteristic fact that Shakespeare gives almost
the same words to Ferdinand in the "Tempest" that he gave ten years
earlier to the Duke in "Twelfth Night." In both passages music goes with
passion to allay its madness:
"This music crept by me upon the waters,
Allaying both their fury and my passion
With its sweet air"
and Duke Orsino says:
"That old and antique song we heard last night,
Methought it did relieve my passion much."
This confession is so peculiar; shows, too, so exquisitely fine a
sensibility, that its repetition makes me regard it as Shakespeare's.
The most splendid lyric on music is given to Lorenzo in the "Merchant of
Venice," and it may be remarked in passing that Lorenzo is not a
character, but, like Claudio, a mere name and a mouthpiece of
Shakespeare's feeling. Shakespeare was almost as well content, it
appears, to play the lover as to play the Duke. I cannot help
transcribing the magical verses, though they must be familiar to every
lover of our English tongue:
"How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
Here will we sit, and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears; soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.
Sit, Jessica: Look how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold.
There's not the smallest orb which thou behold'st
But in his motion like an angel sings,
Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubims.
Such harmony is in immortal souls;
But, whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it."
The first lines of this poem are conceived in the very spirit of the
poems of "Twelfth Night," and in the last lines Shakespeare puts to use
that divine imagination which lifts all his best verse into the higher
air of life, and reaches its noblest in Prospero's solemn-sad lyric.
Shakespeare's love of music is so much a part of himself that he
condemns those who do not share it; this argument, too, is given to
"The man that hath no music to himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night,
And his affections dark as Erebus:
Let no such man be trusted."
That this view was not merely the expression of a passing mood is shown
by the fact that Shakespeare lends no music to his villains; but Timon
gives welcome to his friends with music, just as Hamlet welcomes the
players with music and Portia calls for music while her suitors make
their eventful choice. Titania and Oberon both seek the aid of music to
help them in their loves, and the war-worn and time-worn Henry IV. prays
for music to bring some rest to his "weary spirit"; in much the same
mood Prospero desires music when he breaks his wand and resigns his
Here, again, in "Twelfth Night" in full manhood Shakespeare shows
himself to us as Romeo, in love with flowers and music and passion.
True, this Orsino is a little less occupied with verbal quips, a little
more frankly sensual, too, than Romeo; but then Romeo would have been
more frankly sensual had he lived from twenty-five to thirty-five. As an
older man, too, Orsino has naturally more of Hamlet-Shakespeare's
peculiar traits than Romeo showed; the contempt of wealth and love of
solitude are qualities hardly indicated in Romeo, while in Orsino as in
the mature Shakespeare they are salient characteristics. To sum up:
Hamlet-Macbeth gives us Shakespeare's mind; but in Romeo-Orsino he has
discovered his heart and poetic temperament to us as ingenuously, though
not, perhaps, so completely, as he does in the Sonnets.