Thursday, May 04, 2006

Come Away, Come Away, Death

William Shakespeare


(Twelfth Night Act II Scene 4)

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.

Twelfth Night was the first Shakespeare play I ever read. I was 14 and very bored and Twelfth Night was all I could get my hands on. How bad could it be, I figured, and settled in to read.

It was the start of a beautiful friendship.

There's something very special about your first Shakespeare. No matter what follows, or how many 'better' plays you read, you always keep a soft corner in your heart for the play that started it all [1]. So perhaps it's only that which makes Viola one of my favourites among Shakespeare's heroines, and makes me think that Twelfth Night is a play especially rich in secondary characters. It really is an ensemble play - Orsino, Olivia, Malvolio, Feste, Sir Toby, Andrew Aguecheek. Such a truly delightful cast, that.

Today's poem is the one piece in the series that has almost nothing to do with the actual action of the play it is taken from. It is a stand alone poem, a song that the Clown sings at Orsino's bidding, a set piece. Yet it is a beautiful lyric for all that, yearning and sorrowful, it's music evident even when it is simply spoken aloud.

Orsino, asking for the song to be played, describes it as:

"that piece of song,
That old and antique song we heard last night:
Methought it did relieve my passion much,
More than light airs and recollected terms
Of these most brisk and giddy-paced times"

But for me the truer description is on page 1 of the play: "that strain again! it had a dying fall".

[1] At least so I've found and so some of my friends have told me. What happens if the first Shakespeare play you read is Merry Wives of Windsor I can't say.


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