a fate worse than death

Next song from Shakespeare’s Twelfth-Night is introduced as a traditional. To be sung by women at their daily labour when the weather is bright. Three of these working women, however, can scare the living daylight out of even Zeus himself. These are the Moirai, or ‘spinsters’.

Moirai is the plural of Moira, the Trinity Goddess of Destiny
Klotho first the work begins,
Lachesis ever further spins,
Cuts Atropos the thread at last,
Your days, o mortal man, have passed.
translated from Gustav Schwab : Die Schönsten Sagen des Klassischen Altertums – The Finest Sagas of the Classical Age

And when they dally with ‘the innocence of love’, their song is bound to make real death look like a picnic. 

 Duke      : O fellow come, the song we had last night:
Marke it Cesario, it is old and plaine;
The Spinsters and the Knitters in the Sun,
And the free maides that weaue their thred with bones,
Do vse to chaunt it: it is silly sooth,
And dallies with the innocence of loue,
Like the old age.
 Clowne   : Are you ready Sir?
 Duke      : I prethee sing.  

In the oldest Greek mythology Moira is also known as Aphrodite. 


The Song.

Come away, come away death,
And in sad cypresse let me be laide.
Fye away, fie away breath,
I am slaine by a faire cruell maide:
My shrowd of white, stuck all with Ew, O prepare it.
My part of death no one so true did share it.

Not a flower, not a flower sweete
On my blacke coffin, let there be strewne:
Not a friend, not a friend greet
My poore corpes, where my bones shall be throwne:
A thousand thousand sighes to saue, lay me ô where
Sad true louer neuer find my graue, to weepe there. 

In modernized spelling the third line, as a rule, is corrected to ‘fly away breath’. Which makes the line a sort of repetition of ‘come away death’. Just like the third line in the second stanza is a sort of repetion of its first one. Yet, ‘fie’ allows the use of ‘breath’ in its ancient meaning of ‘scent’ or ‘smell’. And that possibility alone is all the reason one needs to dismiss the editor’s interference as an improvement that may have deleted the underlying message. 

This song is in outlines Dido’s Lament all over again. And the ‘if’ is accounted for. These outlines, however, justify a little adjustment to the touchstone.

if                                        Death    =   (better than)           the unilateral lover
and                                    Death    =                                        the ‘Oh’ in ‘love’
then                                  Death    =   (still)                          worse than Death

At this occasion Death comes too late to the rescue. If he comes at all. Which makes the opening identical to Let down the Bars. An observation that cannot fail to suggest a very similar story. And because of that story’s particular effect on its audience, a sharp listener may have heard the Duke to introduce this song as ‘a chilly truth’.

Be aware of the danger of interpreting the song with a biassed mind. The bias itself seems reliable enough, but that is always the problem with a bias. 

The ‘and’ is not exactly in line, because the 1623 First Folio does not provide an ‘Oh’. Judged by context, the ‘O’ in the song’s fifth line might be one, but one better resists the temptation to correct accordingly, because it is the sole piece of evidence that the ‘ô’ in line eleven should not sound like a regular ‘O’. And that is the one that comes with ‘a thousand sighes’. It also is the one that is misplaced at the cost of its functionality : it should be moved forward by two positions if it is supposed to serve any linguistic purpose. And with three old spinsters prepared to vouch for the ‘than’, the touchstone seems once more the proper device to narrow the range of possible interpretations down to one. But, with the ‘and’ open to question, arguments to the contrary are welcome as comments on this page.

The same for reports of malfunction : the touchstone is designed to rule out far-fetched and complicated interpretations. If it fails to do a proper job, it is not suited for this particular song.

When accepted as useful, the touchstone is rather suggestive on words like ‘cypresse’, ‘greet’ and ‘shrowd of white’ when looking for substitutes. And be aware of the song’s context as well. When it comes to interpretation, the comedy that surrounds it can be expected to be as good a guide as the touchstone. The song’s introduction does in any case not quite agree with regarding it as a mere interlude : Twelfth-Night is one great dalliance with the innocence of love.

The standard Shakespearean comedy is ruled by Aphrodite. But in Twelfth-Night she habitually casts a shadow on the various love affairs that is shaped like Moira. The sudden urge of the duke to kill Cesario in scene 5 ; 1 is just the tip of that icebergh : the play hides an equally strong motive for the Duke to lash out at Cesario’s predecessor in his favour (last seen alive in scene 1 ; 4). 

Alongside the excercise of reading attentively, the second method of interpretation, my old school’s ‘text explanation’, is useful as well. Finding the correct answers is usually not much of a problem, but finding the right questions is the real name of the game. The first one that springs to mind concerns the narrator : male or female?

answer : …………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

The song is introduced by a Duke who identifies himself with the narrator. This because he is love-sick, and love poetry habitually defines the cruel lady as the cause of his malady. And of the suicidal mood that comes with unanswered love. He should have known better : Shakespeare deals in his ‘sugared’ sonnets with a lady who proves most cruel in denying the narrator her favours after a first amazing night.

A cruelty that casts its shadow on the occasional play as well. As if reflecting Shakespeare’s personal experience with married life: 
Hamlet    : I’st a prologue, or a poesie for a ring?
Ophelia   : T’is short my Lord.
Hamlet    : As womens loue.

Apart from that mistake, the Duke identifies himself with a lament that he explicitly mentions to be a woman’s song. Its hired performer, however, is supposed to be a baritone. And this singer is with certainty a professional jester. In which capacity he makes his money by showing his audience a mirror. Because Cesario, the Duke’s companion, has as  little reason to identify himself with the narrator as the Duke himself, the mirror must be showing them the future. The next question therefore is : whose future?

answer : …………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

Both the Duke and Cesario will be engaged before the play is over, the mirror can therefore show either of them during the first wedded night. It also can show both of them in equal circumstances. Either as the narrator, or as seen from the narrator’s point of view. And it evidently is a future of unilateral love. Which may be a seamless fit with the Dickinson poem, but not with the setting of two lovers at their first wedded night. The mirror therefore shows a very strange future indeed. Strange enough even to dismiss it as impossible. But sometimes not even the strangest of foretellings is as strange as reality. And many a riddle concerning Shakespeare’s marriage would dissolve at the instant if this mirror actually shows its first night through the eyes of Anne Hathaway. Or even through Shakespeare’s own, in case the ‘Annam Whateley of Grafton’ who he was licenced to marry on 27 November 1682, is not the ‘Anne Hathwey of Stratford’ who he was legally bound to marry on the 28th

The names on the marriage licence from the 27th. seems to have been mixed up with that of a certain William Whateley of Crowle. Who featured on a legal deed from the same day, and from the same clerk’s hand. The licence itself was for a marriage by a couple from Stratford at the parish church of Temple Grafton.
Ian Wilson : Shakespeare – the Evidence   pp. 56 – 57

The jester therefore knows his business, and the third question must be : whose point of view does he represent?

answer : …………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

Unless it answers both the opening questions correctly, your interpretation of the song is bound to be troubled with inconsistencies. The moment everything falls into place, however, the third answer can be trusted to come up even before asking the question. A convicing indication of being correct. But the real proof is in the context : your interpretation must be in line with the story that leads up to the mirror’s future. This may establish a serious problem, because Twelfth-Night has no story-line that covers the narrator’s dealings with a cruel lady. Not at its surface at least, where the fair lady is cruel by keeping her distance. In the case of Cesario and the Duke the play even rules those dealings out. And the same for their respective lovers. This, however, makes the song inconsistent with the context in which it is performed, and can’t be true. The final question therefore is : what does the play hide from view, that allows to identify either of them with the song ?

Quite a lot, actually. And most of it is hiding in plain sight. Which, by the way, makes it rather difficult to spot. As Death demonstrates in his habit of being too close to be noticed. But seek and you will find. And in case you won’t, there is always the the option to place a comment to refute a seemingly unfounded claim.

Guided by Shakespeare’s intentions with the play, it was evident  for me where to look, and what to look for. But still ; at the first go, nothing. At the second go faint outlines only. And from the third go omward I couldn’t understand how on earth I had been that blind. The murder of Cesario’s predecessor as the Duke’s go-between, by the way, took me a decade more to notice. Its trace is faint, and has been deleted from many a modern edition anyway.

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