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When that I was and a little tiny boy -- William Shakespeare

Guest poem sent in by Vikram Doctor
(Poem #243) When that I was and a little tiny boy
  When that I was and a little tiny boy
  With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
  A foolish thing was but a toy,
  For the rain it raineth every day.

  But when I came to man's estate,
  With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
  'Gainst knaves and thieves men shut their gate,
  For the rain it raineth every day.

  But when I came, alas, to wive,
  With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
  By swaggering could I never thrive,
  For the rain it raineth every day.

  But when I came unto my beds,
  With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
  With toss-pots still 'had drunken heads,
  For the rain it raineth every day.

  A great while ago the world began,
  With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
  But that's all one, our play is done,
  And we'll strive to please you every day.
-- William Shakespeare
           (from Twelfth Night)

The genius of Twelfth Night is Feste, the most charming of all Shakespeare's
fools, and the only sane character in a wild play. Olivia has inherited this
court jester from her father, and we sense throughout that Feste, an
accomplished professional, has grown weary of his role. He carries his
exhaustion with verve and wit, and always with an air of knowing all there
is to know, not in any superior way but with a sweet melancholy. His truancy
is forgiven by Olivia, and in recompense he attempts to charm her out of her
prolonged mourning for her brother. Feste is benign throughout the play, and
does not participate in the gulling of Malvolio until he enters the dark
house as Sir Topas. Even there, he is instrumental in bringing about the
steward's release. A superb singer (his part was written for Robert Armin,
who had an excellent voice), Feste keeps to a minor key: "Present mirth hath
present laughter:/What's to come is still unsure." Though of Olivia's
household, he is welcome at the music-loving Orsino's court, and gets Orsino
right at one stroke:

Now the melancholy god protect thee, and the tailor make thy doublet of
changeable taffeta, for they mind is a very opal. I would have men of such
constancy put to sea, that their business might be everything and their
intent everywhere, for that's it that always makes a good voyage of nothing,
Farewell. (II.iv.73-78)

The fool's most revealing scene begins in Act III, and is shared with the
equally charming Viola, who gently provokes him to meditate upon his craft:
"A sentence is but a chev'ril glove to a good wit - how quickly the wrong
side may be turned outward!" That may be Shakespeare's playful admonition to
himself, since the amiable Feste is one of his rare surrogates, and Feste is
warning us to seek no moral coherence in Twelfth Night. Orsino, baffled by
the sight of Viola and Sebastian together, utters a famous bewilderment:

One face, one voice, one habit, and two persons!
A natural perspective, that is, and is not! (V.1.214-15)

In a useful gloss, Anne Barton calls this an optical illusion naturally
produced, rather than resented by a disturbing perspective glass. The play's
central toy is Feste's, when he sums up Malvolio's ordeal: "And this the
whirligig of time brings in his revenges." Dr.Johnson said of "a natural
perspective" that nature so puts on "a show, where shadows seem realities,
where that which 'is not' appears like that which 'is'." That would seem
contradictory in itself, unless time and nature merge into a Shakespearean
identity, so that time's whirligig then would become the same toy as the
distorting glass. Imagine a distorting mirror whirling in circles like a
top, and you could have the compound toy that Shakespeare created in Twelfth
Night. All of the play's characters, except the victimized Malvolio and
Feste, are representations in that rotating glass.

At play's end, Malvolio runs off stage shouting: "I'll be reveng'd on the
whole pack of you!" Everyone else exits to get married, except for Feste,
who remains alone to sing Shakespeare's most wistful song...

...Whether or not Shakespeare was revising a folk song, this is clearly
Feste's lyric farewell, and an epilogue to a wild performance, returning us
to the wind and rain of every day. We hear Feste's life story (and
Shakespeare's?) told in erotic and household terms. "A foolish thing"
probably is the male member, ironically still "but a toy" in the man's
estate of knavery, marriage, ineffectual swaggering, drunken decline, and
old age. "But that's all one" is Feste's beautiful sadness of acceptance,
and the next afternoon's performance will go on.

from Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, by Harold Bloom

NOTE: This is one case where I'm sending it in both for the song, which is
one of Shakespeare's most charming, and for the criticism as well. Harold
Bloom has nicely been described as the 'current vestal virgin at the shrine
of Shakespeare.' Its certainly hard to think of anyone who has a greater
reverence and exultation in Shalespeare. This is what hits you in his
hufgely enjoyable new book Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. Its
idiosyncratic, enthusiastic, almost bonkers - but SO readable. Read it!

57 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

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Great post! highlights the role of the fool in Shakespeare's plays.

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Anonymous said...

The genius of Twelfth Night is Feste, the most charming of all Shakespeare's
fools, and the only sane character in a wild play. Olivia has inherited this
court jester from her father, and we sense throughout that Feste, an
accomplished professional, has grown weary of his role. He carries his
exhaustion with verve and wit, and always with an air of knowing all there
is to know, not in any superior way but with a sweet melancholy. His truancy
is forgiven by Olivia, and in recompense he attempts to charm her out of her
prolonged mourning for her brother. Feste is benign throughout the play, and
does not participate in the gulling of Malvolio until he enters the dark
house as Sir Topas. Even there, he is instrumental in bringing about the
steward's release. A superb singer (his part was written for Robert Armin,
who had an excellent voice), Feste keeps to a minor key: "Present mirth hath
present laughter:/What's to come is still unsure." Though of Olivia's
household, he is welcome at the music-loving Orsino's court, and gets Orsino
right at one stroke:

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