The play Twelfth Night famously finishes with a rather melancholic song, sung by the character Feste. What is the significance of this song? Why end the comedy on a melancholic note? Why specifically is Feste singing the song, rather than someone else?
In the Penguin edition of Twelfth Night M. M. Mahood says Feste's song "was [probably] intended as a 'jig' or cheerful conclusion to a comedy" (page 184).
In Shakespeare's time, it was common to end a play
with a comic song-and-dance jig performed by the company clown and other actors, typically telling a bawdy tale. (Crystal & Crystal, p. 147)
The authorities didn't like the content of the jigs and in 1612 the magistrates of Middlesex issued an "An Ordre for suppressinge of Jigges att the end of Plays" at the Fortune theatre (Crystal & Crystal, p. 64).
However, Feste's song isn't obviously bawdy (more on that below) and the actor does not step out of character to deliver it. It may have been a folk song, because the Fool in King Lear (in Act 3, scene 2) seems to sing another stanza from it:
He that has and a little tiny wit--
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,--
Must make content with his fortunes fit,
For the rain it raineth every day.
Warren and Wells (pages 70–71) point out that it is not certain that any of Feste's songs are by Shakespeare, even though Feste's last song of Jaques's speech on the seven ages of man in As You Like It. Citing Leslie Hotson's The First Night of 'Twelfth Night', Warren and Wells write that Feste's song might be called "A Lecher's Progress" because the "foolish thing" in the first stanza refers to the penis and a number of other lines in the song can also be read as referring to lechery. Feste's song thus contrasts with the idealised love evoked at the start of the play. Warren and Wells continue,
Does Feste consider, then, that a Lecher's Progress is the appropriate song for the audience? (…) It would not be inconsistent with his statement of harsh truths during the play. In the final verse, he seems to be going further along this road, about to offer us more stern truths about the world—but then, with an evasiveness that may perhaps be a final reflection of the play's general elusiveness, he appears to change his mind, breaks off, and instead offers us a courteous farewell as he eases us out of the world of the play.
- Crystal, David; Crystal, Ben: The Shakespeare Miscellany. London: Penguin, 2005.
- Shakespeare: Twelfth Night. Edited by M. M. Mahood. The New Penguin Shakespeare. London: Penguin, 1968.
- Shakespeare: Twelfth Night. Edited by Roger Warren and Stanley Wells. The Oxford Shakespeare. Oxford University Press, 1994.