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Who Set It Best: "Come Away, Death" (William Shakespeare)

Updated: Sep 27, 2021

"Come Away, Death" is a song from Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. It is sung by the fool Feste - a fool being a clever peasant or commoner who uses humour to outdo the upper class. Despite the - uh, less than cheerful - title of the song and some of the deathly undercurrents found within the play, it is, in fact, a comedy.

In late Elizabethan/early Jacobean England, the plague was endemic (constant) in Europe, along with other diseases. Crimes were often punishable by death, infant mortality levels were high, and the age of life expectancy was low (34 years on average for an English male). Death was something all Europeans were very familiar with, as well as simply being an inevitable event for all human beings. It is a topic which is often found in works of art from the time, including those which were intended to be humorous.

Here are just a few of the references to death to be found within the play:

  • It is mentioned twice within the first four lines (and many times throughout the rest of the work)!

  • The plot centres on the twins Viola and Sebastian, who were separated in a shipwreck and presume each other dead (spoiler alert: they aren't!).

  • The character Olivia is in mourning for her recently-deceased father and brother.

  • Sir Toby and the Fool exchange song lyrics: (ST) "But I will never die", (F) "Sir Toby, there you lie!)

  • A duel is set up, where each opponent first believes the other to be violent and out for blood, and later believes that the other has promised to not draw blood.

“Come Away, Death”, is about a man who wants to die due to unrequited love, and wants to be buried far away without ceremony. The character of Orsino asks Feste to sing it: "O, fellow, come, the song we had last night.—/ Mark it, Cesario. It is old and plain;/The spinsters and the knitters in the sun/And the free maids that weave their thread with bones/Do use to chant it. It is silly sooth,/And dallies with the innocence of love/Like the old age."

The text is as follows:

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!


  • In Classical Antiquity, cypress/cyprus trees were a symbol of mourning. They are to this day often found in cemeteries in the Muslim and Christian world, and are believed to be the tree from which the wood of Jesus' cross came. Does "cypress" then refer to the wood of a coffin? More likely a shroud: most people were buried in shrouds, as coffins were generally for the wealthy in Shakespeare's time. Cyprus/cipres/cypress was also the name for a transparent, crape (form of crêpe)-like material, often used to make shrouds.

  • Yew trees are also often associated with churchyards and cemeteries. They represent resurrection and eternity in the Christian tradition; the drooping branches can take root and form new trees, creating a new life cycle. Burying pieces of yew with the deceased became a custom for early Christians.

  • As mentioned above, coffins were not yet in common use. As the protagonist expects a low-key burial in an unmarked grave, he does NOT expect to be placed in a coffin, just as he does not expect this coffin to be strewn with flowers.


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At Sound Garden, we currently offer the following products:

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Many composers have set this text to music. Have a listen to our four selections, and let us know which is your favourite!

  • Roger Quilter

  • Gerald Finzi

  • Erich Korngold

  • Madeleine Dring


Learn more about Sound Garden

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