Literature

A Short Analysis of Orsino’s ‘If Music Be the Food of Love, Play On’ Speech

‘If music be the food of love, play on’: these nine words are among the most famous opening lines in all of Shakespeare, but how many people who recognise them could name the character who speaks them, or even the play which they begin?

With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at Duke Orsino’s ‘If music be the food of love, play on’ speech from William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, offering a summary and analysis of the Duke’s meaning as we go. But first, here’s the speech in full:

If music be the food of love, play on;
Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.
That strain again! it had a dying fall:
O, it came o’er my ear like the sweet sound
That breathes upon a bank of violets,
Stealing and giving odour! Enough; no more:
’Tis not so sweet now as it was before.
O spirit of love! how quick and fresh art thou,
That, notwithstanding thy capacity
Receiveth as the sea, nought enters there,
Of what validity and pitch soe’er,
But falls into abatement and low price,
Even in a minute: so full of shapes is fancy
That it alone is high fantastical.

So, that’s the speech. Now, let’s go back through it and gloss and analyse the meaning of Orsino’s words. To set the scene: Twelfth Night opens with the Duke of Illyria, Orsino, pining away with love for Olivia, a countess whose father died a year ago and whose brother has recently died. Olivia has vowed to shut herself away from society for seven years as a result of these deaths. (We have analysed the play in detail in a separate post.) Orsino begins:

If music be the food of love, play on;
Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.

These opening lines are perhaps the most famous lines (‘cakes and ale’ notwithstanding) in all of Twelfth Night, but it’s easy to overlook just how easily they can be misinterpreted. For by ‘appetite’, as the great Shakespeare critic John Dover Wilson saw, does not refer to love itself (our appetite for love), but to love’s appetite for music. In other words, Orsino is saying, ‘If music feeds our desire to love, then play on, musician; play so much music that I become stuffed with it, so love’s appetite for hearing music grows sick and dies.’

The lines are often interpreted as expressing Orsino’s desire to stop loving (Olivia), but things are not so simple as all that. He’s merely talking of the way that being in love (especially harbouring unrequited love for someone) makes us want to listen to music all day and take solace in it. But love, as the rest of the speech makes clear, can never settle: it’s restless, and constantly moving the mind (and heart) onto some new pursuit. Orsino seems to be aware that he’s got no chance of stopping himself being in love. When you’re struck by Cupid’s arrow, that’s it.

That strain again! it had a dying fall:

Here we have the Shakespearean version of ‘play it again, Sam’: Orsino commands his musician to play that particular part of the song again, because its cadence (or ‘dying fall’) sounded suitably melancholy.

O, it came o’er my ear like the sweet sound
That breathes upon a bank of violets,
Stealing and giving odour! Enough; no more:
’Tis not so sweet now as it was before

Orsino likens the sound of the music to the sound (of wind) upon a bank of fragrant-smelling violets, carrying their scent away with it. But then he immediately grows tired of this strain of music, and tells the musician to stop playing it, as it’s already lost its allure.

The First Folio of 1623 had ‘wind’ rather than ‘sound’, which perhaps makes more sense because otherwise Orsino is essentially saying, ‘That sound came over my ear like a sweet sound’, as J. M. Lothian and T. W. Craik point out in their notes to the Arden edition, Twelfth Night (Arden Shakespeare). But we reprint ‘sound’ here because, despite this objection, it is the word that is usually printed in editions of the play (Alexander Pope thought ‘sound’ should be ‘south’, as in ‘south wind’, but most people ignore that suggestion).

O spirit of love! how quick and fresh art thou,
That, notwithstanding thy capacity
Receiveth as the sea, nought enters there,
Of what validity and pitch soe’er,
But falls into abatement and low price,
Even in a minute: so full of shapes is fancy
That it alone is high fantastical.

The ‘spirit of love’ (‘spirit’ calling back to the idea of the wind breathing) is as hungry as the sea. Everything it takes in, no matter how grand and valuable, becomes debased and devalued because, within a minute, you’re sick of them. Love is the only truly imaginative (‘fantastical’) being in the whole world, because it keeps creating new ‘shapes’ or images (on account of the fact that, as soon as it’s invented one, it grows sick of it and moves on).

So, Orsino’s ‘If music be the food of love’ speech doesn’t so much say ‘I want to stop being in love’ as ‘since I know I cannot stop myself from being in love, all I can do is let myself be carried along on a tide of desires and emotions which are constantly shifting to something else’. Orsino’s love makes him unable to alight on one thing – such as one piece of music – which will allow his mind to be at rest. Love is greedy and consumes everything you throw at it, saying, ‘No, that won’t do: next.’ All you can do is stuff yourself full of music and hope that love is (temporarily) full.

One Comment

  1. I’ve directed this play – twice actually – and because here Orsino so quickly changes his mind and tells the musician to stop I decided we were coming in on a serial situation where the poor minstrel has been here before. The Duke is seriously pissed off at being constantly spurned, and one minute wants more music, the next wants less, like a depressive constantly changing TV channels. So at the opening of the play the musician misreads a piece of impatient body language and stops playing. That makes the play’s opening line an admonishment, quickly rescinded and reversed. I know this paints Orsino rather unflatteringly, but we all have bad days and anyway what sort of halfwit sends his servant to woo his lady love?

    Of course, a director approaches from the position of wanting to convey a story rather than analysing text in a scholarly fashion.

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