‘If music be the food of love, play on.’  This is one of the most famous opening sentences in all of English literature, and one of Shakespeare’s most quoted lines. He opens his great comic play, Twelfth Night, with it.

Orsino, the Duke of Illyria, is in love. He is obviously very young because he expresses an adolescent emotion in a sighing, yearning way more fitting for a teenager than a man, and because his passion is wasted on a woman who he knows is not interested in him. The play opens with him sitting in his garden, surrounded by friends and servants, listening to a musical ensemble. As the play opens the musicians seem to have paused. He tells them to play on, and keep playing until he gets sick of it. He reasons that if music is the food of love, as he has so often heard, having too much of it, like stuffing oneself with too much food, will put him off and he will lose his appetite for being in love with the young woman, a wealthy neighbour, Olivia. He claims to hope it will work but he doesn’t really mean it, as he continues, in this monologue, to indulge himself in that sea of emotion. It’s a very shallow sea, though, because before long he will fall in love with someone else.

As usual with Shakespeare, where no line is just a pretty string of words, this one isn’t either: like all his lines it has a function. The play is very much about love – different kinds of love – and all of the characters are affected by it. The opening line and the monologue that follows states that theme.

The play explores love and being in love, starting with this naive, adolescent love, and into other areas, such as falling in love at first sight, deluding oneself about someone being in love with one, falling in love with someone of the same sex, using love to further one’s own financial interests, and so on. As is usual in Shakespeare, he mixes all that with an exploration of friendship. It’s quite complicated. The same Orsino employs Viola, who has disguised herself as a young man, as a servant and sends her to woo Olivia on his behalf. He opens himself up to her in friendship but, even though he believes her to be a young man (and refers to her as ‘boy’) he falls in love with her. While being wooed by her on the duke’s behalf, Olivia, believing Viola to be a man, falls in love with her too. It’s in this complicated way that Shakespeare explores being in love, and sexuality. At the same time, there are love issues with the other characters and Shakespeare creates some of his best comic scenes in his exploration of them.

Elizabethan plays are full of music. The audiences loved it and expected it. Romantic plays like Twelfth Night have songs in several scenes, and sometimes, again like in Twelfth Night, will often have a character – a jester in this case –as a kind of commentator on the action, singing songs that do that, or capture the mood of the scene.

In other plays the music is used in various ways. Shakespeare and his Elizabethan audience regarded music as the outward sign of harmony and order. The opposite of that, chaos and disorder, is represented by the disruption of nature, mainly in the form of storms. All through Lear’s madness in King Lear, there is the rumbling sound of stormy weather but when he recovers he wakes to a rational world in which music is playing. The Tempest, an early form of what the 21st century calls the ‘musical’, and what was known as a masque in Elizabethan times, plays with storms and music all through the text, reflecting the struggle between order and disorder.

‘If music be the food of love play on’ opens Twelfth night with the promise of harmony and order but then, in true Shakespearean style, Shakespeare subverts that expectation with confusion and misunderstandings throughout, and so, that beautiful, memorable opening, turns out to be an ironic comment on both music and love.

‘If Music Be The Food Of Love’ Full Monologue Text

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

Twelfth Night, Act 1, Scene 1

Hear ‘If Music Be The Food Of Love’ Spoken

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