Of course, you're familiar with the phrase "If music be the food of love, play on." But do you know who said it? Well, the master wordsmith, William Shakespeare wrote these famed words, along with a host of other sayings we still use today, like “break the ice” or make someone a “laughing stock.”
But which character said it in which play? And what exactly does it mean? Prithee, read on!
The Full Quote from Twelfth Night
This lovely phrase comes from one of Shakespeare’s plays titled Twelfth Night. In this play, Orsino, the Duke of Illyria, is head over heels in love with the Countess Olivia. However, she’s placed herself into a period of mourning, so Orsino can’t woo her.
As a result, Orsino asks for there to be an excess of music. He hopes that it will cure him of his obsession with love in the same way that eating too much food can make someone sick. It turns out that, in the end, Orsino’s love isn’t genuine. He just likes the idea of being in love. He’s a bit of a dreamer.
Take a look at the full excerpt from the opening scene of Twelfth Night:
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.
What Does It Mean?
If you’re new to Shakespeare, it can be tricky to decipher the full meaning behind his Old English prose. Still, the words here are not too complicated to unpack.
- Orsino is acknowledging the fact that music is the "food of love." Music inspires people to love.
- Being a fanciful man, Orsino supposes music can also cause people to fall in love with each other. In other words, maybe there’s still hope for him and Olivia.
- In the context of these words, we see that Orsino desperately wants love (or, at least, thinks he does). By being "fed" love, the appetite will eventually go away.
What do you think? Can an excess of music cure unrequited love? Shakespeare was talented enough to tap into feelings of love, unrequited love, tragedy, comedy, and more. There was no subject he couldn’t dramatize. Are you interested in familiarizing yourself with some of Shakespeare's other works? If so, look out for his frequent use of images of food to demonstrate love and a whole field of other emotions and ideas.
His complete works as a playwright are astounding. He wrote 37 plays (that we know of). To savor more delectable delights via his prose, take a look at the full list of the plays of William Shakespeare. See what you might want to enjoy next after Twelfth Night, from the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet to the history of King Richard III.