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If music be the food of love play on

“If music be the food of love play on” is a quote from William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. It is the first line of the play, spoken by Orsino, the Duke of Illyria.  

Orsino is a young man, and from these opening lines, readers immediately learn of his passion for Olivia. He is yearning for her in a way that a teenager deals with their first love affair.

If music be the food of love play on meaning


“If music be the food of love play on” Meaning

“If music be the food of love play on,” by itself, is interpreted as equating music to food for love. On its own, as it is commonly quoted, speakers interpret it as promoting love in one’s life as one might seek out more food to sate one’s appetite. But, in the context of the play and the entire quote, it becomes clear that the speaker is asking for more music because he hopes that it will cure him of his obsessive love for Countess Olivia. He hopes that with more music, his “appetite may sicken and so die.” 

Where Does Shakespeare Use “If music be the food of love play on?” 

“If music be the food of love play on” appears at the beginning of the play. This makes it one of the best-known quotes from the comedy. Readers can find it in line one of Act I, Scene 1. Orsino speaks the line. Here it is in context: 

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 odor. 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, naught 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.

This quote in context reveals much about Orsino’s love and character. He’s a young man, in love, and unable to deal with his emotions. Through these lines, Orsino is expressing his hope that through an overabundance of music, he might get sick and be turned off of his love. Music, in most contexts, promotes love or makes it feel more powerful in the moment. With too much music, maybe the opposite will happen.

Although Orsino claims to want his love to abate in the first lines, he doesn’t really mean it. As the quote progresses, he indulges himself and his emotions.

After these opening lines, Orsino speaks a few more about Olivia. He says: 

Why, so I do, the noblest that I have. 

O, when mine eyes did see Olivia first,

Methought she purged the air of pestilence. 

That instant was I turned into a hart, 

And my desires, like fell and cruel hounds, 

E’er since pursue me.

The first thing he asks Valentine as he enters the scene is, “what news from her?” But, readers who are aware of the plot of the play will know that he is soon to fall in love with someone else. His love is not as powerful as he suggests. 

Why Did Shakespeare Use “If music be the food of love play on?” 

Shakespeare used this quote at the beginning of the play to set the tone for what’s to come. It appears that the musicians have stopped playing and that Orsino speaks his opening monologue in an effort to encourage them to play on.

This particular play is filled with music. This was not uncommon in Elizabethan plays, especially romantic plays like Twelfth Night. The initial declaration of love is soon corrupted as more characters come into the story. Soon, Orsino falls in love with Viola, who has disguised herself as a boy. He sends her to woo Olivia on his behalf, but things get even more complicated. Olivia, after meeting Viola, falls in love with her too. It’s within this complicated web of love that Shakespeare’s comedic genius comes out. 

FAQs 

Is “If music be the food of love” a metaphor?

Yes, the first line of Twelfth Night initiates an extended metaphor. It compares music and food. The speaker asserts that if “music” is the food of love that with too much music, he’ll grow sick (as if eating too much) of his love. 

Who said, “if music be the food of love play on?”

This quote was used in William Shakespeare’s comedy Twelfth Night. It is the first line of the play and one of the best-known lines from all of Shakespeare’s dramatic works. It’s spoken by Orsino as he expresses his love for Olivia.

When did Orsino say, “if music be the food of love play on?”

Orsino used this quote at the beginning of the play Twelfth Night. Readers can find it in line one, Act I, Scene 1. 

Why does Orsino ask the musicians to “play on?”

Orsino asks them to continue playing in the hope that the unending music, which he sees as the food of love, will overwhelm him, like too much food, and cure him of his love. But, despite his assertion, he does not really want to be cured. Plus, as the play continues, it becomes clear that he is actually not as infatuated with Olivia as it seemed.


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