If music be the food of love, play on..

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.

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.

William Shakespeare

Cover of William Shakespeare

Twelfth Night William Shakespeare

The pretty imagery used here almost misleads the reader away from the essential hollowness of what Duke Orsino speaks in these opening lines of Twelfth Night. Music being the food of love is a pretty pretty image but not when Orsino uses it to describe his own love experience. Remember , he says if music be the food of love , play on. Not that he cares much for the music nor is he a connoisseur of the arts.He looks at music as a mere prop to his own imagined romantic love , to playing an unrequited lover to Olivia. Orsino wants excess of it, so that the surfeit will sicken the appetite and die.Here is a guy who loves being in love , for the experience and insists on all the props to love making. Love is not a natural born impulse in him but something that is carefully cultivated through the creation of an ambiance.

That strain again, the music which he wants to hear again and again,so sweet that it will sicken his appetite for love and let it die. Here is a leisurely aristocrat who has nothing much to do except cultivate idle love through its several trappings. But he has a gift for metaphor ,which he uses in abundance to describe the state of being in love. A pretty image in which he likens love to the sea of a vastness that takes anything into it to make it of no worth, to obliterate its own shape and sink its form into its own formlessness.

“Methought she purged the air of pestilence,” like a whiff of fragrance, a kind of perfumed anti-septic that purges the air of pestilence. But that very moment he is turned into a hart , pursued by the hounds of his own desires. One of the idle pursuits of the leisured class of the Elizabethan times was hunting and the Count here ,instead of pursuing the hart with his hounds ,turns a hart himself pursued by the hounds of his desires.

The hunting imagery is often used in Shakespeare’s plays. Here , when used in the mouth of Orsino’s character it sounds so commonplace, especially coming on top of a profusion of similar other images used to describe the experience of love.


(The post also appears on the Shakespeare page)

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Poetry in drama : “it” ghosts, yond stars,minutes of the night, buried Denmark,eyes approved

Scene 1, Act 1 of Shakespeare’s Hamlet prepares us so well for the tragedy that will unfold in the coming scenes.The entire imagery in the scene builds up an atmosphere of dark tragedy brewing in the Elsinore castle, beginning with the appearance of Hamlet’s ghost father. The imagery is worth looking at.

When Bernardo asks who is there? Fransisco replies and says “Nay, answer me:stand and unfold yourself”. Unfold here is reveal oneself in the dark night, may be removing a head scarf or a face hiding cloth. Saying long live the king! Bernardo declares himself a royal servant,a kin.

Fransisco :”it is bitter cold and I am sick at heart” : mark “sick at heart” : a premonition?

A silence most uneasy :”Not a mouse stirring”

“Has this thing appeared again tonight?’ The ghost is first introduced here in the play. The ghost is “it”, this thing ,not knowing if it is a real thing ,not knowing if it is man or woman,not knowing if it is a thing or an idea.

At this point in the play it could be a mere idea , a fear in a fevered mind.

They have seen this dreaded scene twice but Horatio ,being a scholar, is skeptical.

Marcellus has entreated him along with them to watch the minutes of this night

I love the image of the minutes of the night.They will watch the minutes of the night for the apparition to make its appearance again.Horatio will watch the apparition if it comes again and approve our eyes. Apparition appearing again, a delicious combination!

Beautiful. Love the use of the tool to describe a function.Their eyes may be wrong in their performing the function expected of them but let Horatio watch it with his eyes and put a stamp of approval on their eyes.

Sit we down
and let us hear Bernardo speak of this

And then Bernardo begins his yarn with “last night,when yond star that is westward from the pole had made his course to illume that part of heaven,where it now burns, Marcellus and myself, the bell then beating one….

Bernardo does not let go his chance to tell a story. He is building up suspense for the coming of the ghost. He is a poet who does not just say “at around 1’o clock, this thing came….

Bernardo tells him to shut up as he sees it coming.

Horatio, the scholar is the only one competent to speak to a ghost. But he is frightened.

He speaks nevertheless. Some beautiful words .

What art thou that usurp’st this time of night,
Together with that fair and warlike form
In which the majesty of buried Denmark
Did sometimes march? by heaven I charge thee, speak.

The ghost is walking in that” fair and warlike form in which the majesty of buried Denmark did some times march”

“The majesty of buried Denmark” suggests Horatio is a poet who deftly transposes “buried” from “majesty” to “Denmark”

We now know things are not all that above suspicion.Some foul play must have taken place.It is not the king who is buried but the whole of Denmark whose future now lies uncertain in the hands of new rulers who had plotted his death.

Coming back to eyes, Horatio now approves the eyes of Bernardo and Marcellus. Horatio the scholar cannot but believe the apparition with the sensible and true avouch of mine own eyes. A subjective experience becomes objective if more subjects experience it, especially a subject as well trained in seeing as Horatio.

But we have to anticipate what Hamlet would later tell Horatio :There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt in your philosophy. Even a subjective truth verified by the senses of other people can be misleading. A philosophy does not equip us with an understanding of the world beyond.Philosophy is concerned with seeing the reality but also with dreams of reality but there are far more things in heaven and earth than what a philosopher can hypothesize.

The best of all, here is some of the best “cock” poetry ever found in literature

And then it started like a guilty thing
Upon a fearful summons. I have heard,
The cock, that is the trumpet to the morn,
Doth with his lofty and shrill-sounding throat
Awake the god of day; and, at his warning,
Whether in sea or fire, in earth or air,
The extravagant and erring spirit hies
To his confine: and of the truth herein
This present object made probation.

It faded on the crowing of the cock.
Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long:
And then, they say, no spirit dares stir abroad;
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow’d and so gracious is the time.

The sheer music of the lines strikes you as they are spoken by relatively insignificant characters like Marcellus and Horatio in the play’s scheme of things.