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.
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)