If music be the food of love

“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.”

-Twelfth Night : William Shakespeare

The opening lines of the play contain some of the finest imagery used by Shakespeare. But the imagery is used merely to construct hyperbole intended to make fun of a romance pursued by Orsino for its own sake. Here is an entire drama of Elizabethan romance with all its trappings ,notably music. Music may be the food of love. Love does not happen by itself but is nurtured carefully by its staple food of music , by creating an ambiance for such romance to flourish. Love needs the food of music and so music should be played on to its excess. But music should not become the central passion but merely be played to an excess so that it quickly sickens and dies.

Apparently Orsino is not a music afficionado. If played continuously it becomes a surfeit and sickens to its death. Music is but a tool for romance and should not be allowed to become the leitmotif of the story. Orsino is merely building up his romance and has to follow the prevailing conventions for it . That strain again! Thank God, it has a dying fall. And beautiful like the sweet sound that breaths upon a bank of violets, stealing and giving odor. Music is but a soft sound breathing on a bank of violets, desired not for the melody of such a sound but for the odor it gives to and takes from the violets. Love is what the Duke pursues, the fragrance of a romance, the giving and the taking.

Orsino now gets into love proper.He addresses the spirit of love , quick and fresh ,that receiveth like the sea ,notwithstanding the joiner’s capacity. Nothing enters there without losing its form and shape. Like the sea that goes on ,irrespective of the countless streams and rivers that enter it,losing their shapes and their price.

“so full of shapes is fancy/that it alone is high fantastical” –Love receives within itself so many forms and is itself a fancy that is so high fantastical. Orsino’s love is mere fancy with no solid base and he is himself not sure about it. That is why he needs props like music.

If music be the food of love play on. If. But not too long .. Just that much which makes you sick of it and you go on to other things. Just the thing for a love novice .

(also found on the Shakespeare page)

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.

..and thereby hangs a tale


A fool, a fool! I met a fool in the forest,
A motley fool; a miserable world!
As I do live by food, I met a fool
Who laid him down and bask’d him in the sun,
And rail’d on Lady Fortune in good terms,
In good set terms and, yet, a motley fool.
‘Good morrow, fool,’ quoth I. ‘No, sir,’ quoth he,
‘Call me not fool till heaven hath sent me fortune:’
And then he drew a dial from his poke,
And, looking on it with lack-lustre eye,
Says very wisely, ‘It is ten o’clock:
Thus we may see,’ quoth he, ‘how the world wags:
‘Tis but an hour ago since it was nine,
And after one hour more ’twill be eleven;
And so, from hour to hour, we ripe and ripe,
And then, from hour to hour, we rot and rot;
And thereby hangs a tale.’ When I did hear
The motley fool thus moral on the time,
My lungs began to crow like chanticleer,
That fools should be so deep-contemplative,
And I did laugh sans intermission
An hour by his dial. O noble fool!
A worthy fool! Motley’s the only wear.

(Shakespeare’s As You Like It)

Jaques the melancholic said this to the woodsmen in Shakespeare’s As You like It , a monologue reflecting his own deep down melancholy, an attitude he has cultivated out of philosophical pretensions. Jaques the melancholic sees sorrow everywhere, a miserable world ,where the clock marks hour to hour as you ripe and ripe and then you rot and rot on your way to the dusty death.

The tale that hangs thereby is not merely the hours marking our time because there is no tale in a routine passage of time. The motley fool is trying to make a tale out of the inconsequential passing of time.He basks in the sun and waits for lady Fortune to smile and asks not to be called the Fool till she sends down his fortune. That is because the Fool is indeed a wise man who knows lady Fortune will not send any such thing. He therefore takes out a dial from poke and observes its hours to pontificate about life, how the world wags. Fools are indeed deep and contemplative.

But the tale actually hangs by the melancholic laughing an hour without intermission, an hour by the Fool’s clock. His admiration for the fool increases as he looks at the motley colors of the Fool’s dress and calls him a noble fool. The Fool is not joker wearing a motley dress for the amusement of the King and his nobles. Here is a noble Fool, who is wiser than many of the King’s nobles. Thereby hangs the tale.

Her eyes are nothing like the sun

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;.
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress when she walks treads on the ground.
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare

(Sonnet 130 by William Shakespeare)

Apparently Shakespeare is pulling somebody’s legs. May be, Petrarch’s imitators in England, whose conventional love sonnets were probably the rage of the day, where the beloved is “falsely” compared with roses, snow, perfumes,angels etc. and hyperbole and cliche ruled the poetry of the day.

Or was he pulling the legs of his own beloved,probably the dark lady ,who had luckily none of the roses-and-peaches complexion and yet seemed to have the attitude of somebody who had the charms of a typical Elizabethan belle, with a pout on her lips.

May be , he thought she was acting the la belle dame sans merci,someone who thought highly of herself,worthy of a better lover. The debunking of the contemporary love sonnet form is no doubt there at the back but was he poking fun at the idea of romantic love itself? Well, it looks like that if we observe the poet’s use of absolutely “unchivalrous” words to describe the lady’s physical attributes ,more particularly in use of words like ‘reek’(breath),dun(breasts) etc.

Interestingly Shakespeare describes the lady in terms of what she is not and does not say a single thing about her positive attributes.

Shakespeare’s “mirror” images

Poor broken glass, I often did behold
In thy sweet semblance my old age new born;
But now that fresh fair mirror, dim and old,
Shows me a bare-boned death by time out-worn:
O, from thy cheeks my image thou hast torn,
And shivered all the beauty of my glass,
That I no more can see what once I was!

(Passage from The Rape of Lucrece , a poem by William Shakespeare)

Here Lucretius is mourning the death of his daughter Lucrece when she kills herself after her rape by Tarquin. He calls her a mirror for himself, now broken, showing only her bare-boned death .The mirror which once showed his own living image ( A child is a father’s image) is now broken showing a distorted image, implying his own death , she being a mere image of him.

“Shivered all the beauty of my glass” is a beautiful image which only Shakespeare could have thought of. A splintered glass can only give out fragments of an image. Lucrece has torn the image of her father from her cheeks when she has embraced death. Her death signifies his own death.