Misunderstanding and misquoting Shakespeare

This Daniel Maclise painting of a scene from Twelfth Night was first exhibited by the Tate Museum in 1840 (Photo from Creative Commons website)

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, not withstanding 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.

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare, the greatest poet-playwright of all time, is also the most quoted. But one might also say, among the most misquoted. The power of his poetry appeals to all, as do the truth, enduring relevance and applicability of his ideas and his fathomless commentary on humanity. He commands all subjects, as well as the words and verses to describe them, and the amazing ability to make them live forever.

Love and music are among the most popular subjects that appeal to a range of readers, as they have done since Elizabethan times. Many are the plays that expound on those themes, especially the comedies and the romances, although the romances are harder to understand, how they take the audience through many dark episodes, if not suffering and near tragedy, before happiness triumphs in the end.

But what do you make of the speech quoted above on the subjects of music and love?  It is among the most popular, and very often quoted. Surely the best known and most popular line from Shakespeare is Hamlet’s: “To be or not to be, that is the question”. Worthy of honourable mention is Romeo and Juliet’s “Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” but the speech reprinted above is not far behind; so much so, that the line, “If music be the food of love, play on” has become a cliché in the English language.

But these oft-repeated lines are very often misunderstood, misinterpreted or misquoted. Many of them have found their way into the English language as everyday sayings (and clichés) – for example, “all that glitters is not gold”. Incidentally, that is one of the slightly misquoted ones – Shakespeare wrote “all that glisters”, not “glitters”. Similarly, Juliet’s words from Romeo and Juliet are mostly quite misunderstood as many assume it was a love-sick Juliet pining away for Romeo. Far from it, since Juliet was never love-sick. She was seriously questioning the importance of names, which are just arbitrary labels. She questioned the war between her family and Romeo’s, which made Romeo her enemy simply because he bore the name Montague. Similar things can be said about her words in the same speech: “What’s in a name? a rose by any other word would smell as sweet”.

So then, what can you make of “if music be the food of love”? It is very often celebrated as a speech glorifying music and exalting love. The two go together, inspire and advance each other. It is regarded as cheerful and a rallying call for music to enrich and fortify love. Furthermore, it is spoken at Twelfth Night, a prominent feast day in the English and the Christmas calendar, when music would be fitting and plentiful. Twelfth Night is the traditional 12th Day of Christmas, celebrated and taken seriously in Shakespeare’s time.

It is taken from the play Twelfth Night, a comedy, and spoken by Orsinio the Duke of Illyria. He was a nobleman and, as befitting the season, he would have his own band of musicians at his home entertaining him. He addressed them in this speech. It so happens, as well, that Orsinio was in love. He yearned to win the affections of Olivia, a beautiful young Countess who lived nearby. Not for want of trying on his part, his mission was failing as the Countess rejected all his advances and overtures. So he was linking the festive music to the state of his emotions, the ardour of his love and his heartbroken feelings. He called for more of the music since there is that romantic notion that it feeds and inspires love.

The speech, especially the “food of love” part, has therefore been adopted wholesale as celebratory of love. But it is misread. That is not what is happening in the context of the play and in the sharp shrewdness of Shakespeare’s poetry. It is strong on imagery and the images tell the story. Far from celebratory, the speech is a morbid one. Orsinio is lovesick, rather then genuinely in love. He said:

“O when my 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,

Ever since pursue me.”

Shakespeare’s comedies do not approve of love that is purely based on sight. Love must go deeper, must learn to be more substantial than something you see. Note “my eyes did see” and the play on the word “hart”. It is an animal being hunted, as the imagery bears out, but is also the heart (symbol of love).

Furthermore, rather than being cheered up by the music, Orsinio was more depressed by it. The images used in the speech are cloying, overdone and sickening. Note the “excess”, “surfeiting”, and the sickening appetite. On the surface, he started out calling for more music to bolster the mood, since he was in love. But it turns out he was calling for something that proves too much.

Shakespeare showed his knowledge of music – “that strain again – it had a dying fall”. Those are technical musical terms, but they were also cleverly used to demonstrate Orsinio’s real mood. He was not happy, and the music was just serving to remind him of the failure to garner Olivia’s attention. Eventually he actually stopped the music – ordered the players to cease.

Many of those quoting and otherwise using this speech have missed the interpretation of it. But one does not even have to know the play to pick up the negative strains in it. Those may be found in the images, metaphors and general tone. It started well enough with the metaphor of food. But that soon became cloying. The descriptions are full of a sense of glut, oversupply, overabundance, until it dies.

As it turned out in the play, though, Olivia was not impressed by the Duke’s protestations of love since she recognised them as misplaced by a superficial lovesick mind. In these plays lovers have to learn to love; to achieve self discovery and growth. Orsinio did find the one who he could truly love and like all comedies, it ended happily.

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