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, notwithstanding thy capacity
Receiveth as the sea, naught enters there,
Of what validity and pitch so e’er,
But falls into abatement and low price
Even in a minute! So full of shapes is fancy
That it alone is high fantastical.
The play’s opening speech includes one of its most famous lines, as the unhappy, lovesick Orsino tells his servants and musicians, “If music be the food of love, play on.” In the speech that follows, Orsino asks for the musicians to give him so much musical love-food that he will overdose (“surfeit”) and cease to desire love any longer. Through these words, Shakespeare introduces the image of love as something unwanted, something that comes upon people unexpectedly and that is not easily avoided. But this image is complicated by Orsino’s comment about the relationship between romance and imagination: “So full of shapes is fancy / That it alone is high fantastical,” he says, relating the idea of overpowering love (“fancy”) to that of imagination (that which is “fantastical”). Through this connection, the play raises the question of whether romantic love has more to do with the reality of the person who is loved or with the lover’s own imagination. For Orsino and Olivia, both of whom are willing to switch lovers at a moment’s notice, imagination often seems more powerful than reality.
Make me a willow cabin at your gate
And call upon my soul within the house,
Write loyal cantons of contemnèd love,
And sing them loud even in the dead of night;
Hallow your name to the reverberate hills,
And make the babbling gossip of the air
Cry out ’Olivia!’ O, you should not rest
Between the elements of air and earth
But you should pity me.
Viola (in her disguise as Cesario) delivers this speech to Olivia after Orsino has sent her to carry his messages of love to Olivia. In this speech, however, Cesario sets aside the prepared messages and instead tells Olivia what he would do if he were in love with her. This speech is significant, then, because it sets the stage for Olivia’s infatuation with the person she thinks is Cesario: instead of helping win Olivia for Orsino, Cesario’s passionate words make Olivia fall in love with him. This development is understandable, when one considers what Viola says here—she insists that she would be outside Olivia’s gate night and day, proclaiming her love, until Olivia took “pity” on her. This kind of devotion contrasts sharply with the way Orsino actually pursues his courtship of Olivia: instead of planting himself outside her door and demonstrating his devotion, he prefers to remain at home, lolling on couches and complaining of his broken heart. The contrast, then, between the devotion that Viola imagines here and the self-involvement that characterizes Orsino’s passion for Olivia, suggests that Viola has a better understanding than Orsino of what true love should be.
There is no woman’s sides
Can bide the beating of so strong a passion
As love doth give my heart; no woman’s heart
So big, to hold so much. They lack retention.
Alas, their love may be called appetite,
No motion of the liver, but the palate,
That suffer surfeit, cloyment, and revolt.
But mine is all as hungry as the sea,
And can digest as much. Make no compare
Between that love a woman can bear me
And that I owe Olivia.
Orsino speaks these words as he discusses his love for Olivia with Cesario. Here, he argues that there can be no comparison between the kind of love that a man has for a woman and the kind of love that women feel for men. Women, he suggests, love only superficially—in the “palate,” not the “liver,” implying that for men love is somehow deeper and less changeable. While his love is constant, he insists, a woman’s love suffers “surfeit, cloyment, and revolt.” This speech shows the extent of Orsino’s self-involvement by demonstrating that he cares only about his own emotions and assumes that whatever Olivia feels, it cannot “compare” to his own feelings for her. But there is also an irony here, since Orsino ascribes qualities to women’s love that actually apply to his own infatuations. He claims that women love superficially and can have their feelings change easily; in fact, later in the play, he happily transfers his affections from Olivia to the revealed-as-female Viola. It is the woman, Viola, whose love for Orsino remains constant throughout. Indeed, Viola answers this speech by citing herself as an example of a woman who remains constant in love (without revealing that she is talking about herself, of course). Thus, given what the audience sees onstage, Orsino’s opinions about love seem to be wrong on almost every count.
Daylight and champaign discovers not more. This is open. I will be proud, I will read politic authors, I will baffle Sir Toby, I will wash off gross acquaintance, I will be point-device the very man. I do not now fool myself, to let imagination jade me; for every reason excites to this, that my lady loves me. She did commend my yellow stockings of late, she did praise my leg, being cross-gartered, and in this she manifests herself to my love, and with a kind of injunction drives to these habits of her liking. I thank my stars, I am happy. I will be strange, stout, in yellow stockings, and cross-gartered, even with the swiftness of putting on. Jove and my stars be praised.
Malvolio speaks these words after he finds the letter written by Maria that seems to reveal that Olivia is in love with him. Until this point, Malvolio has seemed a straitlaced prig with no enthusiasms or desires beyond decorum and an orderly house. Here we see his puritanical exterior is only a veneer, covering powerful ambitions. Malvolio dreams of being loved by Olivia and of rising in the world to become a nobleman—both of these dreams seem to be fulfilled by the letter. For the audience, this scene is tremendously comic, since we can easily anticipate that Malvolio will make a fool of himself when he follows the letter’s instructions and puts on yellow stockings and crossed garters. But there is also a hint of pathos in Malvolio’s situation, since we know that his grand ambitions will come crashing down. Our pity for him increases in later scenes, when Sir Toby and Maria use his preposterous behavior to lock him away as a madman. Malvolio is not exactly a tragic figure; he is too absurd for that. But there is something at least pitiable in the way the vanity he displays in this speech leads to his undoing.
Orsino: If this be so, as yet the glass seems true,
I shall have share in this most happy wrack.
[To Viola] Boy, thou hast said to me a
Thou never shouldst love woman like to me.
Viola: And all those sayings will I overswear,
And all those swearings keep as true in soul
As doth that orbèd continent the fire
That severs day from night.
Orsino: Give me thy hand,
And let me see thee in thy woman’s weeds.
This exchange follows the climax of the play, when Sebastian and Viola are reunited, and all the misunderstandings are cleared up. Here, Orsino ushers in a happy ending for his long-suffering Viola by declaring his willingness to wed her. This quote thus sets the stage for general rejoicing—but it is worth noting that even here, the -gender ambiguities that Viola’s disguise has created still persist. Orsino knows that Viola is a woman—and a woman, apparently, to- whom he is attracted. Yet he addresses her as “Boy” in this speech, even as he is accepting her vows of love. This incident is not isolated: later, Orsino continues to call his new betrothed “Cesario,” using her male name. This odd mode of address raises, and leaves un-answered, the question of whether Orsino is in love with Cesario, the beautiful young man, or with Viola, the beautiful young woman.