Twelfth Night

by: William Shakespeare

Important Quotations Explained

1
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.
[Music ceases]
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.
         (I.i.1–15)

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.