If music be the food of love, play on


What's the meaning of the phrase 'If music be the food of love, play on'?

‘If music be the food of love, play on’ is the famous opening line from Shakespeare’s comedy Twelfth Night.

The lovelorn Orsino is frustrated in his courtship of Countess Olivia. He asks for more music because he muses that an excess of music might cure his obsession with love, in the way that eating too much removes one’s appetite for food.

Music plays an important part in Shakespeare’s plays and is often used to carry the plot. It’s reasonable to surmise that he did believe music to the be ‘the food of love’.

What's the origin of the phrase 'If music be the food of love, play on'?

The often quoted line is from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, 1602:

DUKE ORSINO:
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, nought 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.

Trend of play on in printed material over time

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

Gary Martin

Writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.