Mis­un­der­stand­ing and mis­quot­ing Shake­speare

Stabroek News Sunday - - GLOBAL GOSSIP -

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 Twelfth Night 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. (Photo from Creative Com­mons web­site)

This Daniel Ma­clise paint­ing of a scene from was first ex­hib­ited by the Tate Mu­seum in 1840

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