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“If Music Be the Food of Love, Play On”: Two Songs from Twelfth Night

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February 4, 2017

February is the month for lovers, love songs, and love stories, and Shakespeare certainly created some of the best of each. Here is a lecture I gave many years ago at the venerable Shakespeare Club of Oklahoma City. There I had the music performed by some of my colleagues. Perhaps you can find some music for these songs on somewhere YouTube somewhere.

“If Music Be the Food of Love, Play On”: Two Songs from Twelfth Night


Viola, as Cesario, and Orsino (Act 1, scene 4; late 19th or early 20th century) Folger Shakespeare Library

“If music be the food of love, play on”: With these words Shakespeare’s most musical play opens, and in one sense they may be said to embody one of the primary themes of the play—love overcomes all, so much so that one cannot get too much of either love or the music of love. Shakespeare’s songs are among the loveliest Elizabethan lyrics, and these songs sung by Feste in Twelfth Night include some of Shakespeare’s best.

You remember that Twelfth Night is a comedy about mistaken love, misdirected love brought about by disguise. Viola, shipwrecked in Illyria assumes the disguise of a boy and enters the service of Duke Orsino. The Duke is in love with the lady Olivia who will have none of him. So the Duke sends the young boy (Viola in disguise) to Olivia to encourage his suit. Alas, Olivia falls in love with the young boy (Viola in disguise) while Viola, in disguise as a boy, falls in love with the Duke.


Chicago Theater Beat: UIC Architecture Bldg, Thursday March 3, 2016. Osgood Photography

Well, the title of the play is Twelfth Night; or What You Will. It is a play full of merry highjinks and comical mistakes, appropriate for celebration at Twelfth Night, the Christmas and holiday season. So, the first song performed occurs in Act II, scene iii—at night in Olivia’s house. Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek are drunk and getting loud. They ask Feste, the fool, to sing a song. Thus, he sings “O mistress mine, where are you roaming?”

O, Mistress Mine, Where are You Roaming?

O, Mistress mine, where are you roaming?

O stay and hear; your true love’s coming,

That can sing both high and low:

Trip no further, pretty sweeting;

            Journeys end in lovers’ meeting,

                        Every wise man’s son doth know.

The theme of the song reinforces the attitude toward love in the play: love is sweet and life is short, so seize the day:

What is love? ‘tis not hereafter;

Present mirth hath present laughter;

            What’s to come is still unsure:

In delay there lies no plenty;

Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty,

            Youth’s a stuff will not endure.     

The second song occurs in the next scene of the play. The Duke Orsino is in love with love and Viola, disguised as a boy, is in love with the Duke. They talk of love, but for Viola the talk is of love with he whom she addresses. It is a sad love at this point of the play, likely to be unrequited. For the Duke, the talk of love is for a vague abstraction, the unresponsive Lady Olivia. Thus, when they invite Feste to sing a song for them, the song appropriately addresses their melancholy mood of unrequited love.

Come Away, Come Away, Death

Come away, come away, death.

And in sad cypress let me be laid;

Fly away, fly away, breath;

I am slain by a fair cruel maid.

My shroud of white, stuck all with yew,

O prepare it;

My part of death no one so true

Did share it.

The song deals with a lover who is “slain” by the failure of a “fair cruel maid” to respond to his amorous advances. Self-pityingly, relishing the tragedy of his love-death (much as Orsino relishes his own love-sickness), the lover in the song asks that no flowers be strewn on his coffin, and that he be buried in an unmarked grave, since otherwise all the other “sad true lovers” in the world would breathe “a thousand sighs” over the spot.

Not a flower, not a flower sweet,

On my black coffin let there be strown:

Not a friend, not a friend greet

My poor corpse where my bones shall be thrown:

A thousand thousand sighs to save,

Lay me, O, where

Sad true lover never find my grave,

To weep there.

Truly, Twelfth Night is Shakespeare’s great musical comedy and the opening lines perfectly embody the spirit of the play: “If music be the food of love, play on.”

(Indebted to Sandra Gilbert, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1964.)

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