What does "If music be the food of love, play on; / Give me excess of it, that surfeiting, / The appetite may sicken, and so die" mean?

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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. (I.i)

Some background and a couple of definitions will help you understand this quotation. Duke Orsino is in love with--or infatuated with--Olivia, but she is not interested in him partly because her brother has recently died and she has sworn to undertake two years of mourning. Orsino finds himself distracted to the point of emotional suffering by Olivia's cold reception of his attestations of love. In a languor of melancholy, he is listening to sad songs played by his musicians. When you think of this, perhaps thinking of these rock-n-roll lyrics might help your understanding:

Turn on those sad songs
When all hope is gone
Sad songs say so much [...]
Just feel their gentle touch
When all hope is gone [...]
Sad songs, they say
Sad songs, they say so much
(Elton John, "Sad Songs (Say So Much)") 

American Heritage Dictionary Definitions

  • surfeiting: excess of indulgence to the point of satiety or to the point of disgust; excess to overindulge
  • satiety: the condition of being full or gratified beyond the point of satisfaction; surfeit.

The first part of this quotation is a complex metaphor: "if music be the food of love." Love is compared to the body that needs food to stay alive and to grow. Music is compared to food. Both are combined in the hypothetical first conditional: [paraphrase] if music keeps love alive and makes it grow the way food keeps bodies alive and makes them grow,....

The second part of the quotation grows out of this metaphor. If music feeds love, then play more because, like with food for the body, if you get too much, you will get disgusted with it and not want any more: think of eating too much chocolate cream pie all at one time. Orsino is saying that if they keep playing and that if he gets enough of the romantically melancholy music that he becomes disgusted with it, then he will metaphorically also get disgusted with loving Olivia: he will reach satiety; he will reach surfeit; he will no longer ardently desire Olivia.

"The appetite" is another metaphor comparing physical appetite for food to his emotional longing for Olivia's love. Thus, with so much music to feed his love that he gets disgusted with it and with love, then his longing--his appetite--for Olivia will sicken from satiety and surfeiting and die like a person who turns in disgust from food (for a long time, that is--no metaphor is perfect).

PARAPHRASE

  • If music feeds love the way food feeds the body, then keep playing that sad music so that I get sick of it and sick of love so that my desire for Olivia also sickens from disgust and dies.
Approved by eNotes Editorial Team

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