Twelfth Night Questions and Answers
by William Shakespeare

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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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    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).


  • 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.

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singer4freedom | Student

These are the very opening lines of the play, spoken by Duke Orsino. He grieves because of his unrequited love for Lady Olivia. He's highly a melancholic person, who likes music that represent the subject of love, death, and melodrama. He says if music is the food of love, then let the music play. He also wants to have an excess of it, so that it will overfeed the desire of love making it sick and die, consequently, he'll be free from the grief of his unrequited love for Lady Olivia.

If music be the food of love, play on;

Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,

The appetite may sicken, and so die. (1,1)


revolution | Student

In the opening scenes of Act I of the book "The Twelfth Night", Duke Orsino, the emperor of the kingdom of Illyria, is madly in love with a wealthy lady, Countless Olivia, who is in mourning for her brother who had died recently and was  annoyed by his inappropriate attentions in such gloom and doom moments. She had rejected him countless times, but he still persisted. This shows how obsessed he is with the countless. His idea of a medicine to cure with his obsession of Olivia, is to stuff himself silly and overload himself with his own pathetic little passions.


readingbooks17 | Student

In the opening scene of the first Act of Twelfth Night, we meet Orsino, and learn at once that he is a hopeless romantic. He is in love with love, and melancholy from the mere thought of it; and here he muses on love while musicians play around him in his castle. Orsino, Duke (and ruler) of the romantic kingdom of Illyria, is in love with Countess Olivia, who loves him not. She has rejected him over and over again in her determination to mourn the death of her brother. It might be said that, while Orsino is in love with love, Olivia is in love with grief.