Love is the main theme tied to the famous opening of William Shakespeare’s comedy Twelfth Night. In the first line, Duke Orsino explicitly mentions love. He says, “If music be the food of love, play on.” Here, Orsino is talking about the profound, almost gluttinous appeal of love. He is saying if music nourishes love, continue playing music. In other words, he wants more and more love.
In fact, Orsino asks for “excess of it.” While listening to too much music might not lead to clear bodily harm, eating too much food can cause problems—and Orsino knowns it. He wants so much “food of love” that “the appetite may sicken and die,” meaning he wants so much excess love that he no longer desires it. This metaphor appears to relate to the ephemeral theme of love. People’s appetites expand and contract just like a person’s love. Just as a person’s hunger might go away or lessen, and a person’s love might “sicken” or “die.” Alas, the unstable, fleeting nature of love is part of its appeal. Orsino cries, “O spirit of love! how quick and fresh art thou.”
As the play unfolds, readers will discover just how “quick and fresh” love is. Indeed, Orsino’s opening remarks about love prepare the reader for a play that’s centered on the theme that love is a complicated, puzzling, and tangled venture. As Twelfth Night unfolds and Viola/Cesario enters the fray, a reader shouldn’t feel too bad if they have a hard time keeping track of who’s supposed to be in love with whom.