My Initial Love of Twelfth Night and it’s impending demise?

“If music be the food of love, play on,
Give me excess of it that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken and also die.
The 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. (Norton, lines 1 to 8)”

   These opening lines of the play stopped me in my tracks. How is it possible that in a short eight lines, so much could be said and foreshadowed? Orsino laid out the basic parameters for what I think is to be a great tragedy, all in the name of a “so-called” love. I place these words is quotations because as these opening lines suggest, it is not true love that drives these characters into despair but mere infatuation or the plain illusion that they are really in love; “Enough, no more, ‘Tis not so sweet now as it was before.”

   In the beginning of his heartfelt oration, Orsino states “Give me excess of it that, surfeiting, the appetite may sicken and also die.” This sounds more like the ravings of an obsessed man wanting to gorge himself on the love that he desires in the hope of weakening the maddening urges that are consuming him. These lines aren’t too far-fetched, as later on in the play he is persistent in the chase of his precious Olivia, who wants nothing to do with him and shows not one iota of desire towards him.

    Continuing with the remainder of the passage, “The strain again, it had a dying fall” suggesting that this truly might be a fatal attraction. The music “breathes upon a bank of violets stealing and giving odour” stealing the sweet smell that are the violets; in essence taking away what makes them beautiful and making them stink. This supposed love destroys what is beautiful, replacing it with death. The question remains who is going to pay for Orsino’s fatal attraction to the lovely Olivia?

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4 thoughts on “My Initial Love of Twelfth Night and it’s impending demise?

  1. Julian Mocha

    I found this an interesting take on the first few lines of the play because, frankly, I barely paid attention to Orsino's dull speeches. To me he came across as a character introduced without much intellectual or poetic substance; almost like his role in the play is to set a scene/start a conflict rather than to be in the heat of the problem. I found his musings on Olivia to signify his dullness- he knows she is not making herself available and all he can say about her is how beautiful she is and what a pity it is for her to shy herself away from love. Nothing substantial about her character or why he loves her so much! I expect the heat of the play to lie more in Olivia's character than Orsino's and am anxiously awaiting Viola's development!

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  2. Maeve Halliday

    The opening scene of Twelfth Night is one which really benefits from being seen acted out. I saw the campus production of Twelfth Night last year (two years ago?), and the actor who played Orsino gave this speech while lounging on a divan, and he spoke with an exaggerated drawl. With this in mind, I think of Orsino as very shallow and self-involved, and I still don't really understand why Viola falls for him in the first place. I'm hoping this reading of the play will help clarify their relationship for me.

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  3. Kaitlyn Schleicher

    I think this is a great commentary on the opening lines of the play. Twelfth Night was never my favorite of Shakespeare's plays, but the way you view this opening speech made me think twice and realize the beauty in these lines of the play. It's always nice to see another opinion on readings, especially ones that didn't have such an effect on me personally.

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  4. Cyrus Mulready

    This is a great approach, Christina, as you nicely establish the opening lines as establishing some key ideas for the play as a whole. We could imagine his lines going in a different direction, even implied (partly) by the mentioning of "appetite" and "hunting" elsewhere in the speech. Shakespeare might be calling our attention to the different forms desire/will can take, an idea that carries through even to the end of the play (and anticipates the tragedy of Othello later in the semester!).

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