Twelfth Night, or What you Will is one of Shakespeare’s most beloved romantic comedies. Written at the beginning of the 1600s, the play takes place during the Twelfth Night Festival; a period of high revelry that follows Christmas. It marks a time of year where there is much drinking and partying, as well as debauchery and trickery. Many of the characters in Twelfth Night are lovelorn, mischievous or scheming and like many of Shakespeare’s comedies, there is a case of mistaken identity. Our heroine, Viola spends most of the play dressed as a man, which causes much of confusion and comedy.
Together with the merriment of the play, Twelfth Night is often referred to as a ‘musical play’. The play both starts and ends in song and this would have immediately signalled to the audience that they are in for a show with themes of love and romance.
What has just happened?
This monologue given the Duke Orsino opens the play. Orsino is the ruler of Illyria and a rich and influential man. He is also moody, romantic and madly in love with Olivia; a noble woman. From the scene that follows this monologue we learn that he has been pining for her for some time. She however, does not return his affection, being too overwhelmed with grief at the recent loss of her father and brother.
The scene takes place in Orsino’s court and the text tells us that he is in the presence of musicians, playing him a song. As the plays opens, these are the first words uttered.
Space = New beat/idea
, or ; = build on a thought
If music be the food of love, play on;
Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.
That 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.
O spirit of love! how quick and fresh art thou,
That, notwithstanding thy capacity
Receiveth as the sea, nought enters there,
Of what validity and pitch soe’er,
But falls into abatement and low price,
Even in a minute: so full of shapes is fancy
That it alone is high fantastical.
If music is what feeds and breeds love, then keep playing;
Give me so much of it, that, overindulging,
My appetite for love will get sick, and die.
That musical phrase! it had a falling melody:
O, it washed over my ear like a sweet breeze,
That breathes upon a bed of violets,
Robbing their scent and spreading it far!
Enough; no more music:
It is not as sweet as it was before.
O spirit of love! how restless and eager you are,
That, despite your capacity
You are hungry like the sea. And just as quickly,
Everything that is valuable and precious,
Becomes worthless and seemingly cheap,
So full of imaginary forms is love,
That it is simply wonderous and bizarre.
Unfamiliar words & Phrases
Sweet Sound: The wind or breeze
Abatement: Reduction or decrease
Shapes: Imaginary forms
This opening monologue is a wonderful insight into both the play Twelfth Night and the character of Orsino. Fun fact; Orsino translates to ‘Bear-Cub’ in Italian. This might give an actor an insight towards playing the role. Orsino is both gruff and commanding but also immature and at times childish. Notice in the monologue how engrossed he is in the music and then suddenly demands they stop playing. He, like love, is up and down, hot and cold but always the passionate.
Looking at the language and images used in this monologue, everything is poetic, passionate and full. If we look first line of the play/monologue; here is a man asking to be stuffed so full of feeling that it kills his necessity for love. What an introduction to a character!
When beginning to work on this speech, start playing with the words out loud early on. Work with the sounds of the words and notice the patterns you hear. Pay particular attention to the ‘s’ sound in the first half of the speech. When you lean in to the ‘s’ sound what does it make you feel? Shakespeare is a master at using sound to convey emotion and mood.
The subtext of the speech is Orsino’s love for Olivia but don’t let the ideas become too domestic and internal. Shakespeare was deliberate in keeping the language about the idea of love and not specific to Orsino’s situation. It signals to the actor to not play inward but place the ideas out into the audience. When he says ‘O Spirit of Love’ where is that for you in the space?
Aside of Orsino’s emotional feelings of love, it’s important to understand that much of the language has double meanings or nods to sex; ‘appetite’, ‘food’, ‘excess’, ‘came o’er’, ‘spirit’ (which was an old euphemism for semen). Orsino is a man in lust and love and this opening monologue allows an actor to have a lot of fun embodying our love sick hero.