The Food of Love

Act 1 Scene 1 – Key Scene

The opening scene of the play introduces Orsino, Duke of Illyria, listening to music and talking about his love for Olivia. Valentine brings a message from Olivia’s household that she does not want to hear from him because she is in mourning for seven years following the death of her brother. Orsino believes that such feeling for a brother will soon be surpassed by feelings of love for him.

Take a look at the extract from this scene. Using the following steps, remember to look at it line by line and if you’re looking at the scene for the first time don’t worry if you don’t understand everything at once.

  • Look

    Take a look at the scene. What does Orsino's speech tell you about him and why do you think Shakespeare opens the play with this scene?

    Actors at the RSC often paraphrase or put the language into their own words to help them understand what they are saying. We’ve added some definitions (in green), questions (in red) and paraphrased some sections (in blue) to help with this. You can click on the text that is highlighted for extra guidance.

    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, naught enters there,
    Of what validity and pitch soe’er,
    But falls into abatement and low price
    So full of shapes is fancy
    That it alone is high fantastical.

    Give me so much of it that by overindulging, my appetite goes away.

    The strain of music sounds like the final phrase.

    Eager and hungry

    Without any limits

    Nothing can beat love for creating ideas and fantasies.

    Will you go hunt, my lord?
    What, Curio?
    The hart.
    Why, so I do, the noblest that I have.
    O, when mine eyes did see Olivia first,
    Methought she purged the air of pestilence.
    That instant was I turned into a hart,
    And my desires, like fell and cruel hounds,
    E’er since pursue me.

    Orsino puns on the word ‘hart’ meaning deer to mean ‘heart’ as in his feelings for Olivia. What impression of Orsino do you get from how he uses Curio’s suggestion to go hunting to talk more about his feelings for Olivia?

    How now! What news from her?
    So please my lord, I might not be admitted,
    But from her handmaid do return this answer:
    The element itself, till seven years’ heat,
    Shall not behold her face at ample view,
    But like a cloistress she will veilèd walk,
    And water once a day her chamber round
    With eye-offending brine .


    All this to season
    A brother’s dead love, which she would keep fresh
    And lasting, in her sad remembrance.
    O, she that hath a heart of that fine frame
    To pay this debt of love but to a brother –

    How will she love, when the rich golden shaft
    Hath killed the flock of all affections else
    That live in her; when liver, brain and heart,
    Those sovereign thrones, are all supplied and filled –
    Her sweet perfections – with one self king!

    Away before me to sweet beds of flowers!

    What does Orsino’s response to Olivia’s message suggest about him?

    Cupid’s arrow that will make her fall in love.

    When Olivia’s perfect qualities - including her liver, brain and heart, which are the seats or thrones of sexual passion, intellect, and emotion - are all filled up by her love for the same ruler (by which Orsino means himself).

    (Text edited for rehearsal by Christopher Luscombe)
  • Listen
    Read the scene aloud, and try it in different ways. Which way feels right? What, in the language makes you think that? Are there any words or lines that really stand out?
  • Watch
    Take a look at the actors performing this scene. How do the characters come across in this version?
  • Imagine
    Explore some images from past versions of Twelfth Night at the RSC. Which sets and staging choices for the opening scene feel right to you?