“If music be the food of love...” As the most famous music-related quotation from Shakespeare, this phrase has been heard a hundred times. It has become a cliché, to be rolled out whenever Shakespeare and music are mentioned in the same sentence. But this quotation actually reveals a surprising amount about the connection between music and love in Shakespeare’s time. It explains why music so often appears at romantic moments in his plays, and it says a lot about Shakespeare’s approach to music.
This image depicts Cupid holding a lute, an instrument traditionally associated with lovers. It comes from the Collection of Emblemes, Ancient and Moderne by George Wither, originally published in London in 1635. It echoes a popular belief which existed during Shakespeare’s time that love and music went hand in hand. In contemporary art and literature, love is often described as sightless: Shakespeare refers to “wing’d Cupid painted blind” in the opening scene of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Blind he may be – but the god of love is certainly not deaf. Shakespeare’s contemporaries believed that listening to music was a completely different experience to looking at a picture. While the eyes looked at images from a distance and the person remained detached, music actually entered your head, and touched your soul directly. It was believed that music was a tangible force that had the power to magnify and enhance your emotions: it was quite literally “food for the soul”. Love was seen as the emotion most susceptible to this, making music the “food of love”. This effect was heightened when lovers experienced music together, as they would be bound together through the shared experience of the music.
This was not always seen as a good thing. Sermons and pamphlets on morality from the period caution against the seductive powers of music, as it was believed that music could not only kindle true and pure love, but could also incite decidedly impure lust. Shakespeare’s contemporaries were particularly warned about “musical temptresses”: women who used music as a tool to seduce men into loving them, whether they liked it or not. They could be found at all levels of society, and were said to incite love through singing, and playing the lute or virginals (a plucked stringed instrument like a guitar, and a keyboard instrument). It was believed that their music would have its most potent effect (perhaps unsurprisingly) when performed solo, to their intended lover in private. Music could also drive melancholy lovers into despair. When Orsino asks for more music in the first scene of Twelfth Night, he perpetuates his depression over his unrequited love for Olivia (find out more about Shakespeare’s musical lovers). In the twenty-first century, we refer to “the power of music” in an abstract sense – but music was clearly seen as having a very real power over love in Shakespeare’s time, with both good and bad results.
Shakespeare uses the power of music throughout his plays to heighten the romantic atmosphere, clearly drawing on contemporary thinking. In Henry IV Part I, he includes stage directions for a song to be sung in Welsh in Act Three Scene One. No words are included in the text, but the song is sung by a Welsh princess to her doting English husband, Mortimer. He understands no Welsh (and she no English), which causes confusion and frustration as they try to communicate their love for each other. But the presence and romantic power of music makes the words irrelevant. The portrayal of a private song shared between the couple is an extremely intimate moment by the standards of the time, and shows that they are very much in love.
In The Merchant of Venice, the lovers Jessica and Lorenzo share a similarly intimate moment in Act 5 Scene 1, where they sit together by moonlight. Lorenzo calls for music, and orders the musicians:
“With sweetest touches pierce your mistress' ear,
And draw her home with music.”
The music literally attracts, or “draws” Jessica to Lorenzo, increasing the intimacy of the moment. In the same play, the wealthy heiress Portia receives numerous suitors who try to win her hand in marriage throughout the play. Each suitor must try to choose the correct box from a set of three to be successful. All of them fail until Act Three Scene Two, when Bassanio, the man Portia truly loves, attempts the challenge. While the previous suitors had made their choice in silence, Portia commands that music is played before Bassanio begins:
“Let music sound while he doth make his choice…
And what is music then? …Such it is
As are those dulcet sounds in break of day
That creep into the dreaming bridegroom's ear,
And summon him to marriage.”
The song that is sung while Bassanio is choosing not only signifies that this time, the suitor will succeed in winning Portia’s hand in marriage – it draws him directly into a loving relationship. The song ends: “let us all ring fancy’s knell – I’ll begin it, ding dong bell”, asking everyone to share in the creation of romance through music. In Shakespeare’s works, music genuinely is “the food of love”: if we choose to play on.