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Shakespeare's Ludicrous Musical Lovers: Part 1

Lovers are present in many of Shakespeare's plays. They range from the heartfelt and sincere to the ridiculous and absurd, and throughout it all, music plays an important part of their longing and woes.

Lovers appear everywhere in Shakespeare, from Romeo and Juliet to Titania and Oberon. Many are sincere and touching portraits of people truly in love – but Shakespeare also creates hilarious parodies of ludicrous lovers. As music is such an integral aspect of Shakespeare’s portrayal of love (find out more in The Food of Love blog), he uses it to great comic effect in his romantic caricatures. There are various different types of ludicrous lovers in the plays, and Shakespeare uses music to suit each of their characters accordingly. This blog will look at the melancholy lover, and Shakespeare’s best-known portrayal of this particular breed of hopeless romantic.

The Lover from "The Anatomy of Melancholy, by Robert Burton (1621)
The Lover from "The Anatomy of Melancholy", by Robert Burton (1621)

The melancholy lover was a familiar character in Shakespeare’s time. This image is taken from a remedial book called The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton, published in 1621. The frontispiece shows various different types of melancholy characters, and “Inamorato” – The Lover – features prominently. Strewn around his feet are pieces of sheet music and a lute, an instrument which lovers were believed to be stereotypically fond of. Melancholy lovers were seen to fuel their melancholy with music. Shakespeare’s clearest example of this is Orsino in Twelfth Night, who surrounds himself with melancholy music throughout the play. It is likely that a lute would have provided Orsino’s musical accompaniment.

In the opening lines of the play, Orsino orders music to be played. In fact, he asks for excessive amounts of music so that his passion will be overly satisfied, and he will no longer be hopelessly in love:

“If music be the food of love, play on;
Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.”

Twelfth Night, 1.1

Twelfth Night 1893
The opening scene of Twelfth Night, from an 1893 production in New York. Orsino is surrounded by melancholy female musicians during the famous "If music be the food of love..." speech

When the overload of music is not enough to overcome his romantic feelings, Orsino is resigned to his lovesickness. He constantly seeks more music to fuel his melancholy throughout the play. In Act Two Scene Four, he orders:

“Give me some music. Now, good morrow, friends.
Now, good Cesario, but that piece of song,
That old and antique song we heard last night:
Methought it did relieve my passion much,
More than light airs and recollected terms
Of these most brisk and giddy-paced times:
Come, but one verse.”

Twelfth Night, 2.4

Feste the fool then sings “Come Away Death”, a sad song about a lover who dies of a broken heart. But is it a truly sad song, or an exaggerated lament which subtly mocks Orsino and his over-the-top romantic melancholy? Both interpretations are used in different performances.

Come Away Death - Interpretation 1 - from an RSC production in 2005

Come Away Death - Interpretation 2 - from an RSC production in 2012

When Orsino actually finds true love at the end of the play with Viola, he isn’t melancholy at all – and the desire for sad music seems to vanish. His desperate passion for Olivia suddenly seems empty and foolish. But are Shakespeare’s other ludicrous lovers truly in love? Find out in Shakespeare's Ludicrous Lovers: Part 2.

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