As you may know from reading his plays, Ken Ludwig is a bit of a Shakespeare fanatic. He began teaching his own children how to read and memorize passages from Shakespeare from the time they were six years old. The purpose of his book How To Teach Your Children Shakespeare is to pass on the torch and create a whole new generation of Shakespeare lovers.

In total, the book presents 25 passages that Ken taught his kids over the course of several years, ordered into a specific sequence to make learning them as easy as possible.   And as each passage is discussed, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream to The Tempest (with a lot more plays in between), he explains the stories, the characters and the meanings of the works, giving readers the kind of knowledge of Shakespeare they’ll need to become great students, great thinkers, and great teachers.

In addition to the book’s success as a means of teaching Shakespeare to children, adults may also find it useful as a stealth method of brushing up on their own knowledge. From Shakespeare novices to experts, readers of all ages will find something wonderfully irresistible in these pages.

Samuel French is delighted give you a taste of this indispensable guide to Shakespeare in three excerpts, published weekly.

To learn more and to download extra content relating to the book, including an excerpt and audio from actors Derek Jacobi, Richard Clifford, and Frances Barber, visit HowToTeachYourChildrenShakespeare.com.


CHAPTER 13
Passage 6

Orsino’s Heart

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 odor. Enough; no more.
’Tis not so sweet now as it was before.

(Twelfth Night, Act I, Scene 1, lines 1–8)

AsTwelfth Night opens, Orsino is in his palace listening to music with his friends and servants. As we can hear from this passage, Orsino is Viola’s polar opposite: He is moody, subject to excess, and romantic in a saturated, self-reverential sort of way. We will learn in the rest of this scene that Orsino is pining for his beautiful neighbor Olivia and that she refuses to see him.

This is one of the most famous speeches in Shakespeare, and I think this is partly because the language is so beautiful and partly because these eight lines introduce us to virtually all the major themes of the play.

If music be the food of love, play on.

Like all of Shakespeare’s comedies, Twelfth Night is about love, and it is no coincidence that the word love is only the seventh word of the entire play. If music be the food of love, play on. Orsino is using a metaphor that equates love with physical hunger, and the only food that will satisfy that hunger is music.

love = physical hunger
music = food for that hunger

Orsino then says, in essence, that he doesn’t want to be in love, so he tells his musicians “please give me too much music so that my appetite will be glutted and killed by overeating.”

Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken and so die.

Surfeiting means having too much of something. In other words, it’s painful for him to be in love with this beautiful countess, and he wants it to stop. He wants his musicians to overfeed his longing so that he can get sick of it and turn away. Already we have a clue about Orsino’s character: He is excessively romantic and on the feverish side.

Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken and so die.

Another clue to what this play will be about is the word excess. All the characters in the play will go to extremes, and it will get them in trouble. Orsino is excessively in love. Olivia is in excessive mourning over the deaths of her father and brother. Malvolio, when it’s his turn to woo Olivia, will go to excesses that are against his nature.

The other key word in this couplet is die. Twelfth Night is filled with issues of dying and death. These allusions create shadows throughout the play, so that as we laugh at the witty lines and revel in the extravagant characters, we are aware that larger issues of life and death are looming just around the corner.

Orsino continues by asking the musicians to repeat a particular passage, or strain, of the music that he just heard; and he describes that strain as having a dying fall, meaning that the passage is descending. (There’s that suggestion of dying again.)

That strain again! It had a dying fall.

And now he describes the music in more detail:

O, it came o’er [over] my ear like the sweet sound
That breathes upon a bank of violets,
Stealing and giving odor.

How interesting that Shakespeare would say that the sound breathes upon a bank of violets. Remembering the passage that we learned in the first chapter of this book

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows

one might well conclude that Shakespeare was fond of banks of flowers and found them romantic.

That breathes upon a bank of violets,
Stealing and giving odor.

Stealing seems to mean “stealing up on” or “stealing over.” And the beautiful sound of the music seems to have an odor, or smell, and it seems to breathe.

But how can all of these senses act the way Shakespeare describes? How can sound breathe? Or give odor? The answer is that Shakespeare is mingling the senses, as if love knows no bounds and can make us feel and see and smell all at the same time. Thus, in the very first speech of the play, Shakespeare is telling us how multi-faceted love can be, and he is hinting that love will be one of the major themes of the play.

O, it came o’er my ear like the sweet sound
That breathes upon a bank of violets,
Stealing and giving odor.

At this point, Orsino stops the musicians from allowing him to indulge in all this richness and says:

Enough; no more.
’Tis not so sweet now as it was before.


How-To-Teach-Book3To purchase Ken Ludwig’s How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare, click here.

Feature Photo:  Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare,directed by Michael Grandage. With Mark Bonnar as Orsino, Victoria Hamilton as Viola. Opened at The Donmar West End at Wyndham’s Theatre on 10/12/08. Credit: Geraint Lewis.

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