Sentences from Shakespeare

by Janis Lull 


 (2) If music be the food of love, play on. (TN 1.1)

This might be the most famous opening line in all of Shakespeare. People sometimes
remember it as, “Music is the food of love,” but that’s not quite right. The sentence starts with “If,” and follows up with “be” instead of “is,” putting the verb in the old-fashioned subjunctive mode. The subjunctive is not much used in English any more, but it’s still available to anyone who wants to signal heavy doubt. “It’s important that you be on time,” for example, addressed to someone who’s always late. Duke Orsino’s sentence says that If music nourish his feelings of love, then the musicians should keep on playing. (Notice it’s not “nourishes,” but “nourish,” the subjunctive verb of doubt.) Sure enough, Orsino changes his mind in about a minute: “Enough, no more, / ’Tis not so sweet now as it was before.”
“Much virtue in ‘if,’” says Touchstone in As You Like It. The greatest virtue of “if” is to offer speakers the option of reversing themselves. For Orsino, it’s a way of indulging himself, releasing the oscillating play of his emotions. An actor may choose to bluster out these first lines—waving his hand, shouting commands to the musicians—but the grammar of Orsino’s sentence betrays him. He’s confused. The “if it be” shows he’s grasping at straws—“Just possibly this music is what I need. But, wait. No it’s not.”
Maybe romantic love should always be spoken of in the subjunctive. One feels something, but one has doubts. Is it love? We hold our emotions up to the light, weigh them against ideal love, and wonder if the two really have anything in common. Shakespeare himself probably described ideal love better than anyone: “Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, / But bears it out even to the edge of doom” (Sonnet 116). How will Orsino’s moods stand up to that? How about the passions of the other young lovers in the play? Do we believe that their commitments, made in the heat of impulse and error and fed by popular tunes, will stand the test of time? Will they “bear it out even to the edge of doom?” In Twelfth Night, as in life, “What’s to come is still unsure,” and uncertainty is the natural home of the subjunctive mode.