If Music Be the Food of Love

If music be the food of love — play on!

Last week I saw a wonderful production of Shakespeare’s 12th Night. It was done in authentic Shakespearian era style with men playing all the roles. The cast included Stephen Fry and Mark Rylance as part of the wonderful ensemble. When the Count begins the show with — “If music be the food of love, play on” — I was struck by the number of Shakespeare-isms that infuse our every day speech.

Sometimes I know I’m hearing Shakespeare in ordinary 21st century speech or text and sometimes it simply slips in under my radar. Othello’s jealousy is described as a green-eyed monster. It’s seems a bit clichéd, but that’s because it’s been used for centuries. “A plague o’ both your houses!” from Romeo and Juliet, has begun to feel like a political pundit’s catch phrase. It turns up so often in American politics that it feels American. We often talk about a “sea-change” in culture or technology and that handy phrase for describing a significant transformation is from The Tempest.

I didn’t realize that “A dish fit for the gods” was from Julius Caesar (largely because I hadn’t read it since high school) until I was contemplating the Ides of March for a story idea and stumbled on this gem, “Let’s kill him boldly, but not wrathfully; 
Let’s carve him as a dish fit for the gods…”

Now, that is a chilling image.

Macbeth is so chock full of great lines that it’s easy to see it as an irresistible buffet of images and titles. Faulkner didn’t pull “The Sound and the Fury” out of a hat — he got it from one of the Bard’s juiciest passages.

“Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Every phrase in that Macbeth quote is a great place to start — A Walking Shadow. A Tale Told by an Idiot, His Hour Upon the Stage, Heard No More, Out Brief Candle…. I love Shakespeare!



  1. This brings to mind the cry of the pompous. When they review another’s work and call it derivative or worse claim a story was stolen from someone else, they don’t seem to realize that the stories themselves are merely retellings of stories we heard before. We have new story tellers but the stories themselves are as old as time.

    • Candy

      I’d go as far as to say that a completely original story — not an original take on an old tale told millions of times — is like the Holy Grail…. So we’re all playing with boy meets girl, Cain & Able, lovers from opposing clans, jealous step mothers, etc. Whether it’s set on Mars or in Ancient Rome, it draws from the same basic stuff.

      Shakespeare’s language is just so compelling that even if you know that he drew the stories from older tales, they all seem to be his alone, or his to start with, but we still try to work with his cannon of plays. I’ve got to reread a few of them and see what pops!

      • I am reminded of my time in theater when the civic near me did one of shakespeare’s plays but set in the old west. They made the fun change of an all female cast.

        • Candy

          There’s an all female Julius Caesar off-Broadway right now and one of the performances that got me interested in Shakespeare originally was a Much Ado set in the Rough Rider West of Teddy Roosevelt. LOVED IT!

  2. I taught Julius Caesar six years in a row and had more fun each time. The “dish fit for the gods” line was always such a fun one to have students really think about. Malvolio’s cross-gartered scene from Twelfth Night is definitely one of my favorites. Shakespeare coined so many phrases. I’ll have to dig-up a classroom activity I used to do that contained a huge list of the phrases that have entered our vernacular.

    • Candy

      I’m certain you taught it with more inspiration than I remember from my 9th grade english class. If I had not already seen some Shakespeare in the theater, I might have been turned off forever.

      The language, the images, the wide range of productions… bring me back to Shakespeare over and over again. I saw Peter Dinklege (Game of Thrones) as Richard III a few years ago. And Alan Cummings in a one-man Macbeth this year. There’s also Joss Weedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) film of Much Ado About Nothing. It was in theaters this past summer and I LOVED it.

      The production of 12th Night — currently on Broadway — has Stephen Fry (British comic actor that most Americans know as the funny British psychologist on the TV show BONES) as Malvolio and Mark Rylance (probably one of the greatest actors alive today) as Olivia. The cross-gartered scene was a hoot!

      I’m sure your students were surprised at how relevant Shakespeare is today.

      • I would also show clips from the Reduced Shakespeare’s company 90-minute retelling of his plays. That always went over quite well. Luckily, no parents ever flipped-out of my subversive act… however I did get accused of showing cartoon porn when a parent objected to a condensed cartoon of Romeo and Juliet that showed the couple of embracing and then Cupid flew up into the heavens to signify them consummating their marriage. There’s all sorts of corny YouTube videos on Iambic Pentameter, etc. that kids love. My ninth grade teacher would stand at the podium and interpret every single line for us. What torture… You are so lucky to be in NYC and have access to such great productions. The Boise Shakespeare company has an outdoor summer theater that’s pretty good, not just for Idaho, but by national standards 😉

        • Candy

          At your mention of parents objecting to what is at the heart of Romeo & Juliet (young lovers with family objections) I just had to chuckle and think about your short story about the teacher. People inclined to censor Shakespeare — to protect their children — seem to be missing the boat. Romeo & Juliet do NOT end well.

          Yes, NYC is a theater capital and I take advantage of it. Of course seeing the Shakespeare in the Park productions this summer was only possible because a dear friend went there at the crack of dawn to join the line and wait and wait and wait… for the free tickets. He was willing to do the waiting armed with his iPad, a mini folding chair and a snack. The line is a scene — with dedicated city theater freaks, students, retired folks, plus a few people who get paid to wait on line… Crazy!

  3. Going to a convent school, we slogged through A Merchant of Venice and a Midsummer Night’s Dream in the lower grades. In the mids we were allowed to explore Macbeth, but it was not until what is now year 12 that we were finally allowed to have at Hamlet. That, I think was when my love affair with Shakespeare truly began. I think I rather shocked the class though when I pointed out how bawdy the Old Bard really was. Didn’t go down too well with the nun teaching the class either. 😉

    For me Daughter, however, Shakespeare is and always will be Much Ado About Nothing because of the Kenneth Branagh interpretation which she absolutely adores.

    • Candy

      It’s interesting how much of real life Shakespeare expresses — and how poorly it is often taught. I remember classmates deciding that they HATED Shakespeare after the mind-numbing approach to Julius Caesar. That so many of us love the plays, and the poems, is a testament to just how wonderful they are!

      Your daughter has good taste. The Kenneth Branagh Much Ado is a treasure. If she’s up for something completely different, suggest the Joss Weedon film. It’s another take on a classic, and also has a perfect cast.

  4. The Bard had quite a wonderful grasp of people and emotions which could probably keep a psychology class talking for quite a while.about as simple a subject as the washing of hands.
    He didn’t grow up with wealth and close to the monied classes and yet he was perfectly able to bring forth the reaction of the parents of the star crossed lovers, the Montagus and Capulets. A reaction that hasn’t changed muhcover the years even if the language has.
    xxx Huge Hugs xxx

    • Candy

      Psychology & Shakespeare — what a wonderful topic!

      The one-man (Alan Cumming) Macbeth, opens with Macbeth checking into a somber hospital and the story is told from that vantage point. It was incredible. I won’t even try to describe the psychological implications of the conversations between Lady Macbeth & Macbeth when both characters are played by the same actor. Amazing!

  5. Anne Lawson

    I am always amazed at the phrases in our language that do come from Shakespeare. And I love the full context of ‘a dish served cold’. However, I have to admit that my mind is still back at your cast list — Steven Fry!! How fabulously wonderful!

    • Candy

      He was wildly funny in his “cross cut garters and yellow tights.” As of right now he owns the role — in my mind.