Shakespeare in Love

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Many English words, idioms, and expressions were made popular by their appearance in the works of William Shakespeare. Here are four expressions in which Shakespeare comments on the nature of love:

1. If music be the food of love, play on

This expression is quoting Duke Orsino from Twelfth Night. Frustrated by his unsuccessful courtship of Countess Olivia, he says:

‘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 odour! Enough; no more:
'Tis not so sweet now as it was before.
O spirit of love! how quick and fresh art thou,
That, notwithstanding thy capacity
Receiveth as the sea, nought enters there,
Of what validity and pitch soe'er,
But falls into abatement and low price,
Even in a minute: so full of shapes is fancy
That it alone is high fantastical.’

2. Love is blind

Though this expression first appeared in Chaucer’s The Merchant’s Tale, around a hundred and fifty years before Shakespeare birth, the phrase pops up in many of the Bard’s plays too.

In The Merchant of Venice, Jessica says:

‘Here, catch this casket; it is worth the pains.
I am glad 'tis night, you do not look on me,
For I am much ashamed of my exchange:
But love is blind and lovers cannot see
The pretty follies that themselves commit;
For if they could, Cupid himself would blush
To see me thus transformed to a boy.’

The phrase also appears in Two Gentlemen of Verona and Henry V.

3. Star-crossed lovers

Romeo and Juliet, perhaps the most famous romantic tale of all, opens with the following prologue which tells us what the story is going to be about:

‘Two households, both alike in dignity
(In fair Verona, where we lay our scene),
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life,
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Doth with their death bury their parents' strife.
The fearful passage of their death-marked love
And the continuance of their parents' rage,
Which, but their children’s end, naught could remove,
Is now the two hours' traffic of our stage -
The which, if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.’

Star-crossed means inevitable, thwarted by bad luck, doomed by the stars. By telling us the story at the beginning of the play, Shakespeare suggests that there is nothing his characters could have done to prevent the tragedy that befalls them.

4. The course of true love never did run smooth

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a comedy about the complicated and often messy nature of love. Lysander loves Hermia who has been promised to someone else. He tries to reassure her by saying:

‘Ay me! for aught that I could ever read,
Could ever hear by tale or history,
The course of true love never did run smooth;
But, either it was different in blood,--‘.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

14 Feb 2018
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