Twelfth Night is easily one of the funniest plays by Shakespeare. Many foremost Shakespearean critics agree to it including Harold Bloom. The whole tone of the play is set by the way it begins.
The play begins with the conceit of Orsino which he maintains to the very end. The conceit is the self-indulgence of Orsino. He is intoxicated with himself yet it is him who Shakespeare chooses to say, “if music be the food of love, play on” and begin the play.
The beginning scene is set in the Duke Orsino’s palace wherein his court Curio and other Lords are sitting with musicians. Orsino’s first dialogue is ironic because he is, perhaps deliberately, saying what he is literally going to do in the case of Olivia.
He asks his musicians to play certain music which he heard earlier. He is contemplating the nature of love which in the beginning remains very sweet but in excess, it starts sickening.
Shakespeare compares love with the nature of cadenced music and violets flower. The slow music which Orsino asks to be played again will soon sound sickening to him. The fragrance which comes out of a bank of violets is so fresh but soon becomes odor.
The spirit of love is also “quick and fresh” in the beginning but it can’t withstand its own capacity and finally, its amount starts falling, the quality starts degrading. Orsino speaks of the fantasy which lies in human imagination and how unreliably it grows and dies.
In the end, we see that Orsino wasn’t even loving Olivia the way he keeps claiming throughout the play. It takes him a moment to take the hands of Viola. At this very beginning of the play, Shakespeare gives us the idea of human love and its illusions.