How does food speak to us? What does it say when we choose salad, not steak? When we buy our vegetables from local farmers, when we avoid pork or shellfish or insist on gluten-free?
As Shakespeare knew, food is a shared language, full of dramatic possibility. The foods his characters ate weren’t just stage props. They spoke to a contemporary audience, establishing character traits, commenting on food fashions, indicating or undermining social class and engaging in the pleasures of wordplay.
Many of the foods Shakespeare’s characters devour and cook and long for were familiar to theatre goers – from the groundlings crammed into the pit at the bottom of the stage, to the wealthier patrons seated above. His famous ‘fat knight,” Falstaff, was a great eater of commonly recognized foodstuffs. A receipt for a meal at an inn, found in his pocket by Prince Hal in 1 Henry IV, itemizes a typical dinner:
Item, A capon ………………………………………..2s. 2d.
Item, Sack, two gallons……………………………5s. 8d.
Item, Anchovies and sack after supper……..2s. 6d.
But this ordinary food is also extraordinary. We can only wonder how Falstaff’s stomach could carry a whole capon (a plump, castrated young rooster) and more than two gallons of sherry wine. As the prince exclaims, perhaps on behalf of the audience, “O, monstrous! But one halfpennyworth of bread to this intolerable deal of sack?” (2.4.530-36).
Falstaff’s gluttony is funny because of its exaggerated excess – a joke we can still share. For his Elizabethan audiences, though, his overeating evoked the stereotype of the drunken, brawling knight and made not-so-subtle insinuations about Falstaff’s morality. His outrageous appetite for food suggested his love for all kinds of excess – food, sex, power – and pointed him out as a rather ambiguous character. According to the sermons of the day, it was hard to stop one kind of appetite leading to the next, and ultimately down the terrible path of sin.
Shakespeare’s food also commented on fashionable trends and the new availability of imported spices and dried fruits. In Shakespeare’s 1610 romance, The Winter’s Tale, the Clown heads off to the nearest market town to buy ingredients for a sheep-shearing feast. The Clown is a typical rustic character – played for laughs and a bit of a fool. But his shopping list is surprisingly sophisticated, full of items like currants, ginger, nutmeg and “raisins o’ the sun” that any upwardly mobile housewife might desire (4.3.38, 46-8).
As the Clown tells us, though, he’s just the messenger, instructed by his adoptive sister Perdita on what to buy. Perdita is a princess (although she doesn’t know it yet), and we might wonder if her food knowledge has been gained through a combination of female intuition and the influence of royal blood. Nobility was commonly claimed to be revealed in a person’s appearance and bearing. Does Perdita’s shopping list, which promises flavours fit for upper class tables, also reveal her true ancestry?
It might. But for London audiences, it might more obviously have spoken of food fashions that dictated the purchase of luxury goods when entertaining guests.
Recipe books and household manuals, like Gervase Markham’s The English Housewife, published in 1615, encouraged these trends. Perdita’s list shows that even well-off farming families longed to recreate the dishes served at grand estates. It’s not so different from our own consumption of gorgeously illustrated cookbooks that allow us to pretend we can all be top-notch chefs. Gervase Markham tells his housewife that a “humble feast” includes 32 different dishes, and that’s just for the first course. Meats, salads, fish and even sweet puddings shared a table, jostling for a hungry guest’s attention. And as for us, such extravagance meant to impress, showing off under cover of being a good host.
Shakespeare’s food could communicate more disturbing messages, as well. The Roman general Titus Andronicus (in the play of the same name) stages a final revenge banquet for his nemesis, the Goth queen Tamora, complete with a pie made from the flesh of her sons. It’s a cannibal meal that culminates in no fewer than four murders, leaving bodies strewn across the dinner table.
This is a strange scene.
But the pie would have been strangely familiar to Shakespeare’s audience. It’s not a dish fit for a queen. It’s not filled with the delicate spices and dried fruits that Perdita asks her brother to buy. It’s a dish that Falstaff or the Clown himself might have eaten – hearty, cheap and easy to make, available at inns and urban cookshops catering to craftsmen and apprentice bachelors.
Part of the joke is in the terminology of cookery. A pie shell in those days was called a “coffin,” a hard, inedible dough that functioned as a pot for baking the meat. When Titus informs his daughter’s rapists that “I will grind your bones to dust, / And with your blood and it I’ll make a paste, / And of the paste a coffin I will rear,” he’s terrifying the boys, but pleasing the theatre crowd with a grisly pun (5.2. 186-8).
But there’s still more pleasure to be had from this pie.
As a dish not at all appropriate for a person of Tamora’s social standing, it comments on the queen’s inner nature. She might look like royalty, but she’s really a “ravenous tiger,” whose devouring nature is epitomized when she inadvertently cannibalizes her sons (5.3.195). And this moral commentary is enhanced by further wordplay. Titus’s pie is reminiscent of an Umble Pie, made from the umbles – entrails and organs – of an animal. If that’s how Shakespeare’s audiences understood this dish, then it’s not just the coffin that would have made them laugh. It’s the pie itself, an edible pun, embodying the phrase “eating humble pie.”
How could Shakespeare not have drawn on the language and imagery of food in his plays? Understood and enjoyed by rich and poor alike, food pleased the theatre-going palate and kept audiences coming back for more.
Madeline Bassnett is an English and Writing Studies professor whose teaching and research focuses on the poetry and prose of 16th– and 17th-century England.