Food and Identity in Shakespeare’s Plays

Hamlet lamented at his mother’s nuptials: “The sepulchral banquet graced the wedding feast whilst yet warm.” He reproached his mother for remarrying ere his father’s bones grew cold.

Lady Macbeth exhibits meticulousness in the libations she presents: to pave the path for regicide, she claims the life of the coachman with poisoned spiced milk punch. This amalgamation of sustenance and libation, a staple on Renaissance tables, comprises ale or Spanish sherry blended with cream.

What victuals to partake? This quandary persists.

The exploration of Renaissance banquets can furnish us with deeper comprehension of Shakespeare’s dramas. By way of illustration, the particular wine choices made by Shakespeare’s characters divulge their essence to readers and spectators. In the Elizabethan epoch, costly sherry enjoyed immense popularity. Falstaff, Shakespeare’s most renowned inebriate, harbored such an affinity for sherry that he vowed eternal abstinence from other spirits. In a subsequent scene, however, he exclaims that were he blessed with a thousand sons, he would instill within them the principle of renouncing feeble wines and dedicating their lives to sherry.

Ale, conversely, occupies a lower echelon, boasting a relatively mild flavor and low alcoholic content. During Shakespeare’s era, ale and beer held great favor, particularly within urban centers. Ale, a traditional brew, was crafted without the addition of hops, rendering it rather light in taste. In “The Taming of the Shrew,” the aristocrats jestingly transport the inebriated tinker Sly from the frigid street to his bedchamber. Deceiving Sly into believing he is of noble birth, they awaken him with white wine and candied fruits. However, Sly, born into a humble lineage, cries out, “For God’s sake, a pot of ale!”

Amid Shakespeare’s zenith in the late 16th century, beer assumed a warm, murky demeanor. In those times, alcoholic libations were typically classified according to their potency: strong ale, table ale, ship’s ale, and ale. Small beer, by contrast, possessed a diluted character, achieved through rinsing and diluting the residual brew with boiling water, followed by a second fermentation. In “Henry VI,” the tailor Jack Cade rallies “men in leather aprons” (craftsmen) for reform and pledges to criminalize the consumption of ale.

In “Henry IV,” when Prince Henry roamed incognito through the thoroughfares, he imbibed a small beer at the “Boar’s Head Tavern.” At a pivotal juncture in the play, Prince Henry confesses his longing for a sip of beer, only to be dissuaded by his comrade Boynes: “A prince ought not to be so unsophisticated, ruminating on such a vapid indulgence.”

In Shakespeare’s era, certain meats were linked to one’s temperament, occupation, and even nationality. Bacon, for instance, was perceived as a fare befitting laborers and toilers due to its arduous digestion and its facilitation of strenuous manual labor. Chicken enjoyed greater popularity and was deemed the most suitable repast for convalescents. Capon represented a more opulent meat—Sir John Falstaff’s favored delicacy—wherein a capon leg was filched from the table by Lance’s dog in “The Two Gentlemen of Verona.” Beef was believed to induce dullness of mind, a notion Shakespeare referenced twice—in “Twelfth Night,” Andrew Aguecheek declares, “Sometimes I think I have no more wit than a Christian or an ordinary man; but I am a great eater of beef, and I believe that does harm to my wit.”

Food and Identity on the Banquet Table

Scarce is the Shakespearean play devoid of conflict at the repast. Mealtimes offer the playwright the finest pretext to assemble numerous individuals on the same stage, enabling acquaintances and strangers to convene. Within the confined space, characters possess no recourse but to converse and engage, thus giving rise to taut atmospheres.

In “The Taming of the Shrew,” Petruchio endeavors to tame the headstrong Katharina by spiriting her away betwixt the nuptials and the reception, subjecting her to hunger’s relentless sway. In “As You Like It,” Orlando displays his prowess at the woodland feast, laying the groundwork for the ultimate union. In “Timon of Athens,” Timon orchestrates an unconventional “banquet” consisting of boiling water. As his former friends partake in the “banquet,” he douses them with copious bowls of warm water, castigating their loss of humanity and subsequently driving them away with crockery and stones.

During that epoch, one’s social class greatly dictated their culinary choices. Landlords, gentry, and even affluent merchants reveled in showcasing their opulence through sumptuous feasts, punctuated by candied fruits and confections. In “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” Falstaff beseeches for “dainty morsels falling from the heavens” to refresh the breath. The true stars of the banquet were not the myriad dishes, but the desserts—elaborate confectionery sculptures and delicacies. Those of affluence spared no expense and constructed separate banqueting halls adjacent to their manors to entertain guests.

In the second part of “Henry IV,” the country judge instructs Tavy: “Bid William the cook prepare pigeons, bantam hens in pairs, a generous cut of mutton, and a selection of delectable kickshaws.” Shakespeare borrowed the term “kickshaws” from the French, encompassing a multitude of delightful appetizers.

In Gervase Markham’s 1615 publication “An English Housewife” (Shakespeare passed away in 1616), homemade kickshaws entailed eggs, cream, black currants, cinnamon, cloves, spinach, chicory, and marigold flowers, intermingled with pig’s trotters (chicken feet). Markham also suggested employing fowl, roots, oysters, offal, and lemons.

Shakespeare not only illuminates the culinary landscape of Renaissance England but also provides insight into the British ethos of that era.

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