SHAKESPEARE USED EVERYTHING in the literary pantry. Every metaphor, every rhetorical device, every inference. Chief nourisher at life’s feast, he embraced the totality of existence, ate experience and drank it up, leaving a seeming glut of wonders behind. But casting a cursory glance over the canon reveals something curious. While his works are a very fantastical banquet, just so many strange dishes, there aren’t as many references to food as you might expect. Not even in the plays with the fattest Lord in Literature. We assume that Sir John Falstaff has come by his ‘huge hill of flesh’ less by consumption of capons [overfed castrated roosters] than by drinking of sack [cheap cask wine]. The Henry IV plays drown in alcohol, and yet amongst all that cavorting in taverns, not a single meal is served.
When Shakespeare does reference food, he links it so often with decay and corruption that, were he writing today, we’d likely diagnose him with an eating disorder. There is nothing equivocal in Hamlet’s line, “We fat all creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for maggots.” You eat, you die, you get eaten. Not exactly the sentiments of a gourmand.
Of course, food meant something different to the Elizabethans – or at least, different from current Western ideas of food. The modern fetish of, and angst around, food would have been unthinkable in the late sixteenth century. Grain shortages, complicated by outbreaks of the plague, led to genuine fears of starvation. Food was foremost a matter of survival, love didn’t come into it. Even the concept of the family roast, that ultimate familial bonding exercise, didn’t emerge until the Victorian era.
So it shouldn’t surprise us that Shakespeare occasionally seems, if not exactly nonplussed, somewhat ambivalent on the subject of food. So often in his plays, feasts are about to occur, are just beginning when something interrupts and swiftly brings about the meal’s surcease. Very rarely is food consumed on stage, and when it is, the results are often diabolical.
As well we might expect, food is most foul in Macbeth, full to the brim as it is with fillet of a fenny snake and finger of birth-strangled babe. But it isn’t only the weird sisters alone who lower the culinary tone. When Lady Macbeth goads her husband, even the purest of nourishment turns to dread:
I have given suck, and know/How tender ‘tis to love the babe that milks me:/I would, while it was smiling in my face,/Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums,/And dashed the brains out.
In this satanic play, as the corruption and horror of Macbeth’s reign spreads, horses eat each other. That the murder of Duncan is the immediate catalyst is something Macbeth seems to sense from the outset. Announcing the crime to his fellow Thanes, he taps into a powerful mood of despair. “The wine of life is drawn, and the mere lees/is left this vault to brag of.”
In Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare gives us perhaps the most sadistic meal in the canon. To avenge his daughter’s ravishment and butchery, Titus – a rigid-minded general who has until now been painfully slow to outrage – chops up the sons of his enemy Tamora and bakes them in a pie, which he serves to their unwitting mother. The Grand Guignol extremity of this works only as a parody of the revenge play, but it does have
a certain ghoulish relish. Anthony Hopkins made a meal of this scene in Julie Taymor’s otherwise fine film. Donning a ludicrous chef’s hat in an attempt at visual wit may have been overkill, but then again, Shakespeare was hardly in a restrained mood.
Certainly he is thinking here of food as fuel for vengeance, as Titus’s line to his brother Marcus attests. “Look you eat no more/Than will preserve just so much strength in us/As will revenge these bitter woes.” And then there is the feast itself, given a comic, if ghastly, touch by Titus’s jaunty line, “There they are both, baked in that pie,/Whereof their mother daintily hath fed,/Eating the flesh that she herself hath bred.”
Of course stories of parents eating their children are ancient. The Indian Goddess Kali is often depicted suckling her child and then eating it, and Cronus – Saturn in the Roman version – eats his own children for fear of being overthrown by one of them. These myths haunt the edges of King Lear, an unforgettable picture of family hatred gone global and the closest thing Shakespeare gets to utter nihilism. Here Lear is not so much eating as eaten, consumed by the vitriol of his own progeny. Love has been starved and so the hunger for love proves utterly destructive.
By an awful irony, this hunger is born from a desire to bind and measure love. Lear demands of his youngest and most loyal daughter, “What can you say to draw/A third more opulent than your sisters?” This is an insane measurement, for how can one third be more opulent than any other thirds? Lear’s pie is as compromised, as hellish, as Titus’ – filled not literally with the flesh of children but with their promise of unachievable love. He finds it an empty meal.
In Coriolanus, Shakespeare takes the metaphor possibly to its most extreme point. At the beginning of this rarely performed ‘Roman tragedy’, Rome is described as a body, and it is starving itself. Or more accurately, the city is become body parts; the belly, symbolising the patricians ‘cupboarding viands’ and storing grain at the expense of the extremities, symbolising the plebeians. Riot is imminent, caused not by class warfare but by genuine dearth. As the First Citizen says in the opening lines of the play, “I speak this in hunger for bread, not in thirst for revenge.”
The belly metaphor is not Shakespeare’s idea. It is a variant of an Aesop fable, and appears in Plutarch, Shakespeare’s source for so many of his history plays. Except Shakespeare does not reproduce this simple allegory of the body politic uncritically. As always there is nuance and doubt.
The character delivering the metaphor in an attempt to calm the crowd is Menenius Agrippa, himself a patrician and clearly as self-serving and patronising as the rest of his ilk. “I am the storehouse and the shop/Of the whole body,” is just the kind of myopic entitlement we so often expect from arrogant politicians.
When Coriolanus steps into the riotous crowd, he does not even try to appease them. In a clear reference to the grain shortages of his own time, Shakespeare has the hotheaded general – raised to spurn all shows of love by his bloody-minded mother – brand the populace with ingratitude and cowardice when they dare to accuse the Senate of falsely inflating the price of bread. He draws on his own image of food to damn the common people. “Your affections are/A sick man’s appetite, who desires most that/Which would increase his evil.” The layers of complexity in this line – invoking the paradox of appetite – are head spinning. A sick man has no appetite, so desiring something which would increase his illness – if indeed illness is what is meant by ‘evil’ – must refer to starvation, ironically the very thing the crowd is rioting to avoid.
Tellingly, Shakespeare refuses to attribute any kind of moral standpoint to either lean or fatted imagery. Appetite is a word packed with meaning but, even in the comedies, digestion rarely connotes character. The fatuous Duke Orsino opens Twelfth Night with this incredibly famous line: “If music be the food of love, play on./Give me excess of it that, surfeiting/The appetite may sicken, and so die.” He may be faintly ludicrous and dramatic here, as if his head had been emptied by love, but he seems to speak for us all when a few lines later he goes on to say, “Enough, no more./’Tis not so sweet now as it was before.”
This is brilliant stuff, intricately entwining food, love and music with a clarity that is instinctual to us. If we eat too much music, we’ll eat too much love. And if we eat too much love, our appetite for it will diminish and we’ll be free of it. This is no romantic sentiment, but it tallies with experience.
Of course the subject of love inspires a veritable basket of food imagery, even if most of it is compromised by cynicism. Hamlet’s famous comment to Horatio – on the speedy marriage of his but recently widowed mother – that, “The funeral baked meats did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables,” is a wonderful example of the character’s rancid wit. It’s a sour, venomous barb that plays on heating and cooling of love, as well as the suggestion that Gertrude’s new union with Claudius is akin to eating marital leftovers.
The temperature of food and of love is a leitmotif Shakespeare started playing with early on. Comedy of Errors, that perfect jewel of a farce, most likely originated as a dare to outdo Plautus before ending up an example of the Bard’s earliest wonders. It features an exchange between one of the Dromio twins and one of the Antipholus twins. “She is so hot because the meat is cold;/The meat is cold because you come not home.” The situation is no doubt familiar to us all. The confluence of food and sex is implicit, the cooling of meat signifying the cooling of affection. And of appetite, too – Antipholus is not hungry because he’s been eating out, so
Comedy of Errors seems to posit that food is not enough of an aphrodisiac, but at least it’s available. The twisted wooing of Katherine by Petruchio in Taming of the Shrew is another matter, involving some perverse tactics around the subject of food. There is Kate, the angry and uncompromising young woman; Bianca, her popular younger sister; the venal father, insisting Kate marry first; and the conniving japester, Petruchio who shows everyone how it’s done. He woos (read: batters and cajoles) Kate, then marries her in a humiliating parody of a wedding. Here, Shakespeare gives a marriage feast, with no bride and groom. Just as the feast gets underway, Petruchio whisks Kate off in order to torment her, using food, or the withholding of it, as his primary weapon.
Taunting Kate with the promise of a meal she’ll never receive, Petruchio relishes his role as the gatekeeper to his wife’s sustenance. He solicits his servant Grumio to offer her, “A piece of beef and mustard.” When she enthuses, Grumio declares, “… the mustard is too hot.” Exasperated, Kate responds, “Why then, the beef, and let the mustard rest.” Insisting she should have the mustard or else the beef isn’t worth it, Grumio offers an alternative, “Why then, the mustard without the beef.”
As if that cruel torment were not enough, Petruchio enters carrying a side of beef, but of course Kate never gets to eat it. Her incomprehension at this charade is complete. “What, did he marry me to famish me?” If this were the case, the play would be no comedy; it would be a tract on domestic abuse (an interpretation given full rein by misguided directors past). Really, Kate’s wellbeing is never in any serious doubt; the withholding of meals, as well as other creature comforts, is designed to make her amenable to compromise, to snap her out of her otherwise understandable recalcitrance, rather than to starve or punish her.
Leaving aside the rather fraught patriarchy, here I think we can finally find some hint of Shakespeare’s general position on food. To go without, to deprive or be deprived, to experience hunger or satisfaction, is to be utterly human, without judgement or censure. Food is food. In and of itself, it doesn’t mean anything. While King Lear’s Tom-O-Bedlam shivers naked and starving in the wild storm, the audience knows this character is actually Edgar, and feigning hunger. Even in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Bottom translated into an ass takes quickly to his new diet, calling for, “A bottle/Of hay: good hay, sweet hay, hath no fellow.”
What goes into our mouths when, “we fat ourselves for maggots” is all just, in another pie reference from Richard II, “paste and cover to our bones.” This is a long way from the fraught anxiety of paleo diets and supergrains, and should probably be taken as a warning from Shakespeare: our need for food is so enmeshed with our need for love, a need that can so easily turn sour, that our diet is in danger of being mistaken for ourselves. We are, literally, what we eat.
Perhaps the finest reference to food in the canon, or at least the most straightforward, is to be found in Antony and Cleopatra. Here is one play that does feature a feast, appropriately so given the plot pivots on the tragicomic spectacle of a man who cannot escape his pleasures. A sublime play, and undeniably one of Shakespeare’s best, it features two of the most charismatic and complex partners he ever penned. But it is the constant asides between the lesser characters that truly elevates it into the sublime.
Mecaenas – one of the Roman soldiers who has been stuck in the stultifying asceticism of Rome under the command of Octavius Caesar – is keen to chat with Antony’s right-hand man Enobarbus, to confirm a rumour he’s heard of the hedonism and outright excess of Egypt. The pair will go on to famously discuss Cleopatra’s sensuality aboard her perfumed barge, but it is a throwaway line, one of the very few comments Shakespeare makes about food that is straight-up celebratory, which sticks in the mind. “Eight wild boars roasted whole at a breakfast, and but twelve persons there. Is this true?”
Could it be that amidst the sea of references to food as corruption, cruelty, waste, perverse notions of increase and dearth, the Bard occasionally felt partial to the idea of a bloody good meal?