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The taste of Shakespeare

Although the recipes of our Cookbook of Unknown Ladies were compiled during the Georgian period, quite a number of the dishes made their first appearance further back in history. We’ve already seen how tort de moy graced the table of James II at his coronation feast in 1685. Other recipes have even earlier origins. Yesterday’s green pea soup or the kidney Florentine prepared at our Cooking Up History session would not have looked out of place at a Tudor banquet.

Kidney florentine, as prepared by our Cooking up History group

Kidney florentine, as prepared by our Cooking up History group

The Food of Love

The Food of Love

We’re delighted to introduce Alycia Smith-Howard, co-author of The Food of Love: The Taste of Shakespeare in Four Seasonsas our guest author today! Her research for the book highlights how, by using food as an effective theatrical device,  Shakespeare sheds light on the culinary landscape of early modern England…

“Cheer and great welcome makes a merry feast!”

Comedy of Errors

As a literary device, food encapsulates a range of significant meanings throughout Shakespeare’s plays and poems. For example, food is used metaphorically to express an extremity of feeling or longing, such as Bullingbrook’s declaration in Richard II, wherein he describes his time wandering in exile as: “Eating the bitter bread of banishment” (III.i. 21). This evocative turn of phrase immediately sets a taste in the mouth and gives us, as readers, a profoundly intimate awareness of the character’s depth of feeling. Shakespeare’s creative use of familiar food items in this and other passages are both philosophical and sensuous.

Feast held for the visit of the Spanish Ambassador to the court of James I, 1623

Feast held for the visit of the Spanish Ambassador to the court of James I, 1623

Food, in the shape of feasting and banquets, as in Macbeth, Titus Andronicus and The Tempest, provides the means of bringing people (and enemies) together, yet these occasions also serve a higher, and often darker, purpose. Banqueting, in these contexts, becomes a dark ritual. The act of ‘breaking bread’ facilitates the revelation of a horrid truth and the recognition of crimes committed.

Food is also used as a distraction, such as Richard of Gloucester’s odd request for strawberries in Richard III (III.iv.1984). A skillful manipulator, Richard keeps those around him on their toes and always guessing. His call for strawberries serves as a brilliant delaying tactic as he and Buckingham solidify their plans and alliances.

However, being the great master-revealer of life in all its myriad shapes and forms, Shakespeare’s works also provide an insight into the culinary delights of the world that surrounded him. More often than not, food in Shakespeare’s works is a symbol of home, hearth, family and community. Shakespeare repeatedly and feelingly evokes the simple, rustic pleasures of life, pleasures with which he would have been undoubtedly familiar, thanks to his idyllic, Warwickshire upbringing.  It is also worth noting that in many of these “hearthy” references, women take centre stage, as providers of sustenance and nourishment:

When icicles hang by the wall,
And Dick, the Shepherd blows his nail,
And Tim bears logs into the hall,
And milk comes frozen home in pail;

When blood is nipped, and ways be foul,
Then nightly sings the staring owl,
Tu-whit, to-whoo, a merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

When all aloud the wind doth blow,
And coughing,drowns the parson’s saw,
And birds sit brooding in the snow,
A’ Marian’s nose looks red and raw.

When roasted crabs hiss in the bowl,
Then nightly sings the staring owl,
Tu-whit, to-whoo, a merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

Love’s Labours Lost (V.ii.2860-2875)

While conducting research for our Shakespeare cookbook, The Food of Love: The Taste of Shakespeare in Four Seasons, Chef Alan Deegan and I pored over age-old recipe books, and trawled through dusty archives to uncover the food that Shakespeare would have known and enjoyed. It was humbling to encounter the scrawled notes of countless, nameless “Greasy Joans” to whom we owe debt of thanks for preserving and passing on our culinary heritage. It is also what makes projects such as The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies so important. It is essentially a chronicle of the commonplace concerns  and knowledge of common folk.

Ellen Terry as Mistress Page in 1902

Ellen Terry as Mistress Page in 1902

Shakespeare’s autumnal comedy, The Merry Wives of Windsor, is unique among his works as the one play that is focused exclusively on the everyday lives of ordinary, middle class, Elizabethan folk. The play’s two principal characters are the quick-witted Mistress Page and Mistress Ford. Like Greasy Joan’s simmering pot, the formidable Mistress Page reminds us of wonderfully filling foods that comfort us against a brisk chill: “Come, we have a hot venison pasty to dinner!” (I.i.178).

Shakespeare’s most explicit (and delightful) “food as food” reference appears in The Winter’s Tale, where we are treated to an actual grocery shopping list!

Clown. Let me see; what am 
I to buy for our sheep-shearing feast? Three pound 
of sugar, five pound of currants, rice,—what will this sister of mine do with rice? But my father 
hath made her mistress of the feast, and she lays it on. I must have saffron to colour the warden pies; mace; dates?—none, that’s out of my note; nutmegs, seven; a race or two of ginger, but that I 
may beg; four pound of prunes, and as many of 
raisins o’ the sun. 


Playbill for The Winter's Tale, 1802

Playbill for The Winter’s Tale, 1802

Perdita’s extraordinary sheep-shearing feast is only outdone by the celestial celebration in Shakespeare’s last, and some would argue, his greatest work, The Tempest, where he depicts a feast hosted by the great goddess Ceres herself (“Most bounteous lady of wheat, rye, barley, oats and peas!” IV.i.1771). The word ‘feast’ itself, in fact, appears over 100 times throughout Shakespeare’s plays.  And, for me, Shakespeare has always been a feast for the senses.

Samuel Johnson called Shakespeare’s works “a Map of Life.” Without a doubt, food is an essential part of the journey, and there are over 2,000 culinary references in Shakespeare’s plays and poems. Working alongside Chef Deegan to produce The Food of Love: The Taste of Shakespeare in Four Seasons afforded me the enviable opportunity to explore these references and the works of Shakespeare from a fresh and delectable perspective. And, what a delicious treat it has been!

[Alycia Smith-Howard, PhD]

The Food of Love

The Food of Love

Try recipes inspired by Shakespeare’s plays and Tudor tastes with Alycia and Alan’s beautifully-produced cookbook The Food of Love, or find out more about Alycia’s work at www.alyciasmithhoward.com

2 thoughts on “The taste of Shakespeare

  1. Pingback: “The Taste of Shakespeare” – a recent article for “The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies” (Friday, 7 June 2013) | Alycia Smith-Howard, PhD

  2. Pingback: Closing the book | The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

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