How William Shakespeare Used Food in His Plays

We all know Shakespeare for his insults, sonnets and world-famous plays - but how did he use food in his plays to create drama? And what do they tell us about what was eaten in Elizabethan England? 

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Today I start a course on Shakespeare - on the significance of the play Hamlet. I've always loved to read Shakespeare's plays - since I studied Macbeth in school when I was 15. 'When shall we three meet again', and all that. 

And as I started to prepare for this course, I wondered what the Bard had to say about food. Which foods did he mention to dramatic or tragic effect? And which foods were mentioned in happy, wistful scenes? Although this will provide an insight to what kinds of foods Shakespeare probably ate, it's directed much more at what was mentioned in his plays. Tudor food will be the subject of another post (so stay tuned). 

Hazelnuts are mentioned in Shakespeare's plays in scenes of both romance and fantasy. They were a common Tudor snack (there's evidence that theatregoers would snack on hazelnuts while watching Shakespeare's plays at the Globe) - and were often used in recipes. When Petruchio is talking about Kate in The Taming of the Shrew (Act 2, scene 1) he says that she, 'like the hazel-twig, is straight and slender and as brown in hue as hazelnuts and sweeter than the kernels.' And Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet (Act 1, scene 4) describes the fairy midwife Queen Mab has having a chariot made from 'an empty hazelnut made from the joiner squirrel or old grub'. 

Fruity Rice Pudding
In The Winter's Tale (Act 4, scene 3) the clown talks about buying the ingredients needed for a sheep-shearing feast. He mentions sugar, currants, rice, winter pears, saffron, dates, mace and ginger. He hints at how expensive ginger was at the time by saying 'a race of two of ginger - but that I may beg.' He also mentions 'pruins and as many of raisins o' th' sun.' All the ingredients for a fruity and spiced rice pudding.

Roast beef
Not surprising that Shakespeare mentions our oldest national dish of roast beef, as giving sustenance to the troops before they engage in battle in Henry V (Act 3, scene 7). The constable says: 'Give them great meals of beef and iron and steel, they will eat like wolves and fight like devils.' Much how many of us feel on a Sunday night as Monday morning looms. 

Venison, which Henry VIII famously liked to hunt and then give as gifts to his favourites (his future Queen Anne Boleyn received a hart from him - a romantic symbol as much as dinner).  For Shakespeare, it seems that deer were well-respected animals that came with a sense of power. In Cymbeline (Act 3, Scene 3) Belarius comments that 'he who strikes the venison first shall be the lord o' the feast'. And in 'As You Like It' (Act 2, scene 2), Duke Senior feels sorry for them: 'come, shall we go and kill us venison? And yet it irks me the poor dappled fools, being native burghers of this desert city, should in their own confines with forked heads have their round haunches gored.' 

Yep, garlic smells. And it seems that there were quite a few Tudor folk walking around with garlic breath, judging from what Shakespeare had to say. Garlic was popular in recipes from Medieval times onwards, so it was nothing new to the Tudors, although it's not mentioned lovingly by Shakespeare, who tends to use it as an insult. In Henry IV Part 1 (act 3, scene 1) Hotspur talks about a man being so tedious that 'I had rather live with cheese and garlic in a windmill far, than feed on cates and have him talk to me in any summer house in Christendom.' And Bottom, in A Midsummer Night's Dream urges the actors to 'eat no onions or garlic, for we are to utter sweet breath.' (Act 4, scene 2). 

I think that Shakespeare enjoyed snacking on strawberries. They were a summer fruit, to be enjoyed just for a few weeks of the year. And he uses them as a symbol of sweetness and purity. In Henry V, (Act 1, scene 1) he writes: 'the strawberry grows underneath the nettle' to show that something sweet and virtous can be cultivated under something spiky and aggressive. And in Richard III (Act 3, scene 4) the Bishop or Ely seems preoccupied with giving away some strawberries that had been sent for by the Earl of Gloucester. Gloucester says: 'When I was last in Holborn, I saw good strawberries in your garden there. I do beseech you send for some of them.' 

For more foods mentioned by Shakespeare, visit this page - I used it to help me find the references to certain foods written in Shakespeare's works. I'll be doing a couple of Tudor based blog posts in the next few months. Firstly because I'm sure new things will come up with these courses, and secondly because I love the sound of that rice pudding. 

Do you like Shakespeare? What do you think his references to foods tell us about Tudor attitudes to food and drink?