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Shakespeare in the dining room

Categories: History of food

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, sometime resident of Southwark. Jane Levi, writer and visiting research fellow at King’s College London, explores his use of mealtimes as a literary device

Illustrations: Jonny Hannah

“Falstaff: For grace thou wilt have none
Hal: What, none?
Falstaff: No… not so much as will serve to be a prologue to an egg and butter”

(Henry IV Part 1, act 1, scene 2)

Lunch had not been invented in Shakespeare’s day. Breakfast, a relatively light meal (that according to Falstaff didn’t even merit a prayer of thanks said before it) generally happened shortly after dawn, and dinner—for most people the main meal of the day—at around midday.

Supper was more of a moveable feast, but health manuals of the time generally recommended that it should take place five or six hours after dinner, preferably later than six o’clock in the evening. For the grander members of society, the main supper might be followed by a banquet, often a playful dessert course.

“Welcome! One mess is like to be your cheer.
Come, sir, we will better it in Pisa.”

(Tranio, Taming of the Shrew, act 4, scene 4)

Meals were generally served in two ‘messes’ or ‘removes’, in a style referred to as ‘service à la Française’, hence Tranio’s promise to improve on the single course meal he’s offering Signor Baptista. In this style of service, standard in the Elizabethan era, multiple sweet and savoury dishes were arranged on the table at once for diners to make their own selection from.

Once they had eaten, they were replaced with a second selection of different dishes (the second mess). It is only since the late 19th century that ‘service à la Russe’—the style we use today, in which each diner is individually served with several fixed courses—that the pattern of savoury dishes followed by sweet has become the European norm.

Frequently, dinners in Shakespeare’s plays are less about the food and more about a moment in which a mood changes. Thus, we have Benedick’s comic attempts to put a positive spin on Beatrice’s irritable “Against my will, I am sent to bid you come in to dinner” (Much Ado About Nothing, act 2, scene 3) just after he has overheard his friends claiming she loves him; and the various confusions and misunderstandings over who has had dinner with whom and where in The Comedy of Errors.

Shakespeare illustration

“Let me not stay a jot for dinner. Go get it ready. […]—Dinner, ho, dinner! Where’s my knave, my fool?—Go you, and call my fool hither.”
Lear, King Lear, act 1, scene 4

For Lear, the failure to produce his dinner on command is the first quite visible sign of his loss of power. Macbeth sees Banquo’s ghost at dinner, exposing his unsettled mind to his guests; and Desdemona’s attempt to persuade Othello to forgive Cassio by insisting she will plead for him at every mealtime gives Iago fuel to fan the flames of his misplaced jealousy (Othello, act 3, scene 3).

“Hark, villains! 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
And make two pasties of your shameful heads”

(Titus, Titus Andronicus, act 5, scene 2)

Perhaps the most notorious meal in Shakespeare’s plays is the gruesome banquet at the climax of Titus Andronicus, where Titus “plays the cook” and serves Tamora with a pie containing her two sons, Chiron and Demetrius, ensuring she eats it before he tells her its contents and kills her—a warning, if any were needed, to steer clear of the dinner invitations of a sworn enemy; and a reminder to always check the ingredients of a pie before putting it in your mouth.