Shakespeare’s seasonings

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 what the bard had to say about herbs, spices and flavourings

Illustrations: Jonny Hannah

“Is not birth, beauty, good shape, discourse, manhood, learning, gentleness, virtue, youth, liberality, and such like, the spice and salt that season a man?
Pandarus, Troilus and Cressida, act 1, scene 2

The most cursory glance at recipes from Shakespeare’s time tells us that the food of the era, for those who could afford it, was far from bland. Spices from India, the East Indies and the African continent had been imported into Europe for many centuries, and by the Elizabethan era, as transport improved and trade flourished, many of them had become significantly cheaper and ever more widely used.

In combination with the green herbs readily grown in English gardens, there was a varied palette of seasonings to choose from. Dishes flavoured with a wide range of herbs and spices abound in contemporary texts, and it is safe to assume that even the humblest food was seasoned at least with salt and perhaps a few easily found greens. Although he earns a sarcastic response from his niece, in Pandarus’s reckoning it is the extra seasonings that really make the finished dish.

Grumio: What say you to a piece of beef and mustard?
Katherine: A dish that I do love to feed upon.
Grumio: Ay, but the mustard is too hot a little.
Katherine: Why, then the beef, and let the mustard rest.
Grumio: Nay, then I will not: you shall have the mustard, or else you get no beef of Grumio.
Katherine: Then both, or one, or anything thou wilt.
Grumio: Why then, the mustard without the beef.

The Taming of the Shrew, act 4, scene 3

Besides enhancing the flavour of the food, many seasonings were valued for their healing and symbolic properties, and Shakespeare makes great use of the knowledge his audience had of these associations.

By the time we get to the scene in which Grumio torments Katherine with the various dishes he could bring her to eat, we already know that she is a hot-headed woman, but this only serves to heighten the comedy of his banter about whether or not to risk the mustard, a proud home-grown seasoning well known as something to dramatically send a rush up the nose and into the head.

Shakespeare illustration

“I would she were as lying a gossip in that as ever knapped ginger or made her neighbours believe she wept for the death of a third husband.”
Solanio, The Merchant of Venice, act 3, scene 1

Many spices were thought to warm the body and act upon the mind, such as cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger, all therefore recommended for students and others engaged in a lot of reading who needed to be kept alert. In The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare focuses on some of the spicier implications of ginger—in common innuendo of the time the old gossip was more likely to be chewing on ginger to try and spice up her sex life than improve her mind.

“There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember.”
Ophelia, Hamlet, act 4, scene 5

A century earlier Thomas More said that rosemary had long been known as the herb sacred to friendship and remembrance, and Shakespeare famously uses it in this sense as Ophelia descends into madness and distributes flowers and herbs.

Perhaps rosemary’s association with memory and constant friendship is related to the fact that it along with rue, remains green and keeps “seeming and savor” all the year round; it is one of the “flowers of winter” or old age as Polixenes describes it in The Winter’s Tale (act 4, scene 4).

Later in the scene, the flowers of middle age are said to include the scented hardy perennial herbs—mint, savory and marjoram—while in Sonnet 99, the poet chides the flowers for trying to imitate his lover’s beauty, including “buds of marjoram [that] had stolen thy hair”, referring either to an extraordinary hair colour, or the sweet scent of the perfumed water commonly made with the herb.

With this, as with the youthful “wench married in an afternoon as she went to the garden for parsley to stuff a rabbit” (Biondello, The Taming of the Shrew, act 4, scene 4), Shakespeare makes it clear that with the right choice of seasoning you just might get a little bit more than a good dinner.