The meaty language of Shakespeare

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 the bard’s use of meat and offal as a rich source of symbolism

Illustrations: Jonny Hannah

“…give them great meals of beef, and iron and steel, they will eat like wolves and fight like devils.”
The Constable of France, Henry V, act 3, scene 7

For many centuries, beef was thought of as one of the foods that most represented Britain, and particularly the English, with roast beef effectively being the English national dish. English stomachs were considered to be naturally attuned to digesting beef, and British cattle, being pasture fed, were renowned for produced the best-tasting, most tender meat. In Henry V, the French relate the fighting power of the English directly to their beef-eating; just as their defeat in Henry VI Part I is attributed by Alençon to the fact that they have not been able to dine on the food they thrive on, “their fat bull beeves” (Henry VI Part I, act 1, scene 2).

“I am a great eater of beef and I believe that does harm to my wit.”
Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Twelfth Night, act 1, scene 3, line 85

Although there have been some proponents of vegetarianism since ancient times, in general meat-eating was thought to be a crucial part of a balanced diet in the Elizabethan era. The Christian faith taught that animals were created by God for people’s use, subservient to them and without any of the intelligence given to humans. This also meant that it was possible to have too much of a good thing—there was a danger that you might begin to resemble the thing you’d eaten. So, Sir Andrew Aguecheek fears that too much beef will make him stupid, and when Prince Hal calls Falstaff “my sweet beef” (Henry IV Part I, act 3, scene 3) it is affectionate, but hardly a compliment to his intelligence.

Shakespeare on meat

“The plague of Greece upon thee, thou mongrel beef-witted lord!”
Thersites to Ajax, Troilus and Cressida, act 2, scene 1

It’s not only beef that provides the means to insult others—other meats seem filled with potential. Jewish Shylock rejects Bassiano’s insincere dinner invitation by referring primarily to the offensive smell of pork he might be exposed to (Merchant of Venice, act 1, scene 3). When Falstaff is called a hodge-pudding (The Merry Wives of Windsor, act 5, scene 5) he’s simultaneously being likened to a hodgepot (a type of stew) and a meaty mixture stuffed into a skin like a haggis or sausage: he’s a fat, smelly, lecherous stew of a man.

But it is offal that provides a particularly rich seam of lewd, vivid comic abuse. Animals were brought in on the hoof and slaughtered at the market, and Falstaff evokes a familiar sight at the market end-of-day when he rails against the idea that in his old age he will be cleared away and unceremoniously “carried in a basket, and [to be] thrown in the Thames like a barrow of butcher’s offal” (The Merry Wives of Windsor, act 3, scene 5).

Shakespeare’s audience was also thoroughly familiar with the different shapes and colours of the various tripes and guts. Mistress Page swears her revenge on Falstaff “as sure as his guts are made of puddings”, a gruesomely accurate description of intestines (The Merry Wives of Windsor, act 2, scene 1), while the gloriously foul-mouthed Doll Tearsheet conjures up perfectly the pale, rippling surface of inexpensive stomach linings when she calls the Beadle “thou damned tripe-visaged rascal… thou paper-faced villain.” (Henry IV part 2, Act 5, Scene 4). If ever you need to simultaneously insult the pallor, meanness and uneven skin-tone of your enemies, look no further.