Shakespearean Foodways: Feasting, Fasting, Playing and Digesting

Mutton on Fridays: Food, Sex and Puritanism in Vienna

by Enno Ruge

In Measure for Measure, Vincentio, the Duke of Vienna, while investigating in the disguise of a friar the supposed sex crime of a young gentleman named Claudio, encounters Lucio, a well-known libertine and friend of Claudio’s. Lucio enquires of the strange friar whether he has any news about the absent Duke. He does not hesitate to vent his anger about Vincentio’s mysterious disappearing act. According to the libertine, the Duke, had he been in Vienna, would certainly have handled the matter of Claudio’s offence differently from his deputy Angelo, who has sentenced Claudio to death for getting his bride with child. The reason why the Duke would not have condemned Claudio, Lucio assures the incredulous friar, is simply that he, in contrast to his ascetic deputy, once was one for the ladies himself:

Why, what a ruthless thing is this in [Angelo], for the rebellion of a codpiece to take away the life of a man! Would the Duke that is absent have done this? Ere he would have hanged a man for getting a hundred bastards, he would have paid for the nursing a thousand. He had some feeling of the sport; he knew the service, and that instructed him to mercy. […] The Duke—I say to thee again—would eat mutton on Fridays. (3.1.376–382, 438 f.)[1]

Throughout the whole dialogue Lucio uses the imagery of food and drink when he talks about sex. A little earlier he agrees with the friar/Duke that “lechery” is a “vice”, but objects that “it is impossible to extirp it quite, friar, till eating and drinking be put down” (3.1.360, 363, 365–6). When Lucio insinuates, however, that the Duke consumes mutton on Fridays, the point is not that the ruler, like most of his subjects, occasionally follows his basic instincts. Rather, Lucio’s choice of words signifies excess and transgression on the part of the Duke. (Significantly, Lucio adds that the duke “would be drunk too”, 3.1.389). As has frequently been pointed out, the phrase “mutton on Fridays” alludes to the traditional Catholic ban on eating meat on Fridays. As “mutton” could also mean “prostitute” in early modern English,[2] the meaning of the odd phrase seems clear: the seemingly virtuous ruler of Vienna is made out to be a regular visitor of the city’s brothels. Like someone who wilfully, perhaps even hypocritically, breaks a religious fast, “the old fantastical Duke of dark corners” (4.3.154–5) is said to have violated the official moral code of his realm. Critics generally agree that these accusations are totally unfounded, including those scholars who have questioned the traditional view that in Measure for Measure Shakespeare wanted to portray Vincentio as an exemplary, divine ruler. The accuracy of the insinuations appears questionable not least because their originator is himself a “fellow of much licence” (3.1.461) who cynically betrays his former underworld friends from the polluted suburbs when he sees fit (cf. 3.1.308–349; 455–5), Lucio simply lacks the moral authority to call the Duke “a very superficial, ignorant, and unweighing fellow” (3.1.400). Vincentio is clearly the victim of malicious slander, as he himself laments: “What king so strong / Can tie the gall up in the slanderous tongue?” (3.1.444–5)

It has been claimed, notably by Lindsay Kaplan, that the scene nonetheless reflects badly on the Duke in the end, because he himself employs slander in his machinations, albeit to achieve Claudio’s acquittal and thwart Angelo’s plan to abuse the pure Isabella.[3] In my view, however, critics like Kaplan do not fully grasp Shakespeare’s treatment of the issue of slander in this scene and in the whole play. Instead of once again discussing Lucio’s defamation of the Duke under the aspect of the “Slandering [of] a prince” (5.1.521) or sexual slander in early modern England,[4] I propose to take a closer look at what I consider the crucial phrase in the dialogue, the insinuation that the Duke eats “mutton on Fridays”. I would like to argue that the original purpose of the strange phrase was to refer contemporary audiences to anti-puritan polemics which habitually equated gluttony with sexual debauchery. The reference, I believe, could not have escaped the experienced theatre-goer of the day, as “flesh on Fridays” was a familiar term of abuse from anti-puritan satire frequently hurled at the stage-puritan. For example, in the city comedy The Puritan, or The Widow of Watling Street (1606), a play published anonymously but usually attributed to Thomas Middleton,[5] (about which more presently) two simpletons are abused as “Puritanicall Scrape-shoes, Flesh a good Fridayes”.[6] The insult had its origin in the allegation that the godly deliberately broke the Catholic law of fasting on Fridays to demonstrate their distaste for all Romish traditions and to emphasize that they belonged to the communion of the saints, that blessed minority of people who believed themselves predestined to eternal salvation. In the anonymous comedy The Family of Love (1604–6)—now no longer believed to be Middleton’s—the merchant Dryfat proudly announces: “I keep no holydays nor fasts, but eat most flesh o’ Fridays of all days i’ the week.”[7] The example of Dryfat, who is applying for membership in the Family of Love, an obscure sect, whose members allegedly practice group sex at their secret meetings, reminds us that in addition to the ludicrous religious taboo-breaking the slanderous insult frequently denotes sexual transgression as well.[8] In John Marston’s The Dutch Courtesan (1605) the bawd Mary Faugh informs her crony Cocledemoy that she is “none of the wicked that eat fish o’ Fridays.” Later in the same play, at her husband’s execution, the lecherous puritan Mistress Mulligrub whispers into Cocledemoy’s ear: “I have a piece of mutton, and a featherbed for you at all times.”[9] Considering that in Measure for Measure the Duke’s antagonist, the “precise” Angelo (1.3.50), can be (and has been) described as a hypocritical lecherous puritan,[10] the insinuation that the ruler “eats mutton on Fridays” like a stage-puritan renders the slander-scene deeply ironical and much more complex than critics like Kaplan imagined.

The association of the Duke with puritan hypocrisy and excess is all the more significant because the allegation of overindulgence in food and drink not only served as a metaphor of sexual abandon but also for political subversion. The fact that nonconformists regularly held their own collective private fasts whenever they wanted instead of observing the official fasting days of the liturgical calendar was considered socially disruptive and subversive to the established order.[11] The well-known anti-puritan satirist John Taylor, the “water-poet”, writes about such private fasting-practices:

I haue often noted, that if any superfluous feasting or gurmondizing, panch-cramming assembly doe meete, the disordered businesse is so ordered, that it must bee either in Lent, vpon a Friday, or a fasting day: for the meat doth not relish well, except it be sawc’d with disobedience and contempt of Authority. And though they eate Sprats on the Sunday, they care not, so they may be full gorg’d with flesh on the Friday night.

            Then all the zealous Puritans will feast,
            In detestation of the Romish beast.[12]

A corpulent stage-puritan like Ben Jonson’s Zeal-of-the-land Busy, who stuffs his face with roast pork in Bartholomew Fair, thus reflects the political transgression associated with the “obstinate, counter-cultural eating practices” of the godly. “As a representational category,” Kristen Poole concludes, “the puritan registers the anxieties surrounding socio-ecclesiastical structures in flux.”[13]

Therefore, it seems only logical that Poole does not include Shakespeare’s best known ‘puritans’, the equally dour and self-controlled Malvolio and Angelo, in her fine study on the grotesque puritan, but focusses instead on the fat, bragging knight Sir John Falstaff in Henry IV, whom she sees as an example of the “puritan bellygod”, a satirical stereotype which she traces back to the polemical anti-puritan literature of the 1580s and 90s.[14] Nevertheless, I would argue that she rejects Malvolio and Angelo partly because she underestimates the slanderous nature of anti-puritan discourse. It is precisely the defamatory strategies of this discourse, as employed by the theatre in particular, which are foregrounded by Shakespeare in Measure for Measure.[15]If we realize that Shakespeare aims at exploring puritanism primarily as a discursive phenomenon rather than at satirising his puritan neighbours, it even becomes significant that Malvolio and Angelo fail to match the stereotype of the grotesque puritan entirely. The fact that they are only “kinds of puritans” is part of the plays’ design.

It is widely assumed that anti-puritan satire and particularly satirical comedies were instrumental in official Elizabethan and especially Jacobean conformist politics. As John Aubrey reports about Ben Jonson, “King James made [Jonson] write against the Puritans, who began to be troublesome in his time”.[16] If the plays were indeed subject to this kind of pragmatization, it was frequently called into question by the theatre’s dramatic self-representation. A good example to illustrate this point is the anonymous satirical comedy The Puritan, or The Widow of Watling Street, which I have already mentioned. The city comedy’s villain-hero, George Pye-board, is not only the author of an elaborate (if unsuccessful) plot against a rich puritan family but also of plays which satirize London puritans as hypocrites. It is no surprise, therefore, that the local parson, either called “Maister Pigman” or “Maister Ful-bellie”, “railes againe Plaiers mightily” “because they brought him drunck vpp’oth Stage once, as hee will bee horribly druncke”.[17] As a man-about-town, Pye-board claims to have first-hand knowledge about all walks of life. In this, he is reminiscent of the so-called “urban pamphleteers” of the 1580s and 90s, like Robert Greene and Thomas Nashe, who emphatically based their authority on personal experience. As Barnabe Rich points out in 1614, the “ghosts” of this legendary generation of satiric writers were regularly conjured up in early Jacobean literature “to give the world new eyes to see into deformitie”.[18] Pye-board’s motivation for writing satirical comedies, however, is not moral instruction or the correction of vice, but profit. Despite the fact that the victims (both of his plays and his tricks) are hypocritical puritans, his moral authority is highly questionable. A classical trickster figure, he seeks his personal advantage in everything he does and is prepared to sacrifice his cronies when he no longer needs them. Pye-board can be seen as the “enfleshed ghost”[19] of one of the legendary university wits of the late 16th century. His name echoes that of the playwright George Peele, who managed to acquire the reputation of being “dishonorable, sensual, wild, dissipated, lascivious, immoral, wanton, disreputable, a drunkard, a brawler, an unredeemed scrapegrace, in short, a thoroughly bad man”.[20] All this makes George Pye-board the typical antagonist of the stage-puritan.

The question is, of course, why in a play which clearly intervenes in the current controversy between the puritans and the stage it is precisely the playwright who is such an ambivalent character. I believe that by making a man like Pye-board the representative of the theatre in a city comedy relentlessly ridiculing the London godly, The Puritan, or The Widow of Watling Street foregrounds the defamatory character, the sheer unfairness of much anti-puritan satire, including its own. This, however, should not be mistaken as a sign of self-conscious doubt “about the social as well as moral dubiousness of acting”, but rather as a manifestation of an “increasing confidence, even arrogance” towards the puritan antitheatricalists on the part of the theatre people, as Jeffrey Knapp observes with unconcealed disapproval.[21]

In Measure for Measure the equivalent character is Lucio. As someone who is equally at home in the sinful suburbs and the respectable city of Vienna/London[22] he claims to have first-hand knowledge about people from all walks of life. His discourse abounds with tags like “that I know to be true”, “that’s infallible” and “that let me inform you” (3.1.373–4, 390), while he does not seem to care whether what he tells the false friar confidentially about Angelo’s frigidity and the Duke’s incontinence is true or not. As a police informer he remorselessly betrays his former low life friends. If he is thereby instrumental in the official state action against the licentiousness in the suburbs, it is not because he—a notorious “fellow of much licence” (3.1.461)—hates vice. Rather, he appears to delight in denouncing others.

What follows from this? When Lucio insinuates that the Duke “eats mutton on Fridays” the ruler of Vienna is not merely charged with transgressive sexuality. He is—through the resonant phrase well known from anti-puritan satire—made out to be a nonconformist whose outward moral rigorism and inward corruption threaten to disrupt society and subvert order in the state and the church—a libertine in the double sense of the word: a debauchee who leads a life of reckless drinking, promiscuity, and self-indulgence and an antinomian, an enthusiastic follower of the spirit who no longer feels obliged to adhere to any moral law.[23] What is more, these slanderous charges are brought against Vincentio by a dubious character who can be seen as the representative of the anti-puritan stage. Instead of underlining the difference between the humane Duke and the “precise” Angelo, the scene stresses the similarity between the two statesmen. After all, both are moralists and dedicated fighters against the boiling and bubbling corruption in Vienna (cf. 5.1.320). Consequently, both are made out to be “seemers” (1.3.54). The Duke, moreover, is implicitly criticized for using and later disavowing his soul mate Angelo.

It has been claimed that Measure for Measure is a play for King James to make him feel good about himself.[24] It could, however, also contain a coded warning for the ruler not to regard the theatre as his willful instrument for anti-puritan propaganda. It is well known that King James disliked the puritans but nonetheless needed at least the moderate reformers for his project of religious unity and—at least at the beginning of his reign—found the godly preachers useful as enforcers of moral discipline in his realm. At the same time he allowed anti-puritan satire, slandering the godly as gluttons, drunkards, lechers and seditious radicals, to flourish. In the phrase “mutton on Fridays” anti-puritan slander is directed against a ruler. This may be a hint that anti-puritan slander may not only work for, but also against, the monarch. In Measure for Measure slander is a double-edged sword—an insight that rulers deplore but the theatre celebrates. The fact that in Measure for Measure the slanderer is punished in the end makes little difference here. As Lucio says: “I am a kind of burr. I shall stick” (4.3.174).


[1]  William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure, ed. by N. W. Bawcutt, Oxford’s World Classics, The Oxford Shakespeare (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).

[2]  In his commentary on the phrase, N. W. Bawcutt, the editor of the Oxford-edition of Measure for Measure, refers to the fourth meaning of “mutton” in the OED. In Thomas Middleton’s A Chaste Maid in Cheapside (1613) the libertine Sir Walter Whorehound brings a prostitute from Wales to London about whom it is said that “there’s nothing tastes so sweet as your Welsh mutton”. Thomas Middleton, A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, ed. by Alan Brissenden, New Mermaids (London: A. & C. Black, 2nd. ed. 2002), 4.1.163–4.

[3]  Cf. M. Lindsay Kaplan, The Culture of Slander in Early Modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), p. 92.

[4]  Cf. Bawcutt, “General Introduction”, MM, p. 55.

[5]  The play is included in Middleton’s Collected Works edited by Gary Taylor and John Lavagnino for Oxford University Press (2007) under the title The Puritan Widow. See also Paul Yachnin, “Reversal of Fortune: Shakespeare, Middleton, and the Puritans”, ELH 70 (2003), pp. 757–786.

[6]  W. S.: The Puritaine or the Widdow of Watling-streete, London, 1607. The Tudor Facsimile Reprints (New York: AMS [1911] 1970), sig. B3.

[7]  Thomas Middleton, The Family of Love, in The Works of Thomas Middleton, ed. by Arthur H. Bullen, vol. 3 (London: Nimmo, 1885), pp. 1–120, 3.3.73 f. On the question of Middleton’s authorship see Gary Taylor, Paul Mulholland and MacD. P. Jackson, “Thomas Middleton, Lording Barry, and The Family of Love”, Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 93 (1999), pp. 213–241. The authors of the article attribute The Family of Love to Lording Barry. Consequently, it has not been included in the recent Collected Works of Middleton.

[8]  It should be noted that the Family of Love, a spiritualist sect that flourished in England in the 16th century, must not be confused with the puritans. As an anonymous contemporary polemicist observed, the two religious groups were “mortall enemies” (A Supplication of the Family of Loue.Cambridge: Iohn Legate, 1606, sig. B2r). In the 1580s several puritan polemicists launched a defamatory campaign against the spiritualists aiming at discrediting the sect as much as possible in the eyes of the authorities. Under pressure to conform, the puritans needed a scapegoat. According to a familist apologist the puritans were “not ashamed to laie their owne, and all other mens disobedient, and wicked actes (of what profession soeuer they be) vpon our backes, to the ende cunningly to purchase favour, and credite to themselues, and to make vs seeme monstrous & detestable before the Magistrate, and the common people euerie where.” (A Supplication, 1606, sig. G1r) In my forthcoming study Stage-Puritans: Zum Verhältnis von Puritanern und Theater in der Frühen Neuzeit I argue that the anonymous comedy The Family of Love satirizes the puritan campaign against the Family by conflating puritan and familist traits in one stage figure. On the sect in England see Christopher Marsh, The Family of Love in English Society, 1550–1630 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994). On the Family as a subject of literature see William C. Johnson, “The Family of Love in Stuart Literature: A Chronology of Name-Crossed Lovers”, Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 7 (1977), pp. 95–112.

[9]  John Marston, The Dutch Courtesan, ed. by David Crane, The New Mermaids (London: A. & C. Black, 1997), 1.2.19–20, 5.3.93–4. On Marston’s satirical representation of puritans and the concept of the ‘companionate marriage’ see Enno Ruge, “Renaissance Sensuality vs. ‘Puritan’ Love Marriage in John Marston’s The Dutch Courtesan”, in Christoph Houswitschka, Gabriele Knappe, Anja Müller, eds., Anglistentag 2005 Bamberg: Proceedings. Proceedings of the Conference of University Teachers in English (Trier: WVT, 2006), 169–182.

[10] See for example Donald J. McGinn, “The Precise Angelo”, in James G. MacManaway, Giles E. Dawson, Edwin E. Willoughby, eds., Joseph Quincy Adams Memorial Studies (Washington, DC: Folger Library, 1948), 129–139; Victoria Hayne, “Performing Social Practice: The Example of Measure for Measure”, in Richard P. Wheeler, ed., Critical Essays on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, Critical Essays on British Literature (New York: Hall, 1999), 145–176; Peter Lake, Michael Questier, The Antichrist’s Lewd Hat: Protestants, Papists and Players in Post-Reformation England (New Haven, CT, London: Yale University Press, 2002), ch. 15.

[11] Cf. Kristen Poole, Radical Religion from Shakespeare to Milton: Figures of Nonconformity in Early Modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), pp. 48–54. As Robert Greaves notes, the prohibition against eating meat on Fridays and during Lent was retained in Protestant England—partly to support the English fish trade. Robert Greaves, Society and Religion in Elizabethan England (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1981), p. 491. Other inofficial assemblies of the godly, such as the so-called “prophesyings”, “exercises”, or “conventicles”, as well as the “gadding” of believers to sermons of popular preachers, were eyed equally suspiciously by the authorities. Cf. Patrick Collinson, “The English Conventicle”, in William J. Sheils, Diana Wood, eds., Voluntary Religion. Papers Read at the 1985 Summer Meeting and the 1986 Winter Meeting of the Ecclesiastical Historical Society, Studies in Church History 5 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1986), 223–259.

[12] Quoted in Poole (2000), p. 51. In The Family of Love the lecherous gallant Lipsalve claims to have been converted from “two very notorious crimes: the first was from eating fish on Fridays, and the second from speaking reverently of the clergy.” Family (1885), 4.1.87–89.

[13] Poole (2000), pp. 5, 50.

[14] Ibid., p. 15. Poole sees Falstaff, who was originally named after the Lollard martyr Sir John Oldcastle, as a hybrid character, whose ‘puritan’ features are derived from satirical representations of the anonymous puritan pamphleteer who called himself Martin Marprelate. However, if Falstaff repeatedly speaks like a puritan in Shakespeare’s play, it does not mean that he is really meant to be one. Rather, as Tobias Döring has argued, Falstaff merely appropriates puritan discourse parodistically in order to render it meaningless. Personal communication.

[15] I discuss Twelfth Night in this respect in my forthcoming study on Stage-Puritans.

[16] Cited in Ian Donaldson, The World Upside-Down: Comedy from Jonson to Fielding (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970), p. 73. There is no evidence, however, that Jonson or any other playwright acted on orders whenever they ridiculed the puritans. The dedication to Bartholomew Fair (1614) suggests that at least after 1614 anti-puritan satire was fully in accordance with James’s anti-sabbatarian politics. It was indeed around this time that the puritans began to be increasingly troublesome to the King. Cf. Leah Marcus, The Politics of Mirth: Jonson, Herrick, Milton, Marvell, and the Defence of Old Holiday Pastimes (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), p. 9.

[17] The Puritan (1970), sig. A3r, B3v, C2r.

[18] Barnabe Rich, The Honestie of this Age (1614), cited in Lawrence Manley, Literature and Culture in Early Modern London (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 330.

[19] Manley (1995), p. 331. Cf. ibid. pp. 314–326.

[20] David H. Horne, “The Life of George Peele”, in The Life and Works of George Peele, ed. by David H. Horne, vol. 1 The Life and Minor Works of George Peele (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1952), 1–146, p. 126. Peele also lends his name to the fictional trickster of a jestbook entitled The Merrie Conceited Jests of George Peele. According to Horne, Peele’s notoriety is the result of conflating the fictional and the real George Peele.

[21] Jeffrey Knapp, Shakespeare’s Tribe: Church, Nation and Theater in Renaissance England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), p. 145. Knapp argues that aggressive anti-puritan satire like this, aimed at excluding the godly from society, ultimately worked against the theatre’s aim of being recognized as a respectable institution. “With their task of allying church and theatre simplified by the shared threat of puritanism […] later protheatricalists grew emboldened about the social as well as moral dubiousness of acting and presented that dubiousness itself, paradoxically, as both more palatable and more edifying than puritannical zeal.” Oddly enough, Knapp counts Bartholomew Fair among those plays which present a “inclusivist” Christian countervision (ibid., p. 72).

[22] On ‘Vienna’ as ‘London’ see Leah Marcus, Puzzling Shakespeare: Local Readings and Its Discontent (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1988), pp. 160–164.

[23] ‘Libertine’ was also used pejoratively for spiritualistic religious sectarians in early modern England, for example by the puritan polemicist George Gifford: “Now as Satan laid the foundation of this his deepe diuinitie in the Apostles times, which he afterward did further build up by the Valentinians and others, so in these last times […] he set it on foote againe by the Anabaptists, Libertines, Familie of Loue, and other such monsters: for they boast of such deepnesse of illuminated elders, and men deified, that looke whatsoeuer they committed, euen the foulest deed, yet they sinne not.” Sermon upon the whole booke of Revelation (London: Richard Field, 21599, sig. F8v). My emphasis.

[24] Lake, Questier (2002), p. 676.


In Shakespeares Maß für Maß begegnet der Herzog von Wien, Vincentio, der incognito in der Stadt unterwegs ist, dem Wüstling Lucio, welcher im Gespräch den Herzog als Mann mit Vergangenheit diffamiert. Bei Lucios Einlassung, der Herzog habe früher selbst gerne “Fleisch am Freitag” zu sich genommen, handelt es sich nicht nur um die Unterstellung, der als sittenstreng geltende Vincentio sei sexuellen Abenteuern nicht abgeneigt gewesen. Der Ausdruck “mutton on Fridays”, so die These des Beitrags, verweist vielmehr auf die Sprache der antipuritanischen Satire der Zeit, wie sie auch auf den Londoner Bühnen zu hören war. Sieht man Lucio als Repräsentanten des Theaters vor dem Hintergrund einer möglichen Instrumentalisierung des Theaters durch König Jakob I., dann lässt sich die üble Nachrede als codierte Botschaft an den Herrscher lesen.