Shakespearean Foodways: Feasting, Fasting, Playing and Digesting


by Susanne Rupp and Christina Wald

Food offers powerful ways to make and communicate cultural meanings. As social anthropolo­gists have long established, cooking, eating, drinking and consumption define groups, explore identities, celebrate social cohesion, highlight conflicts and generally perform rites and acts of great significance. This also holds true for the early modern stage. There are many ways in which Shakespearean theatre relates to eating culture. Figures of festive excess like Falstaff or Sir Toby, on-stage scenes of banqueting and feasting as in Timon of Athens, Titus Andronicus or The Winter’s Tale, secret arts of cooking as presented with the witches’ cauldron in Macbeth or dietary rules as dis­cussed in The Merchant of Venice: all these demonstrate the centrality of foodways and define the cultural field also for theatrical performance in Shakespearean England. Above all, body issues – such as gender, sex, desire, health and healing – can be studied in this field because the early modern concept of the humoral body sees all alimentary behaviour in moral and political categories. How, then, is Shakespearean theatre situated in the seasonal contrast between every­day and festive culture? How do changing diets in this period negotiate modes of carnivalization and normalization in society? How are fundamental questions of belief and faith, such as the Eucha­rist debate, involved in food rites and digestive symbolism as performed in texts like Hamlet? How can we trace the impact of New World encounters on domestic scenes and diets, which, in the course of the colonial project, were just beginning to bring home figures and fantasies of alterity, as in anxieties of cannibalistic eating? Which role do scenarios of eating and digestion play in the political discourse on the body politic? Which impact does the choice of genre have on the theatrical representation of eating? And how are all these issues re-considered, re-interpreted and newly re-created in specific stage or screen productions, adaptations, versions or sub­versions of Shakespearean plays?

The contributions to this volume address these questions. They offer case studies of actual scenes of eating as well as metaphorical references to feeding in four Shakespeare plays and connect them to early modern medical, legal, (anti-)theatrical, and religious discourses. Both Christian Frobenius’ and Birgit Walkenhorst’s contributions engage with the cannibalistic banquet scene in Titus Andronicus. While Frobenius discusses this culmination of Titus’ revenge strategy (as adapted from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Seneca’s Thyestes) in the context of competing early modern legal practices and concepts of justice, Walkenhorst links Titus Andronicus to the Eucharist debate instigated by the Reformation and its preoccupation with the material versus spiritual consumption of Christ’s body. Enno Ruge likewise examines religious aspects of food, arguing that Lucio’s insinuation that Duke Vincentio consumed “mutton on Fridays” has not only sexual, but also political and metatheatrical connotations. Taking her cue from William Rankins’ trope ‘drinking the wyne of forgetfulness’, Isabel Karremann explores the ambiguous role which early modern pamphlets ascribed to the theatre as a site of either remembrance or (self-)forgetfulness. Looking at Henry IV, she inquires into the equally ambivalent effects which oblivion was imagined to have on early modern identities. The volume is completed by two more articles which offer complementary readings of the same play: With reference to modern medical discourses and witchcraft tracts, Joo Young Dittmann’s examination of Macbeth traces the anxieties of a permeable self that is vulnerable to the (not only nourishing, but also potentially harmful) influences of food. Yuk Sunny Tien elucidates the significance of Macbeth’s banquet scene in both the Shakespearean text and in its adapted filmic version of The Curse of the Golden Flower (China, 2006).