Shakespearean Foodways: Feasting, Fasting, Playing and Digesting

The Banquet Scene in Macbeth and Curse of the Golden Flower

by Yuk Sunny Tien

In Shakespeare’s plays, feasting plays a crucial role in highlighting conflicts, characterizing relationships and exploring the nature of human society. How are these scenes transmitted in a cross-cultural context? In this paper, I will discuss the banquet scene (3.4) in Macbeth and Curse of the Golden Flower, which is a spin-off of Shakespeare’s plays. Curse of the Golden Flower, directed by Zhang Yimou and released in 2006, is a Chinese epic film that is set during the turbulent Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms. Inspired by Shakespeare’s plays, the storyline of the film has obvious roots in his tragedies, namely the three siblings from King Lear and the jealous king from Othello. I argue that the film also reformulates the banquet scene in Macbeth as a feast held during the annual Chong Yang (Chrysanthemum Festival) in ancient China.

Act three, scene four, immediately following Banquo’s murder, is the second banquet scene, and one of the most significant in Macbeth. The state banquet is a celebration of the new regime. It is also in this scene that Macbeth achieves a moment of tragic insight: the realization of his own spiritual chaos, and that he is living in a world over which he has no control, a world in which the dead return to “push us from our stools”.[1] Much attention has been given to the meaning of the banquets in Shakespeare. Banquets and feasting are traditional symbols of harmony, fellowship and union, as well as order and hierarchy. The banquet scene in Macbeth, which is introduced by the formal entrance of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, represents feudal monarchy, honors and hospitality.[2] It opens with a procession in which the lords are ranked according to “degree”, when Macbeth says: “You know your own degrees, sit down” (3.4.1).[3] The banquet scene is what we might call the formal or gestured attempt by Macbeth to enthrone himself as the true king. We have here a ceremonial, a social ritual at which “the good king” tries to play the “humble host” and mingle with his people. In this ordered hierarchy, grouping according to rank or place within the unity of a family or state (3.4.3–5), Macbeth is determined to take his place (“here I’ll sit i’ th’ midst”, 3.4.10).[4] The symbolism of the scene here both depends on and helps define the nature of human society. The banquet could be called a model for the natural order, combining “the lowest natural need with the high majesty of royal splendor”.[5]

Feasts or banquets offered some of the best opportunities for a king or nobleman to show off his magnificence and power. A ceremonial feast was interpreted as a visible sign of political and military glory.[6] Macbeth and his wife invite all the lords of Scotland for a sumptuous banquet at Forres Castle in celebration of his coronation. Another purpose is to consolidate his new regime through the shared fellowship of eating and drinking. Under this formal pretext of solidarity, Macbeth inwardly wishes to regain the nobility’s loyalty and trust in him, which he intuits are already shaken and doubtful.

The first banquet scene in Curse of the Golden Flower also reflects order and rules. When the Emperor invites his wife and sons to their seats, he emphasizes how the law of the heavens dictates the rule of earthly life. The heavens themselves observe degree, priority and place, and whether this degree has been violated. The banquet is thus a symbol of “idealized order, in family, tribe, and state: an archetypal gesture of amity and concord”:[7]

The Emperor: Prince Jai has returned. The family is reunited. Do you know why every Chrysanthemum Festival, we assemble on this high terrace as a family?

Prince Yu: Father, on the ninth day of the ninth month, the sun and the moon unite, we call this the Chrysanthemum Festival. It symbolizes the strength and harmony of the family, and we always celebrate on this high terrace.

The Emperor: That is a very good answer. The terrace is round, the table is square. What do they represent? That represents the Heaven is round, and the Earth is square. The law of the heavens… dictates the rule of earthly life. Under the circle, within the square, everyone has his proper placement. This is called natural law. Emperor, Courtier, Father, Son…loyalty, filial piety, ritual and righteousness… All relationships obey natural law.[8]

Curse of the Golden Flower
Banquet scene

The Emperor then rebukes the Empress for not finishing the medicine that has been served to her every two hours for the past ten years. He insists that the remaining medicine to be served to the Empress, and her sons remain kneeling until their mother drains the cup. He states that “medicine has to be taken in the right measure, at the right time, and that everything abides by its own law”. Medicine is governed by dosage, just as life is governed by natural law.

The emphasis on order and the natural law, however, only proves to be an irony in both Macbeth and Curse of the Golden Flower. The word “degree” emphasizes hierarchy and the Lords know their respective positions. It is, however, this hierarchy that Macbeth violates in the murder of Duncan. The word “degree”, used here in the sense of mock irony, brings to the spectator’s mind the cosmic order or harmony that has been violated. While all the invited guests do know their own degrees, Macbeth knows his to be illegitimate—“As kinsman, host, and subject, he has violated ties of blood, hospitality and state. He has overturned the whole order of things”.[9]

While all the guests are seated, Macbeth does not immediately take his seat. In fact, he is on his feet for the whole of this scene, and is never seen as being united with or heading his countrymen. As the Lords are presumably settling into their seats, he moves around the table in order to “mingle with society and play the humble host.” (3.4.3–4) As Macbeth moves around greeting his guests, the most important seat at the table is thus vacant.[10] The symbolism of this is powerful, for Macbeth is not the legitimate King of Scotland, and is therefore unqualified to preside at a state occasion.

Similarly, in Curse of the Golden Flower, although banqueting and feasting are symbolic of order and hierarchy in heaven and earth, the incest, lust, treachery and murder in the royal family have violated the “natural law”. For many years, the Empress and her stepson Prince Wan have had an illicit affair. Meanwhile, relations between the Emperor and the Empress are strained, and the Empress’ health is failing because the Emperor is slowly poisoning her through a strategically prescribed herb. Later, the past of the ambitious Emperor is revealed as one that offends against order. To rise to the throne from the position of an army captain, he killed his former wife so that he could marry the daughter of the King of the Liang state, who is now his Empress.

Further, both banquet scenes are closely associated with the disruption of the natural law, the transformation of order into chaos.[11] In Macbeth, after the exit of the murderer, the King’s mind is already distracted from the ceremony, and murder, not the pleasures of kingship, is his preoccupation now: “I am cabin’d, cribb’d, confin’d, bound in/To saucy doubts and fears” (3.4.23–24). While the audience expects the self-glorifying banquet to resume, Banquo’s ghost appears. Macbeths starts up and shouts at the vacant stool on which he was about to sit: “Which of you have done this?” “Thou canst not say I did it; never shake/Thy gory locks at me” (3.4.48–50). The audience and Macbeth are privileged to see the ghost of Banquo sitting in Macbeth’s royal chair.[12] Lady Macbeth soon insists that the guests go hastily: “At once, good night./Stand not upon the order of your going,/But go at once” (3.4.117–118). The ceremonial banquet that began so formally, magnificently and gloriously, with due regard paid to status and appropriate behavior, ends in chaos and disarray as the order symbolized in the protocol of the state is disregarded in the guests’ hurried exit from the room. The consequence of the ghost’s visit is chaos, which Lady Macbeth expresses “You have displac’d the mirth, broke the good meeting,/With most admir’d disorder” (3.4.108–109).

While the banquet scenes in comedies make extensive use of the parallel of lust and appetite, and are a venue for erotic encounters, the banquet scenes that occur in tragedies also establish a link between the banquet and revenge, a link which gains from and develops, figuratively, the metaphorical appetite for revenge and for extravagant foods[13]. Shakespeare draws upon the figurative similarity between the hungers for lust, revenge and food. The appearance of Banquo’s ghost reminds Macbeth of vengeance, as this was originally Banquo’s banquet. Macbeth has stolen the role of host from him, and the ghost enters, almost like an upstart clown, to disrupt his murderer’s charade. The banquet is thus a way to “expose to public view the disguises of [the] usurpers”.[14]

In the Chinese film, the banquet on the eve of the Chrysanthemum Festival is also a site for revenge within the royal family.[15] The banquet starts with the Emperor and Empress writing the four characters of “loyalty, filial piety, ritual and righteousness” together in Chinese calligraphy, but it turns into a chaotic battlefield.

The banquet

Uncovering the wicked plot of the Emperor, the Empress revenges him with the help of her devoted warrior son, Prince Jai, who leads the army against his father on the banquet night. Meanwhile, in the palace, the youngest prince, Yu, kills his brother Prince Wan and orders his father to abdicate, but is eventually beaten to death with a golden belt by his raging father. After the Empress’ soldiers are defeated, the banquet resumes, and the Empress and Prince Jai are brought to the festival table where the Emperor sits. Although Macbeth ends in a chaotic exit of the thanes, the banquet scene in Curse of the Golden Flower ends ironically in reinforcement of order, loyalty, and virtue, as the guards and servants sing in celebration of the Chrysanthemum Festival:

Humanity, wisdom, trust, ritual righteousness, loyalty
Deep virtue pervades.
Father to son…wise kings all
Follow the Heaven’s way.
Peace and glory above.

Both Macbeth and Curse of the Golden Flower draw on a deep cultural understanding that the banquet exudes significance at all social levels. Laden with symbolic power, the banquet forms a language that expresses cultural and individual identity. Feasts and their food culture can be read as forums in which people define their humanity. A banquet not only defines cultural sophistication but also social distinctions.[16] It reveals distinctions between degrees and social boundaries, and therefore defines hierarchy in households and the state.

As in all other periods and cultures, the banquet reflects the ideological aspects of social and political order. The encoded discourses of order in the dramatic representation of a banquet are symbolic in that the feast implies internalized principles of order or power.[17] The investment of symbolic order in banquets and feasts can be identified in both banquet scenes in the play and the film. The ceremonial and ritualized nature of Macbeth’s banquet and the reflected ideological discourse of social degree, royal power, and national order are doubly ironic. While the scene clearly establishes the orthodox inscriptions of a banquet, Macbeth has already contradicted the natural order through the radical and subversive act of regicide. Additionally, this particular banquet is disrupted by the arrival of the ghost, which inverts and dislocates the social ritual. In Curse of the Golden Flower, the banquet on the eve of the Chrysanthemum Festival has also turned into a battlefield and acts of murder among family members. The result is the subversion of the ideology of order normally reflected in a royal banquet. Thus, both texts reveal “the symbolic context in which the banquet becomes an emblem of perverted ritual and ideology”.[18] The rituals, as encodings of the discourses of order and power, become emblems of the ideological subversion inherent in vengeance.


[1]  J. P. Dyson, “The Structural Function of the Banquet Scene in Macbeth”, Shakespeare Quarterly 14 (1963), p. 370; Nancy Glass Wright, “Banqueting as Symbol in King Lear and Macbeth”, Tennessee Philological Bulletin 28 (1991), p. 26.

[2]  Jan Blits, The Insufficiency of Virtue: Macbeth and the Natural Order (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 1996), p. 116.

[3]  All references are to William Shakespeare, The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. by G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).

[4]  Dyson (1963), p. 371.

[5]  Blits (1996), p. 116.

[6]  Masaaki Imanishi, “Macbeth: The Banquet Scene and the Sleeping-walking Scene”, Renaissance Bulletin 18 (1991), p. 12.

[7]  Marvin Rosenburg, The Masks of Macbeth (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978), p. 429.

[8]  All quotations from Curse of the Golden Flower come from the English subtitles of the Edko Films VCD edition.

[9]  Dyson (1963), p. 371.

[10] Wright (1991), p. 27.

[11] Wright (1991), p. 26.

[12] Imanishi (1991), p. 15.

[13] Chris Meads, Banquets Set Forth: Banqueting in English Renaissance Drama (Manchester, New York: Manchester University Press, 2001), p. 70, p. 89.

[14] Robert Willson, “Macbeth the Player King: The Banquet Scene as Frustrated Play within the Play”, Shakespeare Jahrbuch 114 (1978), p. 111.

[15] In The Banquet (2006), another Chinese feature film based on Hamlet, the banquet is also portrayed as a site of revenge and chaos.

[16] Peter Parolin, “‘Cloyless Sauce’: The Pleasurable Politics of Food in Antony and Cleopatra”, in Sara Munson Deats, ed., Antony and Cleopatra: New Critical Essays (New York: Routledge, 2005), p. 218.

[17] Henry Jacobs, “The Banquet of Blood and the Masque of Death: Social Ritual and Ideology in English Revenge Tragedy”, Renaissance Papers (1985), p. 41.

[18] Jacobs (1985), p. 46.


Der Fluch der Goldenen Blume, unter der Regie von Zhang Yimou gedreht und 2006 zum ersten Mal gezeigt, ist ein chinesischer Monumentalfilm, der von Shakespeares Dramen inspiriert ist. In diesem Beitrag vertrete ich die Auffassung, dass der Film die Bankettszene in Macbeth bei einem Fest des Chong Yang Festivals (Chrysanthemen Festival) im alten China reformuliert. Bankette und Festessen symbolisieren in diesem Film Ordnung und Hierarchie im Himmel und auf der Erde. Wenn Inzest, Lust, Verrat und Mord in der königlichen Familie das Naturrecht verletzt haben, dann müssen in dem Fest Treue, Frömmigkeit der Kinder, Ritual und Rechtschaffenheit die ganze Ordnung wieder herstellen. Der Beitrag analysiert, wie die Bankettszene im Film und in Shakespeares Macbeth dargestellt wird.