Shakespearean Foodways: Feasting, Fasting, Playing and Digesting

Substance Matters: Food Rites in Titus Andronicus

by Birgit Walkenhorst

“He takes false shadows for true substances.” (3.2.81)[1] With these words Marcus Andronicus explains his brother’s growing madness when the latter strikes his dish with a knife, wanting to “kill a fly / That comes in likeness of a coal-black Moor” (3.2.76–79). Today most directors prefer to cut Marcus’ lines as a redundant comment, possibly also because they touch on very particular implications of the Eucharistic debate with which a modern audience would not normally be familiar. However, they may actually serve as a key to understanding the Eucharistically inflected portrayal of food rites in Titus Andronicus. The relationship between “likeness” and “substance” was of central concern to Elizabethan reformers who made a very clear distinction between the food of the body and the food of the soul. Seen from the perspective of Anti-Catholic propagandists, the refusal to distinguish between the two inevitably leads to disaster: heresy, crime, and cannibalism.

Substance, Incarnation, and Transubstantiation

The Arden editor Jonathan Bate identifies this combination of shadows and substances as “one of Shakespeare’s favourite antitheses”.[2] In a conventional Platonist sense, it describes the relation between an object and its image, and, by extension, also the relation between the inner emotions and outer behaviour of a character. The inability to distinguish between the two carries crucial significance for contemporary iconoclastic discourse,[3] the debate about presence and the treacherous nature of the material world, and it indicates a loss of reason and touch with reality, which clearly is the case here with our protagonist Titus.

On a further level, this pair relates to distinct theological categories. The colloquial synonymous use of the terms ‘substance’ and ‘matter’ is apparently misleading. While ‘substance’ denotes an essential mode of being (i.e. ‘that which stands underneath’), materiality is determined by secondary factors, by contingent accidents. For Aristotle and the scholastics, form and prime matter constitute the substance of any object which inheres with accidents that give it a physical character, and thus make it perceivable by the senses.

According to the Catholic concept of the Eucharist, the matter—i.e. the accidents of the bread and wine—remains unchanged, while the flesh and blood of Christ are corporeally present as substances and undergo a propitiatory sacrifice. The sacrificial nature and the allegedly anthropophagous implications of the ceremony were the central targets of Reformed polemics, and one of their main arguments was the lack of mimetic convergence. While the Catholic ritual of the mass performs a sacrifice under the sacrament, or rather the form, of the supper, the Protestant emphasis on remembrance foregrounds the ‘gestalt’ or figure of the meal and therewith the aspect of nourishment in a radically new way. Peter Martyr explains this vividly in one of his disputations in Oxford:

The Analogie and resemblaunce betwene the Sacrament and the thyng signified must euer be kept, in all Sacramentes. [...] The resemblaunce betwen the Sacrament and the body of Christ is this: that as þe properties of bread and wyne doe nourish outwardly: so þe properties of the body of Christ do nourish spiritually.[4]

The ‘staging’ of the communion rite thus depended on the mimetic enactment of the analogy between the material food of the body and the spiritual food of the soul. The Book of Common Prayer (1559) foregrounds the importance of the latter as it declares that “we spiritually eat the flesh of Christ, and drink his blood” and asks the communicant to “feed on him in thy heart by faith.”[5] The Anglican theologian Timothy Gorringe points out, however, that “in the history of the church the use of physical elements in the sacraments, of water and bread, wine and oil, has been understood as an affirmation of the material, as the assertion, consonant with the Incarnation, that you cannot go round, or beyond matter, but that you must go through it.”[6] John Calvin interestingly expresses the result of this semiotic construct in performative terms, maintaining that God does not “merely feed our eyes with bare show; he leads us to the actual object, and effectually performs what he figures.”[7]

This liturgical emphasis on the intrinsic materiality of food provides a specific culinary aesthetic that can be strategically applied for artistic purposes, given that Eucharistic practice involved people from all social layers on a regular basis.[8] An account from 1520 in John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs sets out to demonstrate that even the so-to-speak ‘average’ churchgoer understood its principles:

[...] whē one Riuelay cōmyng from the church [...] had sayde to his wife [...] that he had heard Masse, & had seene his lord God in forme of bread & wine ouer the priestes head [...] Iohn Southwyke there present answeared againe & said: [...] nay I tel thee, thou sawest but only a figure or sacramēt of hym, the which is in substance, bread and wyne. [9]

Eucharistic practice shaped patterns of collective perception and thus constituted a particular religiously encoded politics of looking and mode of reception which affected other forms of cultural performance as well. The authority of religious discourse enhanced the capacity of Eucharistic practice to establish ‘Reformed’ habits of perception that had a formative impact on other fields of society, including the secularised performance space of the theatre.

Foodways in Titus Andronicus

Foreshortened and translated to the plot of the play in question, this means that the logic of incarnation and transubstantiation evolve into a conclusive line of thought that leads Titus from the killing of the fly to the killing of Chiron and Demetrius and to serving them as the main course of the final banquet. Based on grounds of likeness, i.e. the black colour, Titus beliefs to detect Aaron’s substantial presence in the material fly. In his parody of the Eucharistic sacrifice, in which the accidents of bread and wine at least remain unchanged, while the substances underneath become the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ, he ultimately fills the pies not merely with the substance but with the very corporeal matter of Tamora’s sons.

I will substantiate this thesis by a short reading of the two banquet scenes in Titus Andronicus, which is inspired by Eric Mallin’s recent study of the use of Eucharistic ‘crackers’ in this play, though arguably his attempt to distinguish the dramatis personae into a pseudo-Catholic and a proto-Protestant camp oversimplifies the case.[10]

For a start, the Andronici are Catholic coded. In confrontation with Lucius (literally the “enlightened”), Aaron expresses this most clearly on the basis of a conventional cliché:

I know thou art religious
And hast a thing within thee called conscience,
With twenty popish tricks and ceremonies
Which I have seen thee careful to observe (5.1.74–77, my italics)

The play’s sacrificial design is informed by Catholic principles and, according to Mallin, exposes a disastrous “savagery devolving from religious ritual—[which] culminates in the apparent dismemberment, denaturing and consumption of human flesh, Tamora’s crusty sons.”[11]

The first example is Act 3, Scene 2, conveniently introduced in the stage directions as “A banquet”. The common practice of heavily cutting or even completely omitting the entire scene for dramaturgical reasons (and because the entire scene was not included in the earlier quarto versions [Q1 1594] which are considered to derive directly from Shakespeare’s manuscript, but appeared for the first time in the 1623 folio) is understandable but regrettable. Its subsequent addition bespeaks its illustrative value.

At the beginning, Titus invites his family-members:

So, so; now sit: and look you eat no more
Than will preserve just so much strength in us
As will revenge these bitter woes of ours. (3.2.1–3)

In the world of the Andronici, a civilised approach to eating is one of restriction. Gluttony as a manifest expression of excessive inclinations is the physical and moral Archilles heel of humanity, a deadly sin which brings about man’s (in this case: Tamora’s) downfall. If any kind of sensual appetite causes guilt, then Lavinia has been turned into the epitome of renunciation. Lacking a tongue, she also lacks the sense of taste, and turns the inability to take pleasure in food and drink into a spiritual virtue. In a next step, Titus makes a very telling explanatory claim about Lavinia, the living “map of woe”:

I can interpret all her martyred signs;
She says she drinks no other drink but tears,
Brewed with her sorrow, mashed upon her cheeks. (3.2.12 & 36–38)

While the Folio has “mesh’d”, most editors correct the spelling here and give “mashed”, explicitly indicating a part of the brewing process.[12] Lavinia’s action—or Titus’ interpretation of it—thus reflects the words of Psalm 80,5: “ Thou hast fed them with the bread of teares, and giuen them teares to drinke with great measure.”[13] Lavinia’s approach reverses the principle of transubstantiation: Here, it is not the consumable substance that is turned to bodily fluid, but instead the self-assertive martyr Lavinia chooses to consume her own physical substance.

WhenMarcus violently attacks his dish in the course of the meal, Titus enquires: “What dost thou strike at, Marcus, with thy knife?” Marcus replies: “At that that I have killed, my lord; a fly.” (3.2.52–53) Titus empathises with the “harmless fly” and its family. He accuses Marcus of murder:

A deed of death done on the innocent
Becomes not Titus’ brother: get thee gone:
I see thou art not for my company. (3.2.56–58)

Titus argument here is in accordance with the notion of the ‘table of peace’ or ‘table of grace’ as an expression of promise of remission of sins,[14] with the task of the priest to deny participation in the communal supper to members of the congregation who are at odds with or bear a grudge against any of their fellow-communicants.[15] Marcus apologises with an excuse that seems rather improvised: “Pardon me, sir; it was a black ill-favored fly, / Like to the empress’ Moor; therefore I killed him.” (3.2.67–68)

Titus suddenly turns and recognises this as “a charitable deed.” The idea is contagious. Titus immediately takes action:

Give me thy knife, I will insult on him;
Flattering myself, as if it were the Moor
Come hither purposely to poison me.—
There’s for thyself, and that’s for Tamora. (3.2.71–74)

He triumphs over “a fly / That comes in likeness of a coal-black Moor.” (3.2.78–79) Marcus, the tribune who speaks for the “common voice” (1.1.21), assumes the function of a chorus when he evaluates his brother’s state of mind: “Alas, poor man! grief has so wrought on him, / He takes false shadows for true substances.” (3.2.80–81) In their reference to likeness and transubstantiation, these lines prefigure a later passage in which Lucius refers to the “incarnate devil” Aaron (5.1.40).

Act 5, Scene 2 prepares the second banquet scene. Titus invites his family, Saturninus and Tamora to a ‘last supper’, to “Feast at my house”, and he sends Marcus off to proclaim his invitation with the words “This do thou for my love” (5.2.128–29). The “do this” or “this do” is, of course, the essential command that Christ gave to his disciples in order to perform a ritual act of remembrance.[16] The notion of the communion as “the feast in the Gospel” which The Book of Common Prayer introduces as a promise of the “heavenly feast” is very expressive and memorable.[17] The connection is emphasised by Titus’ repeated use of the term in his address to Chiron and Demetrius, the victims that he convicted guilty and is about to “martyr”, to sacrifice (5.2.180): “You know your mother means to feast with me,” and “This is the feast that I have bid her to,” which will be “More stern and bloody than the Centaurs’ feast.” (5.2.184, 192, 203)

Titus is about to pervert the social scope of the sacrificial ritual, the reestablishment of communitas through hospitality and conciliatory unification. Especially the Old Testament discusses the performance of communitas through hospitality in a striking way: breaking the bread, the relief from isolation and grief through the sharing of the “cup of consolation” (Jeremiah 16,7). Therefore, the suggested scenario soon becomes obvious, when Titus re-enters with a knife, accompanied by Lavinia “with a basin”. Titus relishes in the description of his scheme:

Hark, wretches, how I mean to martyr you.
This one hand yet is left to cut your throats,
Whilst that Lavinia ‘tween her stumps doth hold
The basin that receives your guilty blood. (5.2.180–183)

This is a scathing parody since it is the guilt that distinguishes this ritual killing from the sacrifice of Jesus Christ as the prototypical scapegoat. Titus gives the full details of his recipe for martyr pie:

I will grind your bones to dust
And with your blood and it I’ll make a paste,
And of the paste a coffin I will rear
And make two pasties of your shameful heads. (5.2.186–189)[18]

Thus, Titus ultimately literalises the idea of the in-carnation. He even reverses it, translating the trope of materialisation and coming to life into an act of homicide and disintegration. Titus implants the substance of human flesh and blood into a form that is nothing like a human being anymore. The notions of likeness and deformation are, once again, of central importance. In A Sermon Preached at Paules Crosse (London, 1571) John Bridges, Dean of Salisbury, articulates a common polemic against the Eucharistic practice of Catholics who “turned Chryst out of his owne likenesse, and made him looke lyke a rounde cake, nothyng lyke to Iesus Christe”, and he complains: “dare they thus disfigure our Lord and sauior Jesus Christ or can they make suche a strange Metamorphosis of the sonne of God?”[19] Titus is determined to disfigure his opponents by all means.

In a further step, he will bid the empress “Like to the earth swallow her own increase.” (5.2.191) Likening Tamora to the earth does not only resonate with the liturgical funereal command to put the ‘ashes to ashes’. It also translates the mythological cannibalistic motif of the titan Cronus, also identified with the Roman deity Saturn, who devoured his own children, to a female figure, wife to the emperor Saturnine.

Titus continues to use liturgical key-terms when he commands, before cutting the Goths’ throats: “Lavinia, come, / Receive the blood” (5.2.196–197). Indeed, The Book of Common Prayer places a strong focus on the framing conditions of, and spiritual disposition for, the moment of reception:

[...]he hath given his Son our Saviour Jesus Christ, not only to die for us, but also to be our spiritual food and sustenance, as it is declared unto us, as well by God’s Word, as by the holy sacraments of his blessed body and blood, the which being so comfortable a thing to them which receive it worthily, and so dangerous to them that will presume to receive it unworthily: [in which case] we be guilty of the body and blood of Christ our Saviour.[20]

The warning of impending danger through the wrong attitude in and mode of the intake of food is strikingly harsh. Titus’ attitude is fundamentally misguided from a sacramental point of view. He provokes Lavinia to become instrumental in his sacrificial design and continues the scene in a theatrical posture: “I’ll play the cook” (5.2.204), assuming the function of the officiating priest in this cuisine de sacrifice. Marcel Detienne’s study of ritual practice in ancient Greek society has highlighted “the absolute coincidence of meat-eating and sacrificial practice. All consumable meat comes from ritually slaughtered animals, and the butcher who sheds the animal’s blood bears the same functional name as the sacrificer posted next to the bloody altar.”[21] Titus’ theatrical set-up corresponds to layout of these overlapping functions.

Shortly after the beginning of Act 5, Scene 3, a table is brought in, quite probably one with a “fair white linen cloth upon it”,as the rubrics, the ‘stage directions’ in The Book of Common Prayer indicate for the ‘last supper’,[22] and everybody takes their seats. Titus, “dressed like a cook”, welcomes his guests one by one, acting as the master of ceremonies. He explains his costume accordingly: “Because I would be sure to have all well, / To entertain your highness and your Empress.” (5.3.31–32, my italics)

Shockingly, Titus then kills his own daughter. Eric Mallin reads this act of homicide as the performance of a “public sacrifice of his own, killing his daughter, then at once disturbingly bidding the guests, in absence of a clear referent: ‘Will’t please you eat?”, asking whether “he mean [s] them—sacramentally—to consume his daughter, too”. Interpreting this act of murder as a redemptive but “grotesque sacrificial murder”, Mallin suggests that “[p]erhaps we are meant to recall a similarly appalling sacrifice of God’s beloved child.”[23] In my view, Mallin is quite mistaken here. Titus’ insistence not merely on substance but on very physical matter makes a different interpretation much more conclusive. Saturninus asks: “What, was she ravish’d? Tell who did the deed.” And Titus’ seemingly random line actually answers his question: “Will’t please you eat? Will’t please your highness feed?” (5.3.52–53) Performatively and literally, he reveals the referents of this obscure statement, the heads of Tamora’s sons:

Why, there they are both, baked in this pie;
Whereof their mother daintily hath fed,
eating the flesh that she herself hath bred. (5.3.59–61)

Titus has arranged for the “real presence of Tamora’s sons on the dish.”[24] And he confirms: “‘Tis true, ‘tis true; witness my knife’s sharp point.” (5.3.62) When he stabs the Empress, he fulfils the notion of martyrdom as bodily witnessing. Substantial evidence of the truth gains the upper hand. Lucius continues in the same vein, announcing his instantaneous revenge on Saturninus : “There’s meed for meed, death for a deadly deed!” (5.3.65) In this pun on ‘meat’, Lucius resorts to the logic of retribution, of Old Testamental Law.

In this scene, food is employed in a way to provoke a straightforward visceral reaction, i.e. affecting the audience in terms of revulsion, exploited here for aesthetic purposes. The parodic combination of dialogue and action, drawing on anti-Catholic propaganda with its emphasis on cannibalism, is designed to disrupt the devotional gaze by way of contrasting it with the Reformed liturgical knowledge that has been acquired through embodied practice.


Even the re-establishment of communitas at the end of the play seems preliminary and leaves a bitter aftertaste, when it resorts to the pervasive symbolic logic of food and feeding. Lucius pronounces Aaron’s punishment:

Set him breast-deep in earth, and famish him;
There let him stand, and rave, and cry for food;
If any one relieves or pities him,
For the offence he dies. (5.3.178–181)

Aaron is not only ‘swallowed by the earth’, being re-aligned with Tamora’s former allies and Titus’ former victims Chiron and Demetrius. This punishment by starvation may also be understood as an inversion of the process of feeding.[25] The basic Christian values of mercy and pity are declared a crime, subdued to a highly conditional approach. Lucius’ authoritative policy can most aptly be understood as the bankruptcy of a culture that is unable to escape its pseudo-civilised state of being a “wilderness of tigers” (3.1.54). Society fails to live up to its own moral standards because ritual practice does not only fall short of containing the unavoidable antagonisms but even enhances them. Whereas the remains of the Andronici are transferred to their “household’s monument” (193), not only any “funeral rite” (195), but actually any material trace that might allow remembrance, is denied to the “ravenous tiger” (194) Tamora. Lucius’ sentence on her sounds as follows:

But throw her forth to beasts and birds to prey:
Her life was beast-like, and devoid of pity;
And being dead, let birds on her take pity. (5.3.197–199)

Thus, the last words of the play confirm again the substance-centred logic of the Old Testament: an eye for an eye, meat for meat, mercilessness for mercilessness. Both Titus and his family are representative of a culture that is essentially bound to flesh and materiality. In this play, ritual practice initially seems to serve as an indicator of a high degree of civilisation, but it ultimately testifies to the spiritual dissolution of a society. Shakespeare therefore takes the notions of substance and matter more than seriously: His aesthetic strategy in Titus Andronicus is centred upon the perversion and literalisation of the doctrine of transubstantiation, developed through its manifestation in the performance of Roman (Catholic) foodways.


[1]  William Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus, ed. by Jonathan Bate, The Arden Shakespeare (London: Thomson, 1995). All subsequent quotations from Titus are taken from this edition.

[2]  Jonathan Bate, “Introduction”, in William Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus. ed. by Jonathan Bate. The Arden Shakespeare (London: Thomson, 2003), 1–121, p. 210.

[3]  “Shadow” in the Oxford English Dictionary: “6. An unreal appearance; a delusive semblance or image; a vain and unsubstantial object of pursuit. 7. Applied rhetorically to a portrait as contrasted with the original, also to an actor or play in contrast with the reality represented.” (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989, Second Edition)

[4]  In: John Foxe, Acts and Monuments [1570/1576]: The Variorum Edition, hriOnline, Sheffield 2004, (accessed: 02/08/2008), 1570 edition, 9:1553.

[5]  Church of England, The Book of Common Prayer, 1559. The Elizabethan Prayer Book, ed. by John E. Booty (Washington: Folger Books, 1976), p. 258 & 264. Cf. also Martin Luther: “Dis Capitel redet nicht vom Sacrament des brots vnd weins / Sondern vom geistlichen essen / das ist / gleuben / das Christus Gott vnd mensch sein Blut fur vns vergossen hat.” Die gantze Heilige Schrifft Deudsch, 2 vols., ed. by Hans Volz (München: Rogner & Bernhard, 1972), 2151.

[6]  Timothy Gorringe, “Sacraments”, in Robert Morgan, ed., The Religion of the Incarnation: Anglican Essays in Commemoration of Lux Mundi (Bristol: Bristol Classical Press, 1989), p. 166.

[7]  Jean Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (London, 1599), trans. by Henry Beveridge, (accessed: 09/04/2008), 4.15.14.

[8]  Cf. also René Girard who explains the “unity of all rites” in terms of structure. According to Girard, the Passion of Christ reproduces an act of foundational violence that is the basis, and therefore the common denominator, of all human ritual practice. Cf. Des choses cachées depuis la fondation du monde (Paris: Grasset, 1978), p. 173.

[9]  Foxe (1576), 7:778. Corrected pagination. The original page number is 788.

[10] Mallin borrows the term ‘crackers’ for communion wafers from an episode of the American cartoon series Southpark. He clearly polarises, suggesting that while “Titus regards his adversaries as Protestants,” the Andronici are “Catholic-coded in their beliefs.” Eric S. Mallin, Godless Shakespeare, Shakespeare Now! (London, New York: Continuum, 2007), pp. 36–37.

[11] Ibid., p. 36.

[12] Cf. e.g. Bate (1995), p. 208.

[13] All bible quotations are taken from: The Bible and Holy Scriptures conteyned in the Olde and Newe Testament, Geneva, 1561 [1587], (accessed: 09/04/2008).

[14] Matthew 11,19: “The Sonne of man came eatyng and drinking, and they say, Beholde a glutton and a drinker of wine, a friend vnto Publicanes and sinners:” Cf. also Luke 7,34.

[15] “And if ye shall perceive your offenses to be such as be not only against God but also against your neighbours, then ye shall reconcile youreselves unto them, ready to make restitution and satisfaction [...], and likewise being ready to forgive other that have offended you, as you would have forgiveness of your offenses at God’s hand.” The Book of Common Prayer, 1559, p. 257.

[16] “[Our saviour Jesus Christ] took bread, and when he had given thanks, he brake it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, Take, eat, this is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me. Likewise after supper he took the cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of this, for this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for you and for many, for remission of sins: do this as oft as ye shall drink it in remembrance of me.” Ibid., p. 263, my italics.

[17] Ibid., p. 255 & 257.

[18] The term “coffin” for the crust or mould of a pie was common since the early 15th century. Early modern pies were meat pies with tall crusts and sealed-on floors and lids, often of considerable size. Cf. e.g. Giovanni de Rosselli, Epulario, or the Italian Banquet (London 1598/ Venice 1549): “To Make Pie That the Birds May Be Alive In them and Flie Out When It Is Cut Up: Make the coffin of a great pie or pastry, in the bottome thereof make a hole as big as your fist, or bigger if you will, let the sides of the coffin bee somwhat higher then ordinary pies” (accessed: 09/04/2008).

[19] John Bridges, A Sermon, Preached at Paules Crosse on the Monday in Whitson Weeke Anno Domini (London, 1571), (accessed: 09/04/2008).

[20] The Book of Common Prayer, 1559, pp. 256, 258.

[21] Marcel Detienne, “Culinary Practice and the Spirit of Sacrifice”, in Marcel Detienne and Jean-Pierre Vernant, eds., The Cuisine of Sacrifice among the Greeks, trans. Paula Wissing (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), p. 3.

[22] The Book of Common Prayer, 1559, p. 248.

[23] Mallin (2007), pp. 38–39.

[24] Ibid., p. 38.

[25] Cf. Joan Fitzpatrick, Food in Shakespeare: Early Modern Dietaries and the Plays, Literary and Scientific Cultures of Early Modernity (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007), p. 124.


Eucharistische Strukturen dienen in Titus Andronicus als Referenzmuster für die performative Erforschung der spirituellen Auflösung einer Gesellschaft. Insbesondere die (Re-)Präsentation von Speiseritualen erhellt hier, inwiefern das tragische Schicksal der Titelfigur einer radikalen Materialitätsverhaftung geschuldet ist. Die antikatholische Propaganda der Tudorzeit identifiziert die Verweigerung einer klaren Trennung zwischen körperlicher und geistlicher Speise als Wurzel von Häresie und Kannibalismus. Werden die Bankett-Szenen des Stücks im spezifischen liturgischen Kontext der englischen Reformation, im Hinblick auf deren Substanz- und Ähnlichkeitsbegriff betrachtet, so betten sie die Inszenierung spektakulärer Gewaltausbrüche in Titus Andronicus sinnstiftend und gezielt kulturkritisch ein.