Given the central role food plays in our lives, it’s surprising how peripheral it is in Shakespeare’s plays. It’s an axiom to say we can’t live without food, but Shakespeare’s plays seem to get along pretty well without it. I’m exaggerating if I claim food doesn’t crop up at all – there are plenty of references to it, though there is precious little actual consumption – but its significance is often incidental or else symbolic: the feast Macbeth throws for Banquo in Act Three is just one example – a feast from which, on the evidence of the text, food is absent.
Still, feasts are important in Shakespeare even if food isn’t. Feasts represent the kind of social set-piece occasions that can deteriorate rapidly and dramatically into rancour, even hostility. Take the feast in Act Three Scene Six of ‘Timon of Athens’. Timon has had enough of providing for others and has run out of patience as well as money. The feast to which he invites his many self-appointed dependants is anticipated with the usual excitement but it ends in anger and collapse: ‘Most smiling, smooth, detested parasites’, Timon berates his guests as he offers only warm water and pebbles for them to eat before chasing them out of his house.
The feast organised in Act Two Scene Seven of ‘Antony and Cleopatra’, in which the three triumvirs who govern the Roman world meet with the rebellious Pompey, seems similarly food-free, and also rises to a dramatic climax. Lepidus, the weakest of the triumvirs, drinks too much and makes something of a fool of himself, (‘What manner of thing is your crocodile?’ etc), before being carried away to sleep it off, his days in the triumvirate numbered. As to the banquet itself, plenty to drink, but little evidence of food.
The feast organised for Banquo in Act Three of ‘Macbeth’ follows a similar pattern to these. The scene opens with a warm welcome to guests (‘at first / And last the hearty welcome’) before the appearance of the ‘blood-bolter’d’ ghost of Banquo upsets the social equilibrium, and the scene ends in something approaching chaos. Once again, there appears to be plenty to drink but food is in short supply.
The banquet organised for the shipwrecked survivors in ‘The Tempest’ takes a different approach. Once again, however, it serves as a preamble to more dramatic events that follow. At first, a feast is brought in, with ‘strange shapes’ dancing about it, inviting Alonso and his companions ‘to eat’. The shapes disappear but Sebastian is tempted by the banquet ‘since / They have left their viands behind; for we have stomachs. / Will’t please you taste of what is here?’ Gonzalo is confident: ‘Faith, sir, you need not fear’, he tells a reluctant Alonso. But no sooner have appetites stirred than the food disappears, whisked away to enable Ariel to address the survivors in plain terms: the island is not what you imagine, he tells them.
Once again, there is nothing to eat. One exception to this principle appears in ‘Titus Andronicus’. Here, once again, a banquet has been organised, to which Tamora but not her sons have been invited. In reality, her sons have been murdered by Titus, revenge for their rape of his daughter Lavinia. Their bodies have then been cooked and used as the filler in the pie that has been fed to Tamora: ‘there they are both’, observes the chef Titus, ‘baked in that pie, / Whereof their mother daintily hath fed’. And with that, he invites her to ‘witness my knife’s sharp point’.
All this implies that there is no mention of conventional or recognisable food in Shakespeare’s plays and that no-one ever sits down with another to break bread. Neither is quite true. But much of the food that does get a mention goes uneaten. In ‘Richard III’, for example, the future king is plotting his way to the throne when he joins an important meeting on the eve of the coronation of his nephew Edward, son of his older brother the late King. Abruptly, he sends the Bishop of Ely John Morton to fetch some strawberries from his garden. A few lines later Morton returns, able to report that ‘I have sent for these strawberries’. But they don’t appear. By contrast, in ‘Antony and Cleopatra’, the asp the Queen of Egypt requires to end her life appears disguised in a basket of figs. Needless to say, the asp performs its function but the figs like the strawberries remain uneaten.
There’s a similar tale in ‘The Taming of the Shrew’, where, after marrying Katherine, Petruchio cuts the wedding reception to take his bride home. But on arrival, finding the meat has been burned, he hurls it at the servants, and in a soliloquy resolves to deprive his bride of meat to break her spirit: ‘She [will] eat no meat to-day, nor none shall eat’. Once again, food, where it appears, goes uneaten. And indeed this is the very complaint made by the citizens in the opening scene of ‘Coriolanus’, who, in ‘mutinous’ mood, ‘all resolved to die rather than to famish’, claim they are starving while the city of Rome is ‘well stored’ for corn. They demand the right to buy it ‘at their own rates’ to prepare it and live. But Coriolanus is implacable: ‘hang ‘em!’ is his response.
And so to Shylock, who in the opening act of ‘The Merchant of Venice’ is invited to join his new business-partners for supper. But he knows Antonio and Bassanio of old, not as friends or companions but as rivals and bullies, and he rejects their invitation; he will do business with them but no more than that: ‘I will not eat with you [or] drink with you’, he tells them.
Others are more convivial. Inevitably, perhaps, invitations to the wrong person are part of the confusion in ‘The Comedy of Errors’ – for example when Adriana, accompanied by her sister Luciana, invites the man she takes to be her husband to dine with her. Unfortunately the reason why Antipholus of Ephesus does not know Adriana is because he is in fact her husband’s twin brother and has never seen her before in his life. But she invites him to eat with her: ‘Come, sir, to dinner’, she suggests, ‘Husband, I’ll dine above with you today’. But such examples are rare, and it is still more unusual for Shakespeare to focus at all closely on the food itself.
Adriana’s generous offer – and Antonio’s in ‘The Merchant of Venice’ – are rare but not isolated examples of food being given away. A further example appears in ‘Pericles’, when the eponymous hero, in flight from Antiochus, puts his ship into Tarsus, only to discover that the city is starving. In response he donates to Cleon and Dionyza, the city’s governors, enough grain to save the city from famine. The famine ends. His is the spirit of Gonzalo, the wise and generous adviser in ‘The Tempest’, who is thrilled by the prospective abundance of the new world, and promises that if he were governor, ‘nature should bring forth, / Of its own kind, all foison, all abundance, / To feed my innocent people’.
But such flights of generosity – over food, at any rate – in Shakespeare’s plays are rare. Indeed one might almost suggest that food is more likely to appear as a metaphor than as a means of survival or delight. Famously Orsino in ‘Twelfth Night’ praises music as ‘the food of love’, suggesting that one sense may service another, while in a different key, Emilia in ‘Othello’, saddled to the odious Iago as his wife, berates with some justice her marital fate: men, she believes, are ‘all but stomachs, and we all but food’. Such references to food in these plays are few and far between, metaphorical or otherwise, and the centrality of food to life more honoured here, one might suggest, in the breach than the observance.