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Shakespeare's culinary metaphors: a practical approach.

Despite the assumption that Shakespeare was not terribly interested in food, in fact his plays and poems are riddled with metaphors drawn directly from his experience of contemporary kitchen and cooking techniques. Basic food technology of the day would have been generally understood, not only among women with cooking duties, but anyone who had gathered around the hearth to witness bubbling pots, spits turning with roasted flesh, ovens stoked with embers for the baking of bread. Shakespeare drew from this common culinary knowledge to enliven his words with the expectation that his audience could easily bring to mind the workings of the Tudor and Stuart kitchen. They would have had no problem grasping the food metaphors. Today, however, they are often opaque as the techniques and terms have become obsolete. As contradictory as this might seem to my opening declaration, the study of food in Shakespeare is not entirely novel. Gastronomic and dietary references have been studied at length. Andrew Aguecheek's penchant for beef in Twelfth Night has been analyzed among other metaphors by Robert Appelbaum, (1) and Joan Fitzpatrick's Food in Shakespeare covers the topic of dietary theory thoroughly. (2) Yet the more casual and incidental culinary metaphors have not been gathered or examined systematically. Moreover, they have never been examined in terms of culinary techniques as described in contemporary cookbooks nor tested before the glowing hearth to get a sense of what Shakespeare himself might have actually tasted, the product of bygone techniques that inspired these metaphors in the first place. (3)

This paper proposes a new methodological approach to unravelling Shakespeare's food metaphors: direct reference to contemporary cookbooks and food texts and if necessary hands-on experiments to clarify the procedures. Using historic equipment and ingredients to make recipes with which Shakespeare was familiar might lend insight into the meaning of the texts that would otherwise remain obscure or conjectural. Moreover, culinary historians might also make better use of Shakespeare to understand the prevailing aesthetic of the era. This paper will describe what Shakespeare understood about basic cooking procedures as mentioned in his works as a means not only to clarify and enrich our understanding of his metaphors, but also to gain further insight into those techniques that may not be fully understood through the culinary literature alone.

Among the best-known food references in Shakespeare is the passage in Hamlet where he mentions that "The funeral baked meats / Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables" (I.ii.180-81). (4) This refers partly to the fact that the food used for his father's funeral has been served again as cold leftovers for his mother's recent new wedding, one following immediately after the other. Under normal circumstances this would be an act of thrift, exactly as Hamlet says. But the phrase also refers obliquely, albeit gruesomely, to the pastry shells of "baked meats" that here refers to pies, which were often served cold. The pastry was primarily a vehicle for storage of the contents and usually was not eaten, being made of coarse but sturdy freestanding rye flour. The contents would be sealed from the air with gelatinous broth, as well. Most importantly, such crusts were referred to as coffins, which merely means case, whether for jewels, dead bodies, or baked meats. In each example, the coffin is meant to protect and preserve the contents from corruption, theft, or rapid decay that would inevitably occur if exposed to the elements. Today we distinguish the two settings by using "coffin" exclusively for the dead and "coffer" for other objects, but this was not the case in the past, when its double meaning could be exploited in this macabre way.

Titus Andronicus uses the word coffin in exactly the same double sense when he describes his plan to put childrens' heads into a pie to feed to their mother: "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" (V.ii.186-89). It is the same double metaphor of coffin as pie casing and a vessel bearing the dead.

Both of these references to coffins are further clarified with an actual recipe. The fifteenth-century Harleian mss. 279 has a section on baked meats (again meaning pies):

   Take and make litel cofyns, and take Chykonys y-sofie; o per Porke
   y-sope, and smale y-hackyd; oper of hem hope: take Clowys, Maces,
   Quybibes, and hakke wip-alle, and melle yt wip cromyd Marow, and
   lay on Sugre y-now; pan ley it on pe cofynne, and in pe myddel lay
   a gobet of marow, and Sugre round a-bowte y-now, and lat bake; and
   pis is for soperys. (5)

In this recipe the pastry shells are formed, chicken or pork is first simmered and chopped finely, spiced with cloves, mace, cubeb (a relative of pepper) mixed with bone marrow and sugar and then baked in the coffins. The recipe does not include a gelatinous broth that would solidify and keep the contents fresh, although the marrow fat probably served the same purpose, melting and filling up the space with fat to prevent contamination with air. These pies would thus have kept a long time. Mentioning that this is for suppers, being the smaller evening meal, also implies that this is a cold dish meant to be kept in the larder and brought out as needed, much like the leftover pies for Gertrude's wedding.

Without fully understanding the cooking procedure, the full meaning of the metaphor is lost. Equally Shakespeare's use of the term "coffin" sheds light on contemporary attitudes to cold pies: they are often leftovers, but ones that can be kept for emergent occasions, when visitors unexpectedly arrive or when a wedding is celebrated on the fly. They are not considered inelegant at all, but rather a principal means of food preservation.

Shakespeare's other references to pie reveal that he is not always thinking of meat, or at least not meat alone. Commonly he mentions dates in pies. In Troilus and Cressida we are given a seasoning metaphor to describe Troilus's attributes:

PANDARUS Do you know what a man is? Is not birth, beauty, good shape, discourse, manhood, learning, gentleness, virtue, youth, liberality, and such like, the spice and salt that season a man?

CRESSIDA Ay, a minced man: and then to be baked with no date in the pie, for then the man's date's out.


Cressida's quip refers to a variety of finely chopped mincemeat pie, made up of so many jumbled ingredients that each individual item, just as each personal attribute of a person, is lost in the mix. She also implies that without dates in the pie, it would be out of date, or out of fashion, or without substance.

The Good Huswifes Handmaide for the Kitchen, first published in 1588, offers a good idea of the type of pie Shakespeare is referring to here. First it is a pie with an edible crust. The author warns explicitly in a recipe to make paste to raise coffins, not to put too many eggs in the pastry or "it will make it drie and not pleasant in eating." (6) On the next page he offers exactly the sort of recipe Cressida has in mind:

   Take Veale and perboyle it verie tender, then chop it small, then
   take twise as much beef suet, and chop it small, then minse both
   them together, then put Corrans and minced Dates to them, then
   season your flesh after this manner. Take Pepper, salt, and
   Saffron, Cloves, Mace, Synamon, Ginger, and Sugar, and season your
   flesh with each of these a quantitie, and mingle them altogether.

This filling is then put in a pie garnished with more dates and currants, the lid is placed on and it is baked. Presumably without the dates it is not only paltry, but not something likely to please--an insulting comparison directly to Troilus. The double meaning of date points directly to the reigning aesthetic of the late 16th century, when dates were still an exotic luxury, absolutely requisite in elegant and table-worthy pies.

A similar pun about date and fashion is given by Parolles in the opening scene of All's Well that Ends Well. He is describing how virginity is of no use if kept too long.
   Virginity, like an old courtier, wears her cap out
   of fashion: richly suited, but unsuitable: just
   like the brooch and the tooth-pick, which wear not
   now. Your date is better in your pie and your
   porridge than in your cheek.


The pun is that dates, the fruit, belong in pies, but date, meaning age, does not wear well on a woman's face. The lines only make sense knowing that dates in pies are indeed still fashionable and that without them pies are not considered very interesting. We also learn, incidentally, that picking one's teeth in public was now considered declasse.

Shakespeare also makes further reference to the word "season" in the culinary sense. His use of the term refers not merely to flavoring dishes with spices, but denotes preservation through the seasons and most often specifically refers to meat being pickled in a brine. In Twelfth Night the salty brine is equated with tears, which have a similar preservative effect:
   And water once a day her chamber round
   With eye-offending brine: all this to season
   A brother's dead love, which she would keep fresh
   And lasting in her sad remembrance.


The implication is that without the daily brining with tears, the memory of her brother would go stale and would need to be discarded, like a rotten brisket.

Likewise in All's Well the tears of Helena, who weeps whenever she thinks of her dead father, are compared to a salty preservative brine: "'Tis the best brine a maiden can season her praise in" (I.i.49-50). The countess who speaks these lines is suggesting that she has gone on mourning too long, hence the ability to produce fresh tears much later in a new season. Friar Laurence in Romeo and Juliet uses the same reference to brine as tears which will preserve food that one will eventually taste, or in this case not, making the effort entirely in vain. It is exactly like preparing a relatively expensive brine and then not putting your meat in it:
   Jesu Maria, what a deal of brine
   Hath wash'd thy sallow cheeks for Rosaline!
   How much salt water thrown away in waste,
   To season love, that of it doth not taste!


Playing on this same familiarity with the brining procedure, in Much Ado About Nothing, Leonato speaking of a corrupted woman says:
   Valuing of her,--why, she, O, she is fallen
   Into a pit of ink, that the wide sea
   Hath drops too few to wash her clean again
   And salt too little which may season give
   To her foul-tainted flesh!


Once again, Shakespeare is thinking of a pickling brine, like tears or seawater, which has the power to preserve flesh--which of course can do nothing for meat that has already gone bad. Shakespeare is talking here about what we now call salt beef (or in the United States corned beef), and what in his day was called powdered beef, which was not merely salted but first soaked in brine as a preservative.

The Good Huswifes Handmaide once again gives us explicit and fairly complicated directions:

   Take the beefe and lay it in mere sawce a day & a night. Then take
   out the beef and lay it upon a hirdle, and cover it close with a
   sheete, and let the hurdle be laid upon a peverell or cover to save
   the mere sauce that commeth from it: then seeth the brine, and lay
   in your Beefe again, see the brine be colde so let it lye two days
   and one night: then take it out, & lay it againe on a hurdle two or
   three days. Then wype it everie peece with linnen cloth, dry them
   and couch it with salt, a laying of beefe and another of salt: and
   ye must lay a stick crosse each way, so the brine may run from the
   salt. (8)

The procedure is intended first to get the salt to penetrate the meat via the mere sawce--i.e., salt water. The words "sauce" and "salsa" derive ultimately from the Latin word sal. Then the brine is boiled because germs and mold likely to spoil the meat will have grown; the brine also draws further moisture from the meat. Only at the end is it merely salted and left to drain. If it were salted alone to start, the salt would never reach the interior and it would spoil from the inside out. The final salting step is the powdering or corning, which refers to the coarse grains or corns of salt.

As Shakespeare uses the word "season" in a very specific preservative sense, so too the word "sauce" has a meaning that is now obsolete. Today we think of sauce merely as flavoring, something to complement or accentuate the main flavor of a dish, often made from a reduced broth based on the same ingredient. This is a culinary aesthetic postdating Shakespeare. For him to sauce meant to add something to a food with opposite flavors. Hence when Touchstone compares coupling honesty and beauty to the culinary combination of "honey a sauce to sugar" (III.iii.30), it is not merely redundancy, but a logical impossibility. Sauce is intended to correct or temper the main ingredient, making it more digestible, which is why in Julius Caesar we are told of rudeness as a sauce to good wit, which gives men stomach to digest words (I.ii.298-99). Shakespeare's metaphors are all about seasoning with opposites. Mercutio says, "Thy wit is a very bitter sweeting; it is a most sharp sauce" (II.iv.82-83). Malcolm in Macbeth says, "my more-having would be as a sauce / To make me hunger more" (IV.iii.81-82), referring to the ability of sharp sauces to pique the appetite. Again, the sauce is designed to contrast with the main ingredient, serving as a digestive function. A look at contemporary cookbooks reveals this. For example, the Good Housewifes Treasurie of 1588 offers two sauces for pork, which involve vinegar, mustard, sugar and pepper--which are hot condiments intended to Immorally counteract the moist phlegmatic flesh of the pig, or in the case of vinegar to cut through the viscous substance of the meat--making it more digestible.

Shakespeare also makes reference to procedures used in baking bread. In Troilus and Cressida Ajax speaks of kneading someone to make him supple (II.iii.221). In All's Well Lafeu refers to one person's ability to corrupt youths in these terms: "No, no, no, your son was misled with a snipt-taffeta fellow there, whose villainous saffron would have made all the unbaked and doughy youth of a nation in his colour" (IV.v. 1-4). The idea is that a little saffron put into a batch of dough before baking will turn everything yellow, in the same way that young people will easily be led astray, before maturity, when exposed to a little corruption.

More interesting yet are his references to leavening. Hamlet (I.iv.29-30) speaks of people's manners and how one particular fault by force of habit, which o'erleavens, spoils everything else, which is exactly what happens in bread baking if the dough rises too long. In Troilus and Cressida there are even fairly explicit bread-baking instructions, used as a metaphor for patience and the need to go through every necessary step carefully and without haste.

PANDARUS He that will have a cake out of the wheat must needs tarry the grinding.

TROILUS Have I not tarried?

PANDARUS Ay, the grinding; but you must tarry the bolting.

TROILUS Have I not tarried?

PANDARUS Ay, the bolting, but you must tarry the leavening.

TROILUS Still have I tarried.

PANDARUS Ay, to the leavening; but here's yet in the word 'hereafter' the kneading, the making of the cake, the heating of the oven and the baking; nay, you must stay the cooling too, or you may chance to burn your lips.


We might not think of baking per se as an apt metaphor for extraordinary patience, but in the days before pre-ground flour, superactive instant yeast and electric ovens, making bread through its various steps was extremely time consuming. Also in Troilus and Cressida, Ajax uses the insult "cobloaf," referring to a mishapen bread, obviously the result of mishandling or lack of patience (II.i.37). (9) Gervase Markham in The English Housewife makes this explicit:
   To bake the best cheat bread, which is also simply of wheat only,
   you shall, after your meal is dressed and bolted through a more
   coarse bolter than was used for your manchets, and put also into a
   clean tub, trough or kimnel, take a sour leaven, that is a piece of
   such like leaven saved from your former batch, and well filled with
   salt, and so laid up to sour, and this sour leaven you shall break
   in small pieces into warm water , and then strain it; which done
   make a deep hollow hole ... in the midst of your flour, and therein
   pour your strained liquor, then with your hand mix some part of the
   flour therewith, till all the liquor be as thick as pancake batter,
   then cover it all over with meal, and so let it lie all that night,
   then next morning stir it, and all the rest of the meal well
   together, and with a little more warm water, barm, and salt to
   season it with, bring it to a perfect leaven, stiff and firm; then
   knead it, break it, and tread it ... and so mould it up in
   reasonable big loaves, and then bake it with indifferent good heat.

Directly related to these bread metaphors are Shakespeare's references to trenchers, which are thin slices of bread placed directly on the tablecloth to hold food. In Shakespeare's time these were often replaced by wooden trenchers, or ceramic or metal plates. It seems that the use of trenchers is specifically intended to denote subservience and lower social status, which would make perfect sense if using trenchers were going out of fashion. Most references to trenchers involve eating as a servant in someone else's house. The Earl of Suffolk in II Henry VI asks, "How often hast thou waited at my cup, / Fed from my trencher, kneel'd down at the board[?]" (IV.i.56-57). An Old Athenian asserts in Timon, "And my estate deserves an heir more raised / Than one which holds a trencher" (I.i.118-19). And Timon mentions sycophants as "Most smiling, smooth, detested parasites, / Courteous destroyers, affable wolves, meek bears, / You fools of fortune, trencher-friends, time's flies, / Cap and knee slaves" ( Caliban declaring his freedom says that he'll "Nor scrape trenchering, nor wash dish. / 'Ban, 'Ban, Ca-Caliban" (II.ii.185-86). Consistently a trencher implies subservience and eating at someone else's largess, and by implication leftovers that have already been picked at. The most explicit of these references is in Two Gentlemen of Verona in which a servant is compared to a dog, "I came no sooner into the dining-chamber, but he steps me to her trencher, and steals her capon's leg: O, 'tis a foul thing when a cur cannot keep himself in all companies" (IV.iv.7-11). A proper servant would naturally wait to be offered from the superior's table, but not snatch food like a dog.

Late medieval carving manuals, such as The Boke of Keruynge printed by Wynkyn de Worde, make clear that the carver is not merely a lowly servant, but someone within the patronage network of a greater personage, serving in the household and presumably scraping from their trencher afterwards for sustenance. (11) But first his duty is as follows: "ye muste have thre pantry knyves, one knyfe to square trenchoure loves, another to be chyppere, the thyrde shall be sharpe to make smothe trenchours. Then chyppe your soveraynes brede hote and all other brede let it be a daye olde, household brede thre dayes olde, trenchour brede foure dayes olde." He continues with the elaborate service, who gets how many trencher slices, and so on. But as mentioned, a century later the trencher had mostly given way to permanent dishware, though the association with subservience of an outdated kind remains embedded in Shakespeare's references.

Among Shakespeare's favorite culinary references, and one with which few people today are directly acquainted but very well could have been in the past, is distillation. The technique was connected to alchemy and magic of course, but more often was among those pastimes leisured gentlemen would take up to distill various medicinal potions, which might equally have been sipped for mere pleasure. These typically would use herbs or spices, but just as often flowers. As sonnet 5 remarks, "But flowers distilled though they with winter meet, / Leese but their show; their substance still lives sweet" (15-16). Or in sonnet 6:
   Then let not winter's ragged hand deface,
   In thee thy summer, ere thou be distilled:
   Make sweet some vial; treasure thou some place,
   With beauty's treasure, ere it be self-kill'd


Like the other metaphors, these refer to the power of preservation, but also of concentration into an essence to preserve particular qualities such as youth, freshness, and aroma through the seasons. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, Theseus says, "But earthlier happy is the rose distill'd; / Than that which withering on the virgin thorn, / Grows, lives and dies in single blessedness" (I.i.76-78). There are also other references to distilled Carduus Benedictus in Much Ado, the distilled liquor to feign death in Romeo and Juliet, distilled waters used to balm the head in the Taming of the Shrew. In any case, this is a procedure with which Shakespeare was certainly familiar.

To clarify all these references Hugh Plat's little Delights for Ladies offers numerous typical recipes of the day, including several for rosewater. This was used partly as perfume and as a cooking ingredient. The process of distillation can take place either in a balneo or a still or limbeck. The former are glass vessels with a crooked neck, while the alembic is a metal vessel, normally copper, with curled condensation tubing. Plat instructs:
   Macerate the Rose in his own juice, adding thereto, being
   temperately warme, a convenient proportion either of yeast or
   ferment: leave them a few daies in fermentation, til they have
   gotten a strong and heady smell, beginning to incline toward
   vinegar then distill them in balneo in glass bodies luted to their
   helmes (happely a Limbeck will do better ...) and drawe so long
   as you finde any sent of the Rose to come: then redistill of
   rectifie the same so often till you have purchased a perfect spirit
   of the Rose. You may also ferment the juice of Roses only, and
   after distill the same. (12)

Distillation naturally is also used to produce medicines as well as deadly concentrated poisons. The Ghost in Hamlet describes the effect of the poison poured into his ear:
   The leperous distilment; whose effect
   Holds such an enmity with blood of man
   That swift as quicksilver it courses through
   The natural gates and alleys of the body,
   And with a sudden vigour it doth posset
   And curd, like eager droppings into milk,
   The thin and wholesome blood.


Here Shakespeare reveals directly his familiarity with cheesemaking procedures. The eager he refers to is rennet, which possets milk--not exactly the curdling that we tend to imagine now that milk is always pasteurized and separates when bad into little flecks suspended in clear liquid, but rather first a thickening into a quailed mass. Blood, incidentally thickens exactly the same way when cooked--which if in the body would clog the passages and kill instantly. "And a most instant tetter bark'd about"--in other words, it stopped flowing.

In conclusion, the perspective of historic cookery lends great insight into Shakespeare's metaphors, and in turn his dramatic works reveal details for the culinary historian that one might not understand from reading cookbooks alone. The next step methodologically would be to undertake these procedures, baking, distillation, and so forth, to get a more deep and directly embodied experience of what many among Shakespeare's audience either directly or indirectly understood. I can assure you from exactly this kind of firsthand experience that the metaphors suddenly become much richer and can be appreciated on a level that goes far beyond the written page or performance.


(1.) Robert Appelbaum, Aguecheek's Beef, Belch's Hiccup, and Other Gastronomic Interjections (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006).

(2.) Joan Fitzpatrick, Food in Shakespeare: Early Modern Dietaries and the Plays (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007).

(3.) Do, however, see Andrew Dalby and Maureen Dalby, The Shakespeare Cookbook (London: The British Museum Press, 2012); Francine Segan, Shakespeare's Kitchen: Renaissance Recipes for the Contemporary Cook (New York: Random House, 2003); Mark Morton and Andrew Coppolino. Cooking with Shakespeare (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2008).

(4.) Citations of Shakespeare's plays are to The Complete Signet Classic Shakespeare, ed. Sylvan Barnet (San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972) and will be cited parenthetically in the text with reference to act, scene and line number.

(5.) Two Fifteenth-Century Cookery-Books, ed. Thomas Austin (1888; repr.. London: Oxford University Press, 2000), 55.

(6.) Good Huswifes Handmaide for the Kitchen, ed. Stuart Peachy (Bristol: Stuart Press, 1992), 22. It should be noted that these are freestanding pies baked on a sheaf of paper rather than in a pie pan. They use hot water in the crust and not too much butter, which makes the dough so short that it can't support itself. In other words it is not a modern pie crust, but is nonetheless intended to be eaten.

(7.) Ibid., 23.

(8.) Good Huswifes Handmaide, 16.

(9.) My thanks to William Rubel for pointing out this reference.

(10.) Gervase Markham, The English Housewife, ed. Michael R. Best (Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 1998), 210.

(11.) Wynkyn de Worde and Peter C. D. Brears, The Boke of Keruynge (1508; repr., Lewes: Southover Press Historic Cookery and Housekeeping, 2003), 29.

(12.) Hugh Plat, Delights for Ladies (1600; repr., Brighton: Liz Seeber, 2002), Pt. II, Recipe 17.
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Title Annotation:FORUM: Diet and Identity in Shakespeare's England
Author:Albala, Ken
Publication:Shakespeare Studies
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jan 1, 2014
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