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Snacking Through Shakespeare

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Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, returns to Radio 4 with a new object-based history. Taking artefacts from William Shakespeare's time, he explores how Elizabethan and Jacobean playgoers made sense of the unstable and rapidly changing world in which they lived.

With old certainties shifting around them, in a time of political and religious unrest and economic expansion, Neil asks what the plays would have meant to the public when they were first performed. He uses carefully selected objects to explore the great issues of the day that preoccupied the public and helped shape the works, and he considers what they can reveal about the concerns and beliefs of Shakespearean England.

Programme 3. SNACKING THROUGH SHAKESPEARE - A luxury fork discovered on the site of the Rose theatre helps explain what people were nibbling on when they first heard: "Is this a dagger I see before me?"

Producer: Paul Kobrak.

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15 minutes

Last on

Wed 10 Oct 2012 14:15

A Theatre Goers Fork

Date: 1587-1606  

Size: H:221mm, 11mm at widest point  

Made in: Unknown  

Made by: Unknown  

Material: Brass, Iron


London's theatres were at the centre of an entirely new type of entertainment business aimed at every section of society. Going to the theatre wasn’t just about what you could see on the stage, but what you could consume when you got there.

So what were you likely to be doing when an actor on the stage uttered ‘To be or not to be? Thanks to recent archaeology, we can go a long way to answering that question.

This fork was excavated from the site of the Rose Theatre on London’s south bank and brings us closer to what the theatre-going experience would have been like in Shakespeare’s day. Probably dropped by one of the richer audience members in the galleries it would have been used for daintily eating sweetmeats, while the groundlings down below were more likely to indulge in beer and oysters. One thing is clear – food and drink were a fundamental part of a good day out in Southwark.


This object is from the Museum of London


British Museum Blog: The Archaeological findings at Shakespearean playhouses by Julian Bowsher, Senior Archaeologist, Museum of London Archeology


'Let the sky rain potatoes. Let it thunder to the tune of ''Green-sleeves'', hail kissing-comfits, and snow eryngoes. Let there come a tempest of provocation, I will shelter me here.'  

The Merry Wives of Windsor, Act 5 Scene 5


'Dear actors, eat no onions nor garlic; for we are to utter sweet breath.'  

A Midsummer Night's Dream, Act 4 Scene 2


  • The most common foodstuffs eaten at the theatre were fruits, nuts and shellfish
  • Oyster consumption required knives - the standard dagger every man carried was as much a piece of cutlery as it was a weapon
  • While knives and spoons were common in England at the time, forks were still considered highly specialised pieces of cutlery
  • This fork is for sweetmeats: marchpane (marzipan), sugar-bread, gingerbread etc - the equivalent of a box of chocolates today
  • Shakespeare's banquet scene in Henry VII brought the house down - literally. An elaborate arrival on stage was accompanied by cannon fire - which managed to set alight the Globe's thatched roof and the theatre burnt to the ground.

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