Shakespeare's Restless World - Programme 3
Snacking Through Shakespeare: A Theatre Goer's Fork
It's a dull Friday afternoon and I've just arrived at a central London cinema. People are stocking up with chocolates and crisps, popcorn and fizzy drinks. They're getting ready to munch through two hours of the latest must-see box-office hit and, perhaps not surprisingly, 400 odd years ago, playgoers at The Globe Theatre or The Rose would have been doing very much the same thing, getting ready to munch their way through Romeo and Juliet.
I think we can more or less imagine what people felt when they watched the great scenes and heard the great speeches that we now know so well. But in this programme I want to ask, what were they eating? What were you likely to be nibbling or munching when you heard for the first time 'To be or not to be', or 'Once more unto the breach!'?
Thanks to recent archaeology we can now go a long way towards answering that question. The Museum of London has been excavating the sites of Elizabethan theatres. They found huge quantities of pottery fragments, lots of nuts and mussel shells, and in among all this they found a sharp and very stylish little fork.
Northumberland: 'Your fair discourse hath been as sugar, Making the hard way sweet and delectable.'
(Richard II, 2.3.6-7)
John of Gaunt: 'Things sweet to taste prove in digestion sour.'
(Richard II, 1.3.136)
I'm in the Museum of London and I'm standing beside the case with the model of The Rose theatre, built about 10 years before The Globe but also on Bankside, and here at the bottom of the case is the fork I want to look at.
It's a very self-consciously elegant object, a bit longer and much narrower than the kind of fork we use today. It's some nine inches long with two fierce looking prongs at the end and it's not hard looking at this to imagine somebody elegantly pronging a delicacy and chewing it while watching the play. But this is not the Elizabethan equivalent of disposable plastic cutlery, thrown away at the end of the performance. This fork is made of durable iron and it once had a very elegant wooden handle, you can still see the pins that held the wooden plate in place, and at the end is a tiny brass knob beautifully engraved with the initials 'A N'. This is smart cutlery and it's meant to last, and last it did, for this particular fork lay for centuries on the site of The Rose theatre.
In this series we're looking at objects that shed light on the world that Shakespeare knew and was writing for, objects that bring us closer to his original audiences, and this fork, I think, takes us right into one of the newly built theatres of Elizabethan London and to the experience of watching one of Shakespeare's plays being performed for the first time.
In the 1590's, if you wanted a good day out in London, you went to Southwark and eating was very much a part of the pleasure. You ate when you went to a play, you ate as you took in some bear or bull-baiting, and if you were a young blade, out on the town and likely to end up in a tavern or a brothel then eating would certainly be among the many pleasures on offer there. Sex doesn't usually leave a lot behind for archaeologists to rummage through but food and drink do, as, surprisingly, did the whole business of going to the theatre in Shakespeare's London.
Touchstone: 'Sweetest nut hath sourest rind,
Such a nut is Rosalind.'
(As You Like It, 3.2.105-6)
I've now moved to the archaeological archive of the Museum of London and I'm with the archaeologist Julian Bowsher who has pioneered the excavation of Elizabethan theatres. What are the things here that would let me imagine what it's like to arrive at a Shakespearean theatre?
J Bowsher: 'Well you arrived through a main door and paid your one penny entrance fee to the gatherer who would have held a little money box, rather like a piggy bank.'
N MacGregor: So what I can see here are bits of broken pottery with a bright green glaze on them and a slot through which I would have been able to put a penny.
J Bowsher: 'Yes, all we have remaining are, of course, just the tops. They were smashed open when they were taken back stage. They get put into a large money chest in a back room which is presumably the origin of the term 'box office'.'
The public theatres of Shakespeare's London were an entirely new form of commercial entertainment, aimed at every section of society, and they were very commercial. Money boxes account for nearly a fifth of all the identifiable pottery that the Museum of London has excavated in Elizabethan theatres. Unusually for a playwright, Shakespeare himself was a shareholder in The Globe, entitled to a percentage of its profits, it's one of the reasons he became so rich. So the smashing open of money boxes, like these ones, must have been a happy sound for him.
So, I've put my penny in the slot and it's been taken to the box office and I go on into the theatre. What have you found that lets us imagine what was going on while the performance was in train?
J Bowsher: 'There's been a wealth of material that enables us to look at your average Elizabethan theatre goer in terms of foodstuffs, costumes, clothing, as well as what might be theatrical props. The theatres at that time didn't of course have any room for a bar or foyer in a modern sense so people would be selling nuts, apples inside.'
N MacGregor: While the play was going on?
J Bowsher: 'Yes, quite a large collection of samples taken on site have allowed our botanists to identify quite a range of foodstuffs and we've had things like grape, fig, elder, plum, pear, cherry, all sorts of things.'
Orlando: 'He dies that touches any of this fruit'
(As You Like It, 2.7.99)
Antonio: 'An apple cleft in two is not more twin
Than these two creatures.'
(Twelfth Night, 5.1.220-1)
N MacGregor: So a lot of fruit-eating going on?
J Bowsher: 'Yes, there are certainly references to people throwing apples at the stage when they didn't like what they saw.'
N MacGregor: And what else are people eating then do we think? What are the groundlings up to as they're watching?
J Bowsher: 'We know that they sold bread in the playhouses, we know that they were eating shellfish.'
N MacGregor: There's a great bag of what here look, to me, like small oyster shells. Are these actually oyster do you think?
J Bowsher: 'Oysters, mussels, periwinkles, whelks, we've even got a cuttlefish.'
N MacGregor: So we imagine, eaten by the people standing in the pit?
J Bowsher: 'Oh definitely, yes.'
N MacGregor: And then just dropped on the ground?
J Bowsher: 'Yes, they were an untidy lot.'
N MacGregor: So presumably as you go into the theatre you're also stepping over yesterday's oyster shells?
J Bowsher: 'Well I like to think that they probably swept up at the end of the day.'
Pistol: 'Why then, the world's mine oyster,
Which I with sword will open.'
(The Merry Wives of Windsor, 2.2.2-3)
Benedick: 'till he have made an oyster of me, he shall never make me such a fool'
(Much Ado About Nothing, 2.3.24-5)
N MacGregor: Did they drink at the same time?
J Bowsher: 'Well, certainly beer and ale were available. Ale is an interesting one because they were bottles of fizzy ale, because there's a common complaint in the theatre of the noise of a gaseous bottle being opened making a sort of [J Bowsher makes a sound] like that, and there's quite a complaint about the noise.'
N MacGregor: With people drinking like this in the theatre obviously sooner or later they're going to want to pee. What happens then?
J Bowsher: 'Well there's no physical provision in the theatres for anywhere to relieve yourself, we have a nasty suspicion that dark corners were used by men. There is some evidence that ladies would take some form of bottle with them but for more serious defecation I think they'd be going outside somewhere, possibly even to the riverside.'
But, what about our fork? While the groundlings would buy an apple or an oyster, or [N MacGregor makes a sound] open a beer, the rich in the galleries up above or sitting near, or even on the stage, would probably bring their own more up-market food with them and along with the food, their own glasses and their own cutlery, and it was this kind of person who must have dropped that elegant fork that was excavated in The Rose theatre. Back to Julian Bowsher again:
N MacGregor: Who do you think this fork could have belonged to? What kind of person would have owned this fork?
J Bowsher: 'Oh undoubtedly someone with cosmopolitan tastes, someone probably of some social status. These sorts of forks, a sucket fork as it's known. I suppose the nearest analogy today is a cocktail fork, it's for spearing suckets or sweetmeats basically. It's largely made of iron, which is interesting because Thomas Coryate who went to Italy in 1608 said 'they've got these funny things over there that they eat with called forks and they're made of iron'. Coryate brought one back with him and everyone said 'oh you great pansy, what are you doing with this funny foreign thing?' and he was ribbed mercilessly actually, for bringing these things back. Poor chap.'
Forks were even more of a novelty in the 1590's, when this one was dropped, and a disagreeable foreign novelty at that, for the no-nonsense English who prefered to eat with their fingers. In table manners, Italian elegance in late Elizabethan London was for most people suspect, flashy and foreign. So to find a fork like this one in the same place as mussel and winkle shells is a wonderful demonstration of the social range of a Shakespearean audience. These plays were quite clearly aimed at the whole of society. When Henry V speaks before Agincourt to the nobles and to the common soldiers, all of them are in the theatre and all of them are eating what they can afford.
Fluellen 'When you take occasions to see leeks hereafter, I pray you mock at 'em'
(Henry V, 5.1.52-3)
But the eating wasn't just for the spectators. While the audience was drinking fizzy ale and slipping outside (or not) for a quick pee, they might well be watching actors enjoying a much more lavish feast on stage.
Bottom 'dear actors, eat no onions nor garlic; for we are to utter sweet breath'
(A Midsummer Night's Dream, 4.2.37-8)
Eating food is in many Shakespeare plays a moment both of social spectacle and high theatricality and, inevitably, of character-revealing truth. For Falstaff, Shakespeare's epic glutton, every scene brings hope of a potential feast.
Falstaff 'Let the sky rain potatoes . . . hail kissing-comfits, and snow eryngoes . . . I will shelter me here.'
(The Merry Wives of Windsor, 5.5.18-21)
I asked Joan Fitzpatrick, a historian of Elizabethan food, what this conjuring of a cosmic banquet would have meant to the audience: potatoes, kissing comfits, eringoes?
J Fitzpatrick: 'Potatoes would have been considered very exotic, very new, to an English audience. Most ordinary people probably would never have seen or come across a potato.'
N MacGregor: So it's as smart as a fork, a potato?
J Fitzpatrick: 'It is exotic at this time.'
N MacGregor: So Falstaff is chic with this foreign food, then he goes on to 'kissing-comfits'.
J Fitzpatrick: 'A kissing comfit would have been something that would have sweetened the breath, something very indulgent. Often a food associated with romance, considered an aphrodisiac.'
N MacGregor: So he is limbering up to an assault on Mistress Ford?
J Fitzpatrick: 'Yes, very much so.'
N MacGregor: I mean the great eater is going to be the great lover?
J Fitzpatrick: 'Absolutely, and he needs to sweeten his breath before making love.'
N MacGregor: And then the last thing he asks for is that it will 'snow eryngoes'. Is that also part of the same campaign?
J Fitzpatrick: 'Yes, it's actually the candied root of the sea holly and it's considered an aphrodisiac.'
N MacGregor: So with all three, with potatoes, kissing comfits and eryngoes, Falstaff really is ready for action?
J Fitzpatrick: 'Yes he is.'
I think we can be confident that Falstaff, the archetypal Englishman, would not have been eating his kissing comfits and eryngoes with our fancy foreign fork. But someone out to impress at The Rose theatre certainly was. Julian Bowsher has tried to find out who might have been spearing their sweetmeats with this particular fork, and have dropped it near the expensive seats at the side of the stage.
J Bowsher: 'Shakespeare was acting on that stage at the time. This particular one has the initials 'AN' at the top of it in fairly fine polished brass work. We did some research but I'm afraid we can't find who 'AN' is. But I suspect that Shakespeare might have known.'
But in the end it doesn't really matter who this fork belonged to. For me, the most fascinating thing about this elegant instrument, found with cheap, common oyster shells, is that it demonstrates that Shakespeare's astonishing variety of characters on stage simply mirrored the social mix of his audience.
Beatrice: 'The Count is neither sad, nor sick, nor merry, nor well; but civil count, civil as an orange'
(Much Ado About Nothing, 2.1.269-70)
Costard: 'thou halfpenny purse of wit, thou pigeon-egg of discretion'
(Love's Labour's Lost, 5.1.68-9)
In the next programme we go from food to politics, to the question that by the 1590's had been troubling England for decades: what will happen when the Queen eventually dies?
Shakespeare quotations are taken from:
Richard II (London: Penguin, 2008). ISBN: 978-0141-01663-4
As You Like It (London: Penguin, 2005). ISBN-13: 978-0-141-01227-8
Twelfth Night (London: Penguin, 2005). ISBN-13: 978-0-141-01470-8
The Merry Wives of Windsor (London: Penguin, 2005). ISBN-13: 978-0-141-01647-4
Much Ado About Nothing (London: Penguin, 2005). ISBN-13: 978-0-141-01230-8
Henry V (London: Penguin, 2010). ISBN: 978-0-141-01379-4
A Midsummer Night's Dream (London: Penguin, 2005). ISBN-13: 978-0-141-01260-5
Love's Labour's Lost (London:Penguin, 2005). ISBN-13: 978-0-141-02055-6
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