All the table’s a stage: A 1619 Christmas play for food

This early modern manuscript from the Folger collection sets forth an unconventional Christmas play, in which the characters are different foods warring against one another for pride of place at the Christmas feast.

A Christmas Messe was written in 1619, likely for a student performance at Oxford for the holiday season. References to university life are sprinkled throughout, including a lengthy jab at freshmen, or the “stinking, countless rabble.” The play would have been performed in one of the college halls and, especially considering the subject material, probably preceded the holiday feast.

A Christmas Messe
A Christmas Messe. Folger Shakespeare Library. J.a.1 (9)

In form and style, the play is a mock-heroic struggle for power, full of boasting, insults, loyal servitude, and self-pitying monologues. There is even a lovely lady’s favor to be fought over. The genre is made absurd, however, by the fact that the characters are actually different foods, or in some cases familiar objects associated with dining. The main plot involves King Beefe’s attempt to usurp the privilege of King Brawne to be served first at the Christmas feast. Brawne—boar’s meat—was the most highly prized dish at Renaissance holiday feasts and was often ceremoniously paraded in at the start of the meal. In the play, this privilege is fought over just as a throne would be.

A Christmas Messe
A Christmas Messe. Folger Shakespeare Library. J.a.1 (9)

After an opening monologue by the hungry Belly, the play begins with the minor characters squabbling between themselves, a trope stemming from classical tragedy. Tablecloth and Trencher fight over who plays the most important role in the feast, as do Salt and Bread. Cushion enters at the end and resolves the conflict, chiding them roughly for thinking too highly above their stations. Their small conflict reflects the major one that directly follows, when the kings and their cohorts prepare for battle.

Each “king” is supported by the spices and dressings they would normally have been served with. While Sir Vinigar and Sir Pepper support Beefe’s claim, Brawne has Lord Souce and Mustard to back him up. Queen Mincepy takes the side of Beefe, as he declares her to be his “owne deare flesh & matter.” Of course, this is quite literally true as mince pies are filled with beef. This humorous twist of romantic literary tropes continues as Beefe praises her beauty: “See but how smooth & round shee’s in the wast. / Her sides begirt with walls of solid past.”

As conflict between the two groups escalates, they begin to prepare their weapons. Vinigar knows that Souce will be deadly, as his smell would “choake one though hee were brought up in hell.” Similarly, Mustard attacks his enemies through the nose. Pepper assures that they will be no match for his assault on the tongue. The Kings themselves use the weapons of their “fathers”: Beefe gathers the horn and rib of the ox, Brawne the tusk and the bristles of the boar.

Meanwhile, the Belly’s soliloquies continue to pop up every few scenes. He reminds the audience of his hunger as well as the futility of the conflict: what does the order of the dishes matter when they will both be eaten anyway? They will meet their inevitable fate in the “unmerciful jaws” of the dinner guests. Though the Belly rails against the Cooke, blaming him for delaying the meal, they eventually join together and intercept the foods at the battle-ground.

In the final scene, the Cooke ascends from the fiery hell of the kitchen and wields his cooking knife as the ultimate mediator. He brings the meats back to the kitchens, punishing them by cooking and serving them. The Belly is happy, order has returned, and the feast can begin.

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