Excerpt: Culinary Shakespeare

Culinary Shakespeare coverEating and drinking were of central importance to Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Culinary Shakespeare, the first collection devoted solely to the study of food and drink in Shakespeare’s plays, reframes questions about cuisine, eating, and meals in early modern drama.

Culinary Shakespeare, edited by David B. Goldstein and Amy L. Tigner, is available in a new paperback edition released this month from Penn State University Press. Goldstein served as one of the co-directors for Before ‘Farm to Table’: Early Modern Foodways and Cultures, a four-year project that launched the Folger Institute’s Mellon initiative in collaborative research.

The excerpt shared below is taken from the book’s introduction. Shakespeare & Beyond readers can use code FOL40 for a 40% discount on either the paperback or hardcover editions of Culinary Shakespeare.

Smack in the middle of The Tempest, in one of the strangest episodes of an already strange play, Ariel performs an elaborate culinary happening: “Enter several strange Shapes, bringing in a banquet; and dance around it with gentle actions of salutations.” These shapes magically conjure a feast for the hungry nobles recently shipwrecked on the island. In the brief time that the lavish food appears before them, Gonzalo, Alonso, and the other characters marvel at the perplexing nature of the gentle islanders who have produced such bounty. Since these supernatural beings strike their viewers as having materialized out of fictional travelers’ tales, the spectacle begins to blur the line between fact and fiction, knowledge and fantasy, being and seeming. After the characters debate whether to give way to their sharp appetites (their growling “stomachs”) or to be prudently suspicious, the banquet vanishes and Ariel reprimands the men for past sins. In this scene, food’s appearance prompts a discussion of epistemology and imagination, and ultimately becomes the fantastical starting point for generating self-recognition and catalyzing a new political structure. The need for material food, coupled with the desire raised by its spectacular, cognitive, and imaginative dimensions, produces an opening into possibility.

This culinary Shakespearean moment, by crystalizing questions about knowledge, power, ethics, colonialism, labor, and desire, introduces us to the grave importance of food in the early modern period and to the dangers of ignoring eating as an ontological and epistemological phenomenon. Since Plato, philosophers and other thinkers have longed to leave the dining table, with its pleasures and burdens, behind. The preoccupations of cuisine — all that pushing and shoving around of food and drink — remove us from the life of the mind, driving us inexorably into our bodies. Plato dreamed of a life unsullied by physical appetites. His Socrates was indifferent to food and drink, and his ideal drinking party was one in which conversation would form the only necessary sustenance. “Do you think that it is right,” he asks rhetorically in the Phaedo, “for a philosopher to concern himself with the so-called pleasures connected with food and drink?” Simmias provides the right answer: “Certainly not.” Influenced by Platonic philosophy, Western society has often treated cuisine as a less than serious focus for discussion. We may enjoy it, we may acknowledge its necessity for our survival and happiness, but we shouldn’t spend too much time talking about it lest we be marked as unthinking and intemperate gluttons, practitioners of what Michel de Montaigne satirically termed la science de gueule — the “science of the gullet.”

If philosophy has tended to denigrate food, literature has always actively engaged with it as a central aspect of human experience. Shakespeare, while well aware of negative philosophical attitudes toward food and drink, was equally attuned to a strong countermovement throughout intellectual history. This countermovement addresses itself to cuisine for precisely the reasons that Plato wanted to distance himself from it. In studying and discussing food and drink, we confront human beings in all their embodied fleshiness — their messy desires, appetites, and excretions. Shakespeare and his contemporaries, in their avid fascination with what makes humans human — and indeed more or less than human — turned to cuisine to illustrate and explore the fundamentals of experience. Food is not only a bodily phenomenon, but by necessity also a phenomenon of the body as situated within its relationships, within the mesh of the human world. Cuisine lies at the center of culture. For this reason, although the volume’s title refers to a culinary Shakespeare, our understanding of the term is broad.

In the social sciences, a productive distinction has been made between the “culinary” and the “commensal,” with the former describing the “what” of eating — ingredients, food, the biology and labor that create them, etc. — and the latter referring to the “how” of eating, including the rituals of the table and interactions among humans and groups. This book implicitly adopts a commensal as well as a culinary outlook on culture. Our contributors are as interested in modes of gathering and interacting as in foodstuffs. In fact, all contributors would agree with the adage of the great philosopher of cuisine, Emmanuel Levinas: “Food is not the fuel necessary to the human machine. Food is a meal.” Food and drink, in Shakespeare as in all other literature, always occurs in and is inflected through social context. While the culinary and the commensal describe different aspects of a continuum, we mean for the term “culinary” to stand here for all points on that continuum. A cuisine is not just a set of edibles; it is an integral element of social and intellectual life. And a culinary Shakespeare is a Shakespeare of and in culture, a writer attuned to the pleasures and perils of the table around which we all, in one way or another, must gather.

For all its importance in Shakespeare and in literary writing more generally, food in Shakespeare studies has only just begun to garner its share of critical attention. Recent cross-disciplinary research reveals myriad ways in which food helps to define us and our relationships. By exploring the ways food and writing interact, literary scholars are starting to recognize the centrality of eating to forms of meaning-making. Shakespeare studies has emerged at the forefront of this research, demonstrating that food, eating, drinking, and its attendant processes (cooking, digesting, purging, excreting) perform crucial work, as both material and metaphorical phenomena, in all of Shakespeare’s writings. This volume emerged out of the need to articulate the centrality of food, eating, and drinking for Shakespeare, and to illustrate the diversity of approaches that have the potential to reshape our understanding of culinary culture both within literature and beyond it. The scholars represented here, taken together, show that cuisine in Shakespeare functions as a system of representation with material causes and effects. This system gives structure to relationships among individuals, groups, nation-states, and nonhumans; it also provides more metaphysical links between being and nonbeing, between the material world and its ineffable yet immanent counterparts. Finally, the relationship between eating and theater is explored in every Shakespeare play, to one or another degree, with each acting as a metaphor and even a scaffold for the other. For Shakespeare, the culinary is primary.

Reprinted courtesy of Penn State University Press