Food is an active ingredient in Shakespeare, says Miranda Lapworth. Her book on symbolism of food in Shakespeare is to be published soon

The setting is Elizabethan England. A feast is on. A grand pie is brought in, with much fanfare, on to a table laden with food. When sliced open little black birds fly out dramatically leaving diners enthralled. “Yes, that’s how a certain pie was made and that’s how the rhyme - four and twenty black birds baked in a pie - came about,” says Miranda Lapworth smiling at the disbelief that appears on the faces of her listeners.

Miranda, a writer, director, and drama coach, is completing her book on symbolism of food in Shakespeare to be published by the year end. She is in India as part of the world premiere of her play, Bharat, Blighty and The Bard, Shakespeare for Everyone, a collaboration between her and veteran actor Madhav Sharma.

Elizabethan food has been a popular subject of several books but Miranda’s endeavours are singular as they delve into the cuisines of the different lands that the dramas were set in. Hence, ancient Roman food, Scottish cuisine and Asian influences along with Elizabethan food are part of the research. “What I have done is to study the role of food in the 37 plays by Shakespeare, of how food symbolically is an active ingredient in plot development, in signalling action, in predicting possible denouncements and in delineating characters.”

Miranda’s interest in food began young while she cooked in the kitchen following instructions of her mother who sat at the dining table studying for her degree exams. “I liked to get the recipes right,” recalls Miranda. If her mother taught her cooking it was her father, the late Shakespearean scholar Paul Lapworth, who encouraged her to write the book as it combined her twin passions – Shakespeare and food. The immediate inspiration was watching Macbeth, when Banquo’s ghost leapt on to the dining table. Miranda was struck by the idea, “I thought the setting over a meal was very clever, that food was a foil for subliminal action.”

Miranda divides food into nine categories from its appearance in the plays. The most obvious overture of food is during a celebration with other instances being cancelled feasts, withdrawal of food, reward with food and such.

In Much Ado About Nothing a feast thrown by Leonato has the ominous portent of being smashed. It shows clearly that good characters have hearty appetites and bad ones suffer from poor appetite and digestion.

A celebration is cancelled in All’s Well That End’s Well signalling the couple’s unhappy future. Food is used effectively as a symbol of love and seduction in Antony and Cleopatra where it suggests amorous activities behind closed doors. Deception is planned over food in Macbeth. It is used as reward and punishment for sin in The Tempest. Abstinence or withdrawal from food is symbolic of trouble. “Hamlet is so chewed up by grief that he cannot eat.”

The most dramatic use is in Shakespeare’s bloodiest play Titus Andronicus where a horrific pie cooked with meat of the villains is served to their mother, the queen. Here food is a symbol of revenge and death.

Interpretation of food in classical literature, as in this one, comes with question of validity and intent. Miranda says, “What seems important to me is that Shakespeare knew details of food to use it naturally in text. He is very aware of the implications of what to eat.”

So a feast then is not a modern day banquet. The two have vastly different connotations. A first course in a Shakespearean feast would be a spread of 30 to 40 dishes and “not small ones”. The piece de resistance would be roast meats of boar and birds like peacocks, capon and swan. “Eight wild boars roasted whole at breakfast,” says Enobarbus in Antony and Cleopatra. Sugar that had just arrived in England was a status symbol. “The Elizabethans did not segregate sweet from savoury and hence a chicken dish had sugar and spices in it. They were skilled at flavouring meat and salt cod was very popular. Vegetables and salads were for peasants,” says Miranda.

Corn, though mentioned in the plays, did not exist. It is used as a term for grains. There were classes of bread. Pumpkins, parsnips were staple; there were no aubergines pepper, tomatoes and chocolates. A law passed by Queen Elizabeth had ordered for “fish days and flesh days,” to give a boost to the fishing industry. Potato was new and regarded an aphrodisiac- “How the devil Luxury, with his fat rump and potato-finger, tickles these two together!” (Thersites in Troilus and Cressida) The banquet was light, post-prandial supper where crystallised foods, like marzipan, called March Pane, were served. “They were highly ornate with coat of arms”.

Miranda’s gastronomic study will close with re-creation of some recipes from the plays. “I’m not sure if I will stuff a pie with black birds or cook a swan but it will be fun,” she says.

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