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Food for thought: Shakespeare on eating and agriculture

S&S gardenFor somebody we don’t know very much about, we know an awful lot about Shakespeare. Unfortunately, much of what we don’t know is the big stuff such as what year he became an actor, when he evolved into a writer and how he engaged in the writing process.

What we do know is mostly incidental; details that hint at personality or provide a social context. That’s pretty much the case with recent archaeological research at New Place, in Stratford. Bought by Shakespeare in 1597, New Place had over twenty rooms and ten fireplaces, an impressive frontage, Great Chamber and Gallery. Sadly it was demolished in 1759 when its owner, the Rev Francis Gastrell became irritated by tourists. He also destroyed a mulberry tree supposedly planted by Shakespeare. Both of which actions caused him to be chased out of town, and quite right too.

Excavations have revealed that its kitchen was built on generous scale and along with fragments of plates, cups and other utensils, evidence was found of an oven, cold store and brew house. Since water was unsafe to drink, the brewery was where small beer was made – people drinking up to a gallon a day, topped off with wine. Less spectacularly, the kitchen was also where foodstuffs were pickled or salted.

The latter hardly sounds like the stuff of drama – and food, its preparation, consumption and social signification, doesn’t feature much in Shakespeare’s work. The banquet scene in Macbeth is famous because of Banquo’s ghost and other matters; what was on the menu is never mentioned. Similarly the fantasy feast that Prospero conjures in The Tempest is less about food and more important as proof of his powers to inflict ever stranger torments.

It might be that Shakespeare couldn’t be bothered to describe what was anyway visible to the audience on stage. Or it might be that he simply wasn’t bothered about food. Given how sharply he observed almost every aspect of life, it’s curious that an area so vital to existence should have been ignored. Most of the references to food are slight, such as when Bottom admonishes his fellow actors to ‘eat no onions nor garlic, for we are to utter sweet breath.’ Similarly allusive is Cleopatra’s remark to Charmian that her former opinions belong to ‘salad days/When I was green in judgment.’

For Shakespeare, ‘salad days’ would have been synonymous with spring and early summer when vegetables were first becoming available – that phase of the year when cold is dispelled, sap rises, vigour returns, animals are turned out into lush pastures and the world falls in love for the first time all over again.

Cleopatra’s ‘green’ judgment may have smacked of immaturity, but the colour also symbolizes fertility. And after the long days of winter, drab and barren, spring fever could be forgiven.  In medieval times, few fresh things would have been available to eat during the harsh months except leek, brassicas and one or two root crops. This is about as exciting as it sounds, with the diet of ordinary people supplemented by grains such as wheat, oat, rye and barley and occasional fish or meat.

It may have been healthier than the modern Western diet, but it must have been dull, so the arrival of salad days would have had an appeal unimaginable today when the concept of seasonality is a little hard to grasp with everything being in season somewhere and our shops full of foodstuffs from the other side of the globe.

As it happens, globalization was in part driven by European demand for exotic condiments to flavour plain fare. And although expensive and generally only affordable by the rich, when robbed by Autolycus, the Clown in The Winter’s Tale was on his way to buy rice, mace, nutmeg and ginger, along with saffron, prunes and raisins for a sheep shearing feast.

The spices he hoped to buy, would have originally reached Europe along the Silk Road, but by Shakespeare’s day were mostly brought by sea, trade initially dominated by the Dutch East India Company founded in 1602. The Levant Company had been formed in 1581, helping import almost 250 tons of sugar annually, mostly from Morocco. The majority of this seems to have been consumed by Queen Elizabeth, whose teeth turned black as a consequence.

Speaking of the perils of sea voyages in The Merchant of Venice, Salarino describes his anxiety about ships foundering on rocks, with spices scattered ‘on the stream’ and silks enrobing roaring water. We’re not told what cargos Antonio’s ships were carrying, but Shylock reports they were in Tripoli, Mexico, the Indies and England. That one of his ships was in South America shouldn’t come as a surprise; Columbus was after all searching for a westward route to India when he chanced upon the Americas and subsequent travellers brought back coffee, potatoes and tobacco, all of which have remained more or less harmful addictions ever since.

It was on a voyage to the Virginia colonies that the Sea Venture was wrecked off Bermuda and accounts of the ten months passengers and crew spent on the island is thought to have inspired The Tempest. In that play, Shakespeare explores, amongst other things, the power relationship between those that produce food (in medieval times the peasantry) and those by whom it is consumed (landowners and a rising urban population)  – for it is abused Caliban, whose land has been stolen from him that knows the ‘fresh springs, brine-pits, barren place and fertile.’ Bookish, unworldly, Prospero wouldn’t have survived without Caliban’s intimate understanding of the island. Nor would the drunks, for whom Caliban promises to dig pignuts with his long nails and to show where crabs grow, as well as clustering filberts and how to snare the nimble marmoset and where to catch young scamels from the rock – without ever explaining what a scamel is or was.

Caliban was more hunter-gatherer than farmer, but he is one of the few characters in all Shakespeare’s plays defined by their association with food or its production. The countryside in his work is almost always a place of refuge or regeneration; it’s not generally a place where we see serious work. The sheep shearing feast for which the Clown is off to buy food is more an excuse for song and dance, including one danced by twelve satyrs, with no real sense of the shepherd’s life.

The Clown’s father had found abandoned Perdita while out looking for his two best sheep, scared from the flock by ‘boiled brain’ adolescents. Grown into young womanhood, her language is suffused with images drawn from the natural world and she is the play’s healing presence, but when declaring she will ‘milk my ewes and weep’ she has more in common with Marie-Antoinette’s pastoral fantasies at Versailles than real shepherding.

Like rural Bohemia with its improbable sea coast, the Forest of Arden in As You Like It is also a place of refuge and regeneration. It’s also peopled with shepherds, but in contrast, Corin talks vividly of fells (fleece) that are greasy and says his hands are often ‘tarred over with surgery of our sheep’ – words rooted in reality. And when he states he’s a ‘true labourer’ who earns ‘that I eat and get that I wear’ and that his greatest pride ‘is to see my ewes graze and my lambs suck’, he seems to be speaking with an authentic voice.

In the same play, Silvius explains that in his desperate love for Phoebe he would be satisfied to ‘glean the broken ears after the man/That the main harvest reaps’. It’s a deeply touching expression and a rare allusion to life in the fields –but for every figment of speech in Shakespeare drawn from agriculture, there are infinitely more relating to finance and law – or the natural world away from farming, for that matter.

This is curious, since both Shakespeare’s grandfathers were farmers and his mother inherited a farm at Wilmcote, a few miles from Stratford. The town itself would have been surrounded by farmland and even London little more than a collection of villages. He must have been familiar with the routines of farming life, but perhaps the absence of agricultural characters suggests an increasing disconnectedness from his roots – that he was a creature of the town not working countryside. Grain shortages in Coriolanus  cause the plebeians to riot, but his focus is on the masses, not the growers of corn beyond the city wall. In this regard, Shakespeare and his urbanite audience were already becoming modern; these days food is a commodity provided from elsewhere and produced by means unknown.

Perhaps Shakespeare was merely reflecting his audience back to itself, with few ploughboys, milk maids or swineherds amongst the groundlings. Perhaps, but with a few notable exceptions, dramatists and novelists tend not to feature the wearying routines of agriculture. Poets are different, but then they would be.

Back in my own small piece of countryside where pigs helped clear our field of brambles, we have created a kitchen garden. This is shared with five other families. Digging over the ground, we also turned archaeologists finding Victorian bottles, tons of broken crockery, hundreds of clay pipe stems and a mass of rusted metal.

A mid-nineteenth century tithe map shows our field was in those days divided into allotments. Not surprisingly, the greatest number of clay pipe stems have been found where we have our vegetable plots – the soil being light and well-drained and of sunny aspect. Lower down it becomes heavier with clay; higher up was the site of the old lane. Where we dig, unknown people once dug – and smoked as they worked, discarding bits of their pipes as the fragile stems snapped.

Winter is on its way out. A farmer kindly dumped a load of cow muck over the hedge which has been spread on the beds. A few crops have already been planted. More planting will follow. Then we await our salad days. Photo: allotment in July 2015

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