Editor’s note: This week, to mark the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death, we will be running a series of stories examining the links between food and the Bard.
“Life … consists of eating and drinking,” quips Twelfth Night‘s over-indulging Sir Andrew Aguecheek. It seems that Shakespeare’s audiences felt the same.
Between 1988 and 1990, when archaeologists excavated The Rose and The Globe theaters (where Shakespeare’s plays were performed), they were able to learn as much about the audiences as the playhouses themselves.
There were no dress circle lounges nor mezzanine bars 400 years ago. As the characters in plays like The Taming of the Shrew, Macbeth and As You Like It feasted on stage, down in the yard and up in the galleries, the audience noshed on cold nibbles and ready-made street food.
Archaeologist Julian Bowsher at the Museum of London Archaeology has found evidence of grapes, figs, blackberries, raspberries and plums, as well as small animal bones that suggest playgoers “could certainly have eaten a cold chicken” while laughing at one of Shakespeare’s many capon jokes (see Love’s Labour’s Lost, Much Ado About Nothing, and Two Gentlemen of Verona). The early 17th century play Wit Without Money, says, Bowsher, also complains of young apprentices who cracked nuts throughout a performance — Jacobean versions of those annoyingly loud popcorn munchers sitting behind you at the Cineplex.
But the largest haul from the excavation underneath the theaters was oyster shells. Shakespeare mentions the popular shellfish in at least six plays. Benedict fears being made an oyster by love in Much Ado, and then there’s Pistol’s braggadocio in Merry Wives: “Why, then the world’s mine oyster. Which I with sword will open.” Such moments likely provided a ripe opportunity for actors to break the fourth wall and have a bit of fun with the audience.
Where did theatergoers snacks? They possibly bought them from vendors they passed on their way to the performance.
Often a theater also benefited from a taphouse next door, “where you could buy food and drink for the show,” says Bowsher. These establishments were just the sort of convivial drinking holes that Measure for Measure‘s Froth (who’s named for the head on ale) jokes he never enters of his own accord but instead “is drawn in.” John Hemminges, one of the actors in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (the company for which Shakespeare wrote), owned a tap house next to the Globe.
“There was also quite clearly a mechanism for [taphouse] employees to come and sell things in the play yard,” says Bowsher. “We know that in one case there was a water seller.” And Paul Hentzner — a German lawyer who traveled through England during the Elizabethan era — wrote that while visiting London in 1598, he saw wine and ale for sale, as well.
But plays were not put on in theaters alone. Inns were often called to serve as performance spaces. Some, like the Boar’s Head in Whitechapel and the Red Bull in Clerkenwell, were turned into permanent playhouses during Shakespeare’s time. And they “probably continued the preparation and serving of food and drink” alongside performances since they already had the facilities, Bowsher says.
“We’ve uncovered Shakespeare’s working world,” he says, “the environment he was playing and acting and writing for.” And all the evidence they’ve found points to the audience “having a boisterous time… busy eating and drinking and enjoying the show.”
Anne Bramley wrote on food in early modern literature during her a Ph.D. at the University of Chicago and taught Shakespeare at Duke University. She is the author of Eat Feed Autumn Winter.