It has taken me a while to decide on a topic for my newest entry. In fact, I have partially written several blogs in my head while walking Tug in the quiet nights. A few were rants, inspired by the various idiots in government speaking on radio and TV. In fact, I nearly wrecked my car screaming at the radio when one particular politician was interviewed. However, I don’t intend this blog to take on a politic tone. There are far too many of those around lately, though, I’ll admit, Shakespeare’s plays lend themselves rather nicely to the current political climate. It’s funny how things haven’t changed much over the centuries.
But I digress. Actually, I’ve just always wanted to say that and never seem to catch myself speaking to my classes when I actually do digress. The topic I finally decided on is one everyone can relate to, that is, food.
To begin, I find it absolutely amazing that so many people in the world have never tried my grandmother’s blueberry pancakes, yet claim they know what a good blueberry tastes like. The best blueberries come from Michigan. All the others are far too small or too seedy. The Michigan blueberries of my childhood were always large and juicy with tart skin and sweet flesh. And they never had the annoying habit of depositing seeds in my teeth. Yet, as good as they were fresh, they reached their peak in my grandmother’s pancakes. Her pancakes were large and fluffy with berries cooked just to the bursting point. Instead, they would explode in your mouth or under your fork, mixing with the butter and syrup, which created the most intoxicating of substances. She had several other blueberry recipes, but her pancakes surpassed them all. She taught me herself how to make them, yet somehow mine still aren’t quite as excellent as hers.
Food invokes memories, which is why most modern scientists believe it can bring about the same feelings as other more dangerous drugs. Marcel Proust called it “involuntary memory.” That is, the taste and smell of the food involuntarily stimulates memories, which, as scientist have determined, triggers the release of various chemicals in the body, thus producing an effect similar to that of some drugs. Thus, no pancake I can make will ever be as perfect as my grandmother’s, simply because each time I eat my own, I remember hers and inevitably compare them. Yet, within those memories I also find a comfort from my childhood, remembering those mornings around the table with Papa’s commentary, Grammy’s clinking and clanging in the kitchen, and my older brother stumbling up the stairs toward the kitchen from his basement bed.
The first time I ever really linked Shakespeare and food was as an undergrad when my lovable and eccentric professor surprised us by celebrating Shakespeare’s birthday with homemade goodies baked from Elizabethan recipes. She brought fresh strawberries, clotted cream, short cakes, Shrewsbury cakes, marmalade, and pound cake. It was a very tasty two hours.
No, Shakespeare does not have a play about food. However, his plays are littered with the references to various foodstuffs and drink, and they are placed in a way to invoke those “involuntary memories” in the audience. For instance:
The strawberry grows underneath the nettle
And wholesome berries thrive and ripen best
Neighbour’d by fruit of baser quality:
And so the prince obscured his contemplation
Under the veil of wildness; which, no doubt,
Grew like the summer grass, fastest by night,
Unseen, yet crescive in his faculty. (Henry V, I.1.99-105)
So, Shakespeare mentions strawberries, big whoop, right? What he is truly doing is invoking the audience’s memory. Strawberries were a late spring and early summer treat for all classes. They grew in the undergrowth of these “baser quality” plants, yet they provided a perfectly sweet treat for those that searched for them. In the same way, the Prince, now in the “spring” of his manhood, though he has grown under the influence of “baser” men, i.e. Falstaff, will begin to rise and fulfill the ripeness of his promise. Without the memory of the strawberry in the audience’s minds, this reference is no where near as powerful.
Some of Shakespeare’s most powerful food references are to drink. Just as now, some of the most amusing bits of humor tend to be alcohol induced. That’s right, little has changed. Most of Shakespeare’s foolish characters are, at some point, inebriated, causing comic exchanges. One of the most memorable occurs in The Tempest when Caliban, the island savage, is given his first taste of alcohol by the two fools, Trinculo and Stephano. In a raucous scene, Caliban assumes the beverage to be magical, and so, too, its owner.
CALIBAN: Hast thou not dropp’d from heaven?
STEPHANO: Out o’ the moon, I do assure thee: I was the man i’
the moon when time was.
CALIBAN: I have seen thee in her and I do adore thee:
My mistress show’d me thee and thy dog and thy bush.
STEPHANO: Come, swear to that; kiss the book: I will furnish
it anon with new contents swear.[Caliban drinks.] (II.2. 137-143)
Change the time and place, and the scene would resemble a college frat party wherein a brother corrupts one of the innocent pledges during rush week. Vulgar yet funny, as long as you aren’t Caliban/college frosh.
Shakespeare also cleverly uses drink and drunkenness to lighten the terrible darkness of his tragedies. For instance, in Macbeth, we are suddenly introduced to the porter just after the audience has witness Macbeth and Lady M washing their hands of Duncan’s blood:
Here’s a knocking indeed! If a man were
porter of Hell Gate, he should have old turning the
key. (Knock.) Knock, knock, knock! Who’s there,
i’ the name of Beelzebub? Here’s a farmer, that hang’d
himself on th’ expectation of plenty. Come in time!
Have napkins enow about you; here you’ll sweat for’t.
(Knock.) Knock, knock! Who’s there, in the other
devil’s name? Faith, here’s an equivocator, that could
swear in both the scales against either scale, who com-
mitted treason enough for God’s sake, yet could
not equivocate to heaven. O, come in, equivocator.
(Knock.) Knock, knock, knock! Who’s there? Faith,
here’s an English tailor come hither, for stealing
out of a French hose: come in, tailor; here you may
roast your goose. (Knock.) Knock, knock! Never
at quiet! What are you? But this place is too
cold for hell. I’ll devil-porter it no further: I had
thought to have let in some of all professions that go
the primrose way to the everlasting bonfire. (Knock.)
Anon, anon! [Opens the gate.] I pray you, remember
the porter. (II.3.1-21)
Here, Shakespeare lightens the mood with a drunken porter bumbling about onstage; yet he uses the fellow to set the scene. Will the Macbeths be caught by those knocking? Are we still in a Scottish castle, or are we truly in hell? He might have added these thoughts in some more serious form, but the addition of a drunkard allows him to create a multi-layered moment of humor and fear. We are meant to laugh at the porter, but with a tinge of fear in the back of our minds.
For those, like me, who spend their spare and professional time studying Shakespeare’s works, one of the many things that can be noticed about his methods are that he is a master at manipulating the senses and memories of the audience. One method he employed was food and drink. So, next time you go to see Shakespeare in the park, pack a picnic, carry a bottle of wine. As you listen to the actors spotting various references, try taking a bite of those foods or sipping those drinks and reflecting on the memories they invoke in you. Then see how you might link those memories to the scene before you. In the meantime, enjoy this lovely 17th century recipe. Bon Appetit!
To make Clouted Cream:
Take Milk that was milked in the morning, and scald it at noon; it must have a reasonable fire under it, but not too rash, and when it is scalding hot, that you see little Pimples begin to rise, take away the greatest part of the Fire, then let it stand and harden a little while, then take it off, and let it stand until the next day, covered, then take it off with a Skimmer. (Taken from “The Queen-like Closet OR RICH CABINET Scored with all manner of RARE RECEIPTS FOR Preserving, Candying and Cookery” by Hannah Woolley, 1672).