Food as Metaphor in Shakespeare

As well as using food and meals to create character and add dramatic impact, Shakespeare litters his plays with food references used metaphorically. Perhaps that is no surprise given Shakespeare’s interest in playing with the English language and finding ever more inventive ways to express ideas and thought. Whether it be Falstaff’s derogatory description of the cowardly men he has pressed to fight for him as “toasts-and-butter” (Henry IV Part One, IV, 2, 20), or Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream using the image of a “double cherry” (III, 2, 209) to describe her former intimacy with Hermia, such images add poetry and resonance to Shakespeare’s language.

Two plays – Hamlet and Much Ado About Nothing – make particularly interesting use of food metaphors and imagery.

Hamlet (c. 1600), probably Shakespeare’s best known play, tells of the eponymous protagonist’s attempt to avenge the murder of his father by his uncle Claudius, who has subsequently taken the throne of Denmark and married his brother’s widow, Gertrude. Hamlet’s tragedy lies in his inability to act quickly and decisively – his delay, whilst the trigger for beautiful, philosophical musings (“To be or not to be” being one such example), also leads, both directly and indirectly, to an extremely high corpse count by the end of the play, with eight characters dying either on or off stage, including Hamlet. In a play obsessed with life and death, the body and the soul, the frailty of human flesh and the divinity of human reason, it is perhaps no surprise that the characters, and particularly Hamlet, are preoccupied with images of food and eating, an activity that Hamlet notes puts us on a par with animals:

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . What is a man
If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more. (IV, 4, 33-35)

At the start of the play Hamlet – not yet apprized of the truth of his father’s death, but decidedly unhappy at his mother’s prompt remarriage to his uncle – bitterly tells his best friend Horatio, who comments on the short period of time between Hamlet’s father’s funeral and his mother’s remarriage: “The funeral baked meats / Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables” (I, 2, 180-81).

When, three scenes later, Hamlet encounters the ghost of his dead father, he learns the reality of his father’s death, namely that he was murdered by Claudius whilst sleeping one afternoon in his orchard. The ghost describes how his brother poured poison into his ear which “with a sudden vigour it doth posset / And curd, like eager droppings into milk, / The thin and wholesome blood” (I, 5, 68-70). A posset was a popular drink made of hot milk curdled with wine or ale, and sometimes spiced, whilst curd is a dairy product created by curdling milk with rennet or an acidic substance such as lemon juice which is then used as the basis of cheese. In both cases the food references illustrate the effect the poison has on the king’s blood, thus causing his death.

Later, in Act III, Scene 3, as Hamlet watches his uncle pray and considers whether to kill him or not – concluding that this is not the time as to kill someone in the act of prayer would send their soul to heaven, a fate Hamlet does not want for his murderous uncle – he laments the fact that Claudius killed his father without warning, giving him no time to repent of his sins and prepare his soul, describing his father as being “full of bread” (III, 3, 80), an echo of Ezekiel 16: 49 where it is a reference to the sin of gluttony. The Biblical reference – and its interpretation – may explain the ghost’s description of how, because he was given no time to repent his sins before his death, he is currently in Purgatory where he is “confined to fast in fires, / Till the foul crimes done in [his] days of nature / Are burnt and purged away” (I, 5, 11-13): fasting would be the entirely appropriate punishment for the sin of gluttony.

And in Act IV, Scene 3, after he has killed Polonius, his girlfriend Ophelia’s father, who was hiding behind the tapestry in the Queen’s chamber and eavesdropping on a conversation between Gertrude and Hamlet, Hamlet uses food analogies to describe Death as the great equaliser. When asked by his uncle where Polonius’s body is, Hamlet wittily states: “At supper… Not where he eats, but where a is eaten” (17-19), and then proceeds to describe how “A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and / eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm” (25-26).

Much Ado About Nothing – probably written a year or two before Hamlet – a comedy of warring couples and foolish misunderstandings, is also steeped in food metaphors, but to an entirely different end. Beatrice and Benedick, the play’s central couple who, at the start, delight in hating one another and share a mutual antipathy to love and marriage, but who through trickery are persuaded to fall in love, use references to food and eating as part of their self-proclaimed “merry war” against one another (I, 1, 57). When they meet up at the beginning of the play, after Benedick has been away fighting, Benedick declares his surprise that Beatrice – whom he dubs “Lady Disdain” is still alive. She retorts: “Is it possible disdain should die while she hath / such meet food to feed it as Signior Benedick?” (I, 1, 112-113) Later on, after a bruising encounter with Beatrice at a masked party, Benedick declares to his superior, Don Pedro, that he will not hang around in Beatrice’s presence: “O God, sir, here’s a dish I love not; I cannot / endure my Lady Tongue”. (II, 1, 251-52)

As well as these general images of food and feeding, Shakespeare makes use of the image of an orange at two points in the play. When the young soldier Claudio is sulking because he thinks Don Pedro has courted Beatrice’s meek cousin, Hero, for himself, rather than for Claudio as he had promised, Beatrice notes of him:

The count is neither sad, nor sick, nor merry
nor well; but civil count, civil as an orange, and something
of that jealous complexion. (II, 1, 269-271)

Here the Seville orange metaphor encapsulates Beatrice’s sharp wit and tart satire, as well as the rather unattractive sulky jealousy that characterises the easily gulled Claudio. But the image of an orange will be used later in the play for far more cruel ends. Persuaded to believe (wrongly) that Hero has been unfaithful to him, Claudio rejects her on their wedding day, comparing her to a “rotten orange” (IV, 1, 30) which looks virtuous and honourable on the outside, but is decayed and corrupt within. Fortunately, since Much Ado is a comedy, Claudio is led to see the error of his ways and to realize that Hero is as chaste and pure within as she appears on the outside.

In honour of the fact that Beatrice uses her orange metaphor appropriately – unlike the foolish Claudio – I also responded metaphorically to these metaphorical references and devised the Seville / Civil Orange cake below.

BEATRICE’S CIVIL ORANGE CAKE (makes approximately 8 slices)

200g soft butter
200g golden caster sugar
2 large eggs
40g plain flour
2 tablespoons Seville marmalade
140g ground almonds
Grated zest and juice of 1 orange
6 tablespoons (approx) icing sugar

Line a loaf tin with greaseproof paper or baking parchment. Cream together the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy. Gently beat in the eggs one at a time, adding some of the flour between each addition to stop the mixture curdling. Then fold in the marmalade, orange zest (not the juice) and ground almonds.
Spoon the mixture into the lined cake tin, lightly smoothing the top, and bake for 45-60 minutes at 180C / Gas mark 4, until a skewer leaves the cake without any mixture stuck to it.
Leave the cake to cool in its tin.
When the cake is cold remove it from the tin. Make an icing by mixing the sieved icing sugar with sufficient orange juice to make a thin, smooth paste. Drizzle this over the top of the cake and leave to set.


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