So what did Shakespeare’s audience eat?

And, most dear actors, eat no onions or garlic, for we are to utter sweet breath; and I do not doubt but to hear them say, it is a sweet comedy. No more words: Away! Go, away!   A Midsummers Night Dream

I received Shakespeare’s Kitchen as a Christmas present. A friend thought I would delight in cooking late Renaissance food. While I do enjoy the novelty of it, I’ve yet to find delight in many of the dishes. To be honest, I found most of the dishes a little bland. Autumn squashes with apples and fried parsley sounds good, until you taste it. Apples, butter and French apple cider do not mix well. Being a vegetarian, I’ve stayed away from the meat section. Even if I were to break down and eat meat, Salmon Rolls Pricked with a Feather does not sound very appetizing.  But I will continue my cooking adventure. I’m almost to the dessert section.

Despite the letdown, the book did get me thinking. What, if anything did Elizabethan audiences enjoy while at the theater?

Modern movie audiences queue up to purchase tickets then queue up again at the snack bar. It is only recently that some new theaters now offer refreshments to sitting audiences. At the Tahoe Shakespeare festival, the groundlings (those with the cheaper tickets) have to bring their own food. Those who spend the extra money are served  while sitting comfortably waiting for the play to begin. Dessert is served at intermission.

Elizabethan London’s live theater was much different. Modern audiences might be shocked by the rough and rowdy crowd. After paying a penny entrance fee the groundlings would jostle for a standing position in front of the stage. Some times fights would break out before any action would take place on the stage. Food merchants would weave in and out of the crowd, calling out their wares ,vying for attention.

Those who could afford it would be offered a surprising range of food. The list certainly shames our choices. Elizabethan audiences ate better than we do.

Here is what you could expect to find while watching the latest Shakespeare play

Fruit, lots and lots of fruit. The British Museum paid for an excavation of the Rose Theater site. They found seeds from apples, oranges, plumbs, figs, elderberries ,and grapes. While we eat processed sugary “food”, Shakespeare audience paid a few shillings for fresh fruit.

Half loaves of bread was quite popular. It seems this and a chunk cheese would have been what the groundlings who could afford to splurge, would have eaten.

Of all things, shellfish was on the menu! Oysters, clams, periwinkle (sea snail to Americans), and muscles were available. These items must have been abundant and cheap in Shakespeare’s time as the floor of the Rose site was littered with left over shells. Oh and speaking of shells, nuts were available too. Despite the commonly held belief that the term “peanut gallery”  stems from an Elizabethan slur on the groundlings and their nut of choice, Hazelnuts were the most common nut found on the site.

Meat pies and pastries were options for those in the upper deck. The highborns and well to do merchants would have eaten these with forks they brought from home.

Fork found at the Rose Theater site Now at the British Museum
Fork found at the Rose Theater site
Now at the British Museum

Journals and letters from this period informs modern scholars about every day experiences. We have enough of these documents to know that bottled ale was available to Shakespeare’s audiences. Complaints about the noise these”Fizzy” drinks made while being opened are well documented. They were called Fizzy drinks because of this noise. Apparently enough was being consumed that the drinks became very distracting. We’ve yet to find a letter complaining about corks. This is probably because those complaining about the ale drinkers were passing bottles of wine around.

Fruit, bread, nuts, cheese, meat and shell fish were the norm for Elizabethan theater audiences. So, if you are inclined to host a movie based on one of Shakespeare’s plays this weekend, now you know what to serve.

I leave you with this morsel to chew on.

This prologue to Laurence Olivier’s 1944 movie Henry V gives us an quick glimpse into what it must have been like to visit the Globe Theater during Shakespeare’s time. The first two minutes are a little dull, but stay with it. The rest is quite a treat.

 

Author: sarij

I'm a writer, lifelong bibliophile ,and researcher. I hold a Bachelors in Humanities & History and a Master's in Humanities. When I'm not reading or talking about Shakespeare or history, you can usually find me in the garden discussing science or politics with my cat.

4 thoughts on “So what did Shakespeare’s audience eat?”

    1. You are welcome. I love coming up with topics people find interesting, especially if the topic is something they never previously thought about.

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