Things sweet to taste…

As part of the BBC’s Shakespeare Unlocked season, Radio 4 is broadcasting another series surrounding material objects by the British Museum director, Neil MacGregor (following The World in 100 Objects): Shakespeare’s Restless World.  In short programmes, just shy of quarter-of-an-hour, MacGregor ‘unlocks’ the information, history, and literary significance of each day’s object – today, a two-pronged fork, yesterday, a communion cup, and in the first episode, Sir Francis Drake’s circumnavigation medal.

Although brief and necessarily superficial, MacGregor illustrates just how fruitful the interchange between the material object and the period’s drama can be.  Today, the programme cursorily mentioned the Elizabethan eccentric Thomas Coryat, who brought the Italianate ‘fork’ to England.  Coryat’s tall tales, extensive travels, and shameless self-promotion earned the scorn of many contemporaries, but the rewards of his Renaissance encounters are archaeologically clear in London; specifically, here, the ‘theatre-goer’s fork’, discovered  in an excavation of the former Southwark theatre The Rose, suggests in MacGregor’s words ‘the wonderful demonstration of the social range of a Shakespearean audience’.

The fork led to the discussion of a number of theatre eating habits – including bread, oysters, mussels, and ale: early modern popcorn.  Alongside the popular metaphor for reading as ‘digesting’,  such sensory experiences might enlighten our understanding of the period’s theatrical experience.  Admittedly, we probably (hopefully) do not think about chainsaw massacres differently when eating sweet instead of salty popcorn, or sympathise more with psychologically-challenged ballet dancers on M&Ms than on Malteasers, but considering the visceral experience of theatre, its ‘5D’ feeling, the smells, sounds, and tastes of The Rose may well unite the audience and the characters:  ‘Now come and sit with vs, and taste our cheere’ (The Spanish Tragedy).

If literature powerfully metaphorised sensual experience, from vivid, animated descriptions to the allegories of religion and reading – Errour in The Faerie Queen‘spewd out of her filthie maw  / A floud of poyson horrible and blacke…Her vomit full of bookes and papers was…’ (I.I.xx.1-2; 6) – theatre was uniquely able to literalise it.  The spray of Kensington gore on those close to the stage in the history plays or Julius Caesar (a messy affair, as the BBC’s Horrible Histories can reveal!) would provide sensational entertainment as well as further interpretive potential.  Many of the stage’s metaphors hold a double-life, presenting images, events, sensual experiences that are material and immaterial, substantial and insubstantial, comic and tragic.  The self-conscious references to food, several of Shakespeare’s given during Shakespeare’s Restless World, draws on common audience experience as well as numerous connections to religious consumption and to sexuality, of gluttony and physical desire.  Excitingly, such ‘gastro-criticism’ is of current interest to many literary critics, who are working to uncover new possibilities for the connection between playing, reading, and eating.

Shakespeare’s Restless World continues tomorrow on Radio 4, looking at Lucas de Heere’s Allegory of the Tudor Succession (1571-2) and Britain’s apparent Shakespeare season is in full swing on Sky Arts and BBC Two (James Shapiro’s The King and the Playwright begins on BBC2 Monday 23rd April).

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