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Stomaching Shakespeare with Margaret Atwood

AtwoodFor many of us, perhaps even most, reading Shakespeare can be a bit of a chore (some would even liken the experience to getting a root canal). But peel away the sometimes confounding language and the timeless tales shine through, which is why Shakespeare continues to be adapted for modern audiences, hungry for a good yarn. The latest iteration is Margaret Atwood's retelling of The Tempest as Hag-Seed. Yes, speculative fiction maven, and wickedly funny Margaret Atwood, which may even make the root canal crowd want to devour it. This would be an appropriate compulsion given that Ms. Atwood has food on the brain. A curiosity about the culinary habits of fictional characters inspired this post.

This year being the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death, it's time someone comes out with a Playbook Cookbook. What did the Macbeths serve at the feast interrupted by Banquo's ghost? What were Sir John Falstaff's favourite foods? (Many. Starchy.)  When Sir Toby Belch, in Twelth Night, refers to "cakes and ale," what did he have in mind?

Perhaps the cakes were "Maids of Honour," a kind of Tudor cheesecake. As for the ale, it would have been made from barley, and brewed by an "ale-wife:" everything was micro-brewery then.     

I always like to know what the characters eat – if anything – in fiction and plays. Lately I've been wondering about The Tempest, since I've been revisiting in novel form, Hag-Seed, as part of the Hogarth Shakespeare project. The Tempest is set on a magic island, and there's quite a lot of food mentioned in it, though it's mostly food that would require some very creative cooking.

Caliban, whom the other characters treat as a slave or monster, has grown up on the island. He pursues a foraging lifestyle, relying on – according to him – fish, crabs, berries, pig-nuts (a kind of plant with underground nodules on it), jay's nests – possibly for the eggs – filberts, marmosets – a sort of monkey, which one can assume he ate, though maybe he also made hats out of them – and scamels, though we aren't sure exactly what "scamels" were. So that is what the deposed Duke of Milan, Prospero, and his daughter Miranda have been eating during the twelve years they've spent on the island. It's very basic: no pepper or butter, for instance. Or bread. You can see why Prospero would want to get back to Milan asap.

There's another meal in The Tempest, though it's a magic illusion. It's in the scene where the miscreants – Prospero's usurping brother Antonio, Alonso, the king of Naples, and Alonso's brother, Sebastian, who wants to kill him – are accosted by "several strange shapes bringing in a banquet," who invite them to eat.

We think of a "banquet" as what the Tudors would have recognized as a "feast" – a lavish, formal sit-down affair. But as Ruth Goodman's How to be a Tudor informs us, a banquet was originally more like a cocktail reception: light fare, eaten while strolling around. If you were very up-to-date, you'd carry your own little monogrammed fork for snack-spearing.         

As Shakespeare's characters prepare to tuck in, the elemental spirit, Ariel, disguised as a winged harpy, appears to the sound of thunder and the banquet vanishes. Ariel berates the sinners for their misdeeds, and they are then be-spelled by Prospero and go mad.

We've all been to parties like that. You've got the smoked salmon canapé halfway to your mouth when someone from your past appears, chews you out about your awfulness, and proceeds to drive you crazy. Keep that in mind about banquets.

Meanwhile you can amuse yourself with this question: what did Shakespeare's Tempest "banquet" look like? Remember: no tiny potatoes yet. Also, no tomatoes, so mini-pizzas are out. Oh, and no coffee. Sorry. You're stuck with the cakes and ale.

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