The tradition of celebrating Shakespeare’s genius in Stratford-upon-Avon with grand luncheons goes back to the Tercentenary festivities in 1864. In a huge pavilion, guests could attend balls, performances and, of course, lunches. 100 years later, official luncheon parties were still being given in honour of the Bard.
This is the official menu for the 1964 Shakespeare Anniversary Luncheon held in a specially constructed Festival Pavilion on the banks of the river Avon. Originally, Queen Elizabeth II was scheduled to attend the official opening of the Shakespeare Centre on Henley Street that day; however in March 1964 she gave birth to her fourth child, Prince Edward. Her husband His Royal Highness Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh participated in the official opening of the Shakespeare Centre in her place. Prince Philip was also the guest of honour at the birthday anniversary luncheon.
The menu served on this day consisted of smoked river trout with horse-radish sauce as starters; cold breasts of roast spring chicken, York ham, points of asparagus, fresh green salad, and hot buttered new potatoes for the main course; and fresh fruit salad or Warwickshire Cream for pudding; coffee was served later.
Compared to the usual sumptuous and lavish Elizabethan feasts, this luncheon appears meagre indeed. However, the social function of official dinners has remained very similar to what it was in Shakespeare’s time. They were an expression of social and political power not only for monarchs and nobles but also for people with social aspirations, like the gentry and wealthy merchants. No wonder that Shakespeare – like most of his contemporaries – makes good use of dinners and banquets in his works: in all of his 38 plays, nine banquet scenes are depicted on stage, a further four are mentioned but not shown.
One banquet you won’t forget is the one that marks the turning point in Macbeth’s development in Act 3 of the play:
[A banquet prepared. Enter MACBETH, LADY MACBETH,] [p]ROSS, LENNOX, Lords, and Attendants]
You know your own degrees; sit down: at first
And last the hearty welcome.
Thanks to your majesty.
Ourself will mingle with society,
And play the humble host.
Our hostess keeps her state, but in best time
We will require her welcome.
See, they encounter thee with their hearts’ thanks.
Both sides are even: here I’ll sit i’ the midst:
Be large in mirth; anon we’ll drink a measure
The table round.
My royal lord,
You do not give the cheer: the feast is sold
That is not often vouch’d, while ’tis a-making,
‘Tis given with welcome: to feed were best at home;
From thence the sauce to meat is ceremony;
Meeting were bare without it.
Now, good digestion wait on appetite,
And health on both!
May’t please your highness sit.
[The GHOST OF BANQUO enters, and sits in] MACBETH’s place]
Here had we now our country’s honour roof’d,
Were the graced person of our Banquo present;
Who may I rather challenge for unkindness
Than pity for mischance!
His absence, sir,
Lays blame upon his promise. Please’t your highness
To grace us with your royal company.
The table’s full.
Here is a place reserved, sir.
Here, my good lord. What is’t that moves your highness?
Which of you have done this?
What, my good lord?
Thou canst not say I did it: never shake
Thy gory locks at me.
(Macbeth, Act 3, scene 4)
This is an example of a banquet gone horribly wrong, but by far the most gruesome of all banquets, however, is the concluding scene in Shakespeare’s early revenge tragedy Titus Andronicus. Titus presents his guests, the Roman Emperor Saturninus and his queen Tamora, with a pie made with the meat of Tamora’s own sons, Chiron and Demetrius. Here’s Titus before the dinner, explaining to his victims in all detail what he is going to do with them, the murderers of his son-in-law and the rapists of his daughter Lavinia:
Hark, wretches! how I mean to martyr you.
This one hand yet is left to cut your throats,
Whilst that Lavinia ‘tween her stumps doth hold
The basin that receives your guilty blood.
You know your mother means to feast with me,
And calls herself Revenge, and thinks me mad:
Hark, villains! I will grind your bones to dust
And with your blood and it I’ll make a paste,
And of the paste a coffin I will rear
And make two pasties of your shameful heads,
And bid that strumpet, your unhallow’d dam,
Like to the earth swallow her own increase.
This is the feast that I have bid her to,
And this the banquet she shall surfeit on; […]
(Titus Andronicus, Act 5, scene 2)
As these examples show, feasts and banquets prove a welcome setting to stage power and status for Shakespeare. For most of us, however, feasting is nowadays predominantly concerned with good food and good times.
If you want to know more about Tudor feasting, why not check out our blog post on Finding Shakespeare about a spice plate (http://findingshakespeare.co.uk/shakespeares-world-in-100-objects-number-42-a-spice-plate) or posy trenchers