"Apricots, Butter, and Capons: An Early Modern Lexicon of Food" by Dr Joan Fitzpatrick (Loughborough University, UK)1

Apricots, butter and capons represent three major food groups: (i) fruit, (ii) a fat that the early moderns termed a 'white meat', and (iii) animal flesh or poultry. This essay will consider Shakespeare's depiction of these foods in his plays, and glance at other dramatic texts by his contemporaries, specifically in relation to the genre of dietary literature. The role of the books called dietaries in early modern culture and their intersection with dramatic art has received insufficient attention so far. My recent monograph Food in Shakespeare considered a selection of dietary literature in relation to Shakespeare's drama, especially his depiction of ordinary and exotic foodstuffs,2 but more remains to be said. Dietaries were prose texts recommending what one should eat and why, and they played an important part in the cultural life of early modern English people. Theories of food and drink and choices about eating and drinking encoded economic circumstances, social aspirations, national identity, gender, physical health, and self-worth.

The dietaries make clear the view that food and drink are not mere necessities but also indices of one's position in relation to complex ideas about rank, nationality, and spiritual well-being and that careful consumption might correct moral as well as physical shortcomings. Anxiety surrounding consumption was reinforced by tirades against excess in dietary literature, tirades that undoubtedly reflected the stance taken by religious texts such as the Homily Against Gluttony and Drunkeness. Yet asceticism was also denounced since excessive fasting was associated with monastic life and was by some considered an indulgence as great as gluttony. The dietaries are an eclectic genre of books: some give tips on general lifestyle choices, such as which is the best location to build a house or how best to bring up children but all offer advice on how to maintain good health via diet and all present food as an ally in the battle against illness as well as being a potential enemy if misused. It is, of course, important to respect the limitations of evidence derived from such a genre of writing: although the dietaries gave an authoritative view of the kinds of foodstuffs self-appointed experts considered beneficial or dangerous, we must not assume that they reflect in any simple way the actual eating habits of a particular group of people. Like early modern drama, they are constructed engagements with reality and thus constitute an effort to shape as much as reflect eating habits.


I. Apricots

Before considering Shakespeare's depiction of apricots, butter, and capons this paper will trace what the dietaries had to say about each of these food groups and the specific foods involved. So, it will begin with fruit in general before moving on to apricots in particular. Although wild apples, pears, plums, and woodland strawberries had been grown in England for hundreds of years, the early modern period saw new fruits from Southern Europe introduced into the gardens of the wealthy and thence into their diet, for example apricots, melons, pomegranates, oranges and lemons. In dried form fruits such as raisins, currants, prunes, figs and dates were also imported in large quantities to serve the luxury market. In the writings of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, a distinct suspicion toward fruit in general is consistent with advice from early-modern dietaries that fruit should be consumed with caution and in moderation.

In the early modern period it was generally believed that God had ordained animal flesh as fit for human consumption only after the flood (Genesis 9:3). In his dietary entitled Health's Improvement, first published in 1655, Thomas Moffett notes:

For whilst Adam and his wife were in Paradise, he had commission to eat only of the fruit of the Garden; being cast thence, he was enjoined to till the ground, and fed in the sweat of his brows upon worts ['werts'], corn, pulse and roots; but as for flesh, albeit many beasts were slain for sacrifices and apparel, yet none was eaten of men 2240 years after the creation; even till God himself permitted Noah and his family to feed of every sensible thing that moved and lived, as well as of fruits and green herb. 3

Moffett claims that the main reason for man later consuming animal flesh rather than fruit and vegetables alone was a change in man's physical make-up as well as the food typically consumed:

before the flood men were of stronger constitution, and vegetable fruits grew void of superfluous moisture: so by the flood these were endued with weaker nourishment and men made more subject to violent diseases and infirmities. Whereupon it was requisite or rather necessary, such meat to be appointed for human nourishment, as was in substance and essence most like our own, and might with less loss and labour of natural heat be converted and transubstantiated into our flesh.4

Notably, the main food stuff before the time of the flood is compared to the natural environment in which it grows: it is "void of superfluous moisture" but, like the environment around it, will change when the water comes. There are strangely cannibalistic overtones of this explanation: men were compelled to eat meat "most like our own", that is most like human flesh, a suggestion made more overt by reference to meat being "transubstantiated", which evokes transubstantiation. The notion that fruit was full of water and could cause a harmful imbalance in the body if consumed comes up repeatedly in the dietaries. In a revised and augmented version of his Natural and Artificial Directions for Health, originally published in 1600 with a revised version appearing in 1612, the dietary author William Vaughan gives a detailed explanation of this view of fruit:

All fruit for the most part are taken more for wantonness then for any nutritive or necessary good, which they bring unto us. To verify this, let us but examine with the eye of reason what profit they cause, when they are eaten after meals. Surely we must needs confess, that such eating, which the French call desert, is unnatural, being contrary to physic or diet: for commonly fruits are of a moist faculty, and therefore fitter to be taken before meals (but corrected with sugar or comfits) than after meals: and then also but very sparingly, least their effects appear to our bodily repentance, which in women grow to be the green sickness, in men the morphew, or els[e] some flatuous windy humor.5

A 'morphew' was a leprous or scaly condition of the skin (OED morphew; scurf n. 1) and, as Gordon Williams has indicated, 'green sickness' was an anaemic disease commonly attributed to a virginís sexual fantasies, which were made manifest through an unhealthy pallor and could only be cured by a sexual encounter.6 So, fruit, though enjoyed by the French, was generally regarded with suspicion. But what about apricots specifically?

It is thought that Henry VIII's gardener, the Frenchman John Woolf, brought the apricot to England in 15297 although the climate was not especially favourable to their cultivation. John Gerard, in The Herbal, or General History of Plants, first published in 1597, claims that the apricot tree grew in many gentlemen's gardens, including his own, throughout England.8 As the agricultural historian Joan Thirsk pointed out, in England apricots were "acclimatized in gardens in the sixteenth century by being planted against sheltering walls, since on standard trees the apricots did not always ripen".9 It is presumably the fruit grown against sheltering walls that dietary authors have in mind when they repeatedly note that the fruit is quick to ripen and therefore quick to rot. This may have added to the sense that the apricot caused dietary ailments, specifically amongst women, which in turn might be due to the notion that female attractiveness, like the fruit itself, is short-lived, as in the exhortation by the seventeenth-century poet Robert Herrick to virgins: "gather ye rose-buds while ye may". As we've just seen, in his Natural and Artificial Directions for Health, William Vaughan thought all fruit capable of provoking green sicknesse in women.

Thomas Moffett describes apricots as

plums dissembled under a peach's coat, good only and commendable for their taste and fragrant smell, their flesh quickly corrupting and degenerating into choler and wheyish excrements, engendring pestilent agues, stopping the liver and spleen, breeding ill juice, and giving either none or very weak nourishment.

But he also notes that they are

medicinable and wholesome for some persons, for they provoke urine, quench thirst: and syrup made of the infusion of dried apricots, qualifies the burning heat and rage of fevers: They are least hurtful to the stomach, and most comfortable to the brain and heart, which be sweet kernelled, big and fragrant . . .10

In a herbal first published in 1568, William Turner calls the apricot "the hasty peach" (because soon ripe) and generally approves of them: "peaches when they are ripe are both profitable for the stomach and belly but hasty peaches are better for the stomack as Dioscorides writes".11 In Diets Dry Dinner, published in 1599, Henry Butts notes that apricots "Quench thirst", "whet the stomach", and that "the kernel kills worms", but also that the fruit tends to "inflate the stomach: soon corrupt: possess the blood with much water, and make it soone putrify".12 Turner, citing Galen, warns that apricots must not be eaten after a main meal "for they rot and are corrupted while they swim above other meats" and "if they be taken after meat they corrupt both themselves and all other meats that are near unto them".13 Butts suggests that after eating apricots the consumption of old cheese and old wine, among other foods, will lessen their ill effects and so too Moffett contends that they "are best before meat, and fittest for hot stomachs ... and let them also remember to drown them well in Sack or Canary wine".14

Apricots are mentioned by Shakespeare in two plays: A Midsummer Night's Dream and Richard II. In the first play, Titania instructs her fairies to tend to the recently transformed Bottom by feeding him "with apricots and dewberries, / With purple grapes, green figs, and mulberries" and "honeybags" stolen "from the humble-bees" (3.1.158-160), the combination of sweet tastes and smells emphasizing the sensory pleasure to be had from such foods.15 This excess of fruit would have struck the dietary authors as dangerous and there are specific implications for Titania.

Apricots seem to have been especially associated with female ailments: in Health's Improvement Thomas Moffett says of apricots: "let not women eat many of them" without specifying why; Henry Butt's point in Diet's Dry Dinner that they "inflate the stomach"18 might merely suggest wind or reinforce an association between apricots, sex and pregnancy. Such an association is made by John Webster. In act two, scene one, of The Duchess of Malfi, the duchess is given apricots by Bosola, which she greedily eats, and they confirm her pregnancy when she suddenly goes into labour. In a discussion on symbols in The Duchess of Malfi, Dale B. Randall wondered "Can it be that the apricot was supposed useful for ascertaining pregnancy?" but noted that he had "found no mention of apricots in connection with any pregnancy test",19 concluding that it is not clear why apricots, rather than any other fruit, should be used by Webster. Randall suggested that the apricot rather than the apple may have been regarded as the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. In his Pseudodoxia Epidemica, published in 1646, Thomas Browne notes a link between the Latin for apple (malus) and the word for evil, a link that extends also to the apricot (malus armeniacum), which was traditionally the golden apple of Hesperides.20 As Randall also pointed out, the fruit was thought to symbolize the vulva (presumably the apricot sliced in half) and the English name, 'apricock', encouraged puns on male genitalia.21 An association between apricots, sex, and pregnancy suggests a sexual dimension to Titania's relationship with Bottom and it is not unusual for productions to exploit this sexual dimension by showing Titania and Bottom writhing on stage in a manner that suggests they are engaged in sexual intercourse.

In Richard II, the reference to apricots is distinctly political, rather than sexual, when the Gardener instructs one of his men:

Go, bind thou up young dangling apricots
Which, like unruly children, make their sire
Stoop with oppression of their prodigal weight.
Give some supportance to the bending twigs.

This instruction provokes a comparison between "law and form and due proportion" (3.4.42) kept in the garden, and the land, England itself, which, under Richard's governance, is "full of weeds" (3.4.45). Perhaps Shakespeare chose apricots rather than some other fruit or vegetable to provoke the comparison because of the fruit's reputation as one that was quick to rot and "soone corrupt", as Henry Butts put it,17 suggesting allusion by Shakespeare to Richard's own situation and the corruption of the kingdom. Earlier in the play John of Gaunt chastises Richard for abusing his position as king, remarking "Thou diest, though I the sicker be" (2.1.91). When Richard answers "I am in health. I breathe, and see thee ill" (2.1.92) Gaunt elaborates:

Thy deathbed is no lesser than thy land,
Wherein thou liest in reputation sick;
And thou, too careless patient as thou art,
Committ'st thy anointed body to the cure
Of those physicians that first wounded thee.
A thousand flatterers sit within thy crown,
Whose compass is no bigger than thy head,
And yet, encaged in so small a verge,
The waste is no whit lesser than thy land.

The notion of England as a country wasted through corruption is picked up again by the Gardener tending the apricots and other plants that grow in the garden: "Bolingbroke / Hath seized the wasteful King. O, what pity is it / That he had not so trimmed and dressed his land / As we this garden" (3.4.55-58)


II. Butter

Butter too, it seems, held sexual connotations for the early moderns and this sexual dimension recurs in the drama of Shakespeare and his contemporaries but, perhaps surprisingly, the dietary authors make nothing of it and focus instead on nationality in relation to butter. As Wendy Wall pointed out, dairying was exclusively done by women with instructions passed from one woman to another23 and butter was usually made by 'butter women'. Before considering the significance of butter women in Shakespeare's plays it might prove useful to focus on what the dietary authors had to say about butter.

In his renowned dietary The Castle of Health, first published in 1539, Thomas Elyot approves of butter that is "well salted" because "it heateth and clenseth",24 but William Vaughan distinguishes between salted and fresh butter: "Butter, whether it be fresh or salt purgeth mildly, and helpeth the roughness of the throat" [my emphasis]25 and, so too, William Bullein in The Government of Health approves of "New made butter meanly salted".26 'May butter' is the term used to denote clarified butter made at that time of year; in his dietary entitled The Haven of Health, published in 1636, Thomas Cogan describes its production:

It is to be made chiefly in May, or in the heat of the year, by setting Butter new made without salt, so much as you list in a platter, open to the Sun in fair weather for certaine days, untill it be sufficiently clarified, and altered in colour, which will be in twelve or fourteen days, if there be fair Sun shining.27

Cogan also makes a distinction between fresh and salted butter.28 Notably, many dietary authors focus on national differences in the production, preservation, and consumption of butter. In his 1547 Compendious Regiment or a Dietary of Health, Andrew Boorde recommends that butter be eaten "in the morning before other meats", noting that "French men will eat it after meat" and "Dutch men doth eat it at all times in the day".29 Cogan, citing Paracelsus, also claims that "the Flemings are little troubled with the colic, because they . . . eat much butter".30 In a 1690 treatise on brewing, Thomas Tryon compared people not willing to pay more than usual for good beer to "the ignorant Irish-man" who prefers "his stinking Butter (of as many Colours as the rainbow)" over  "wholesome, sweet English butter, which he counts hath no taste in it".31 It seems the Irish preserved their butter in bogs, a practice that affected the taste. The earliest literary reference to this method of preserving butter by the Irish is in The Booke of Questions and Answers Concerning the Warrs or Rebellions of the Kingdome of Irelande. Written in 1597 but only recently published this tract was probably authored by the English Captain Nicholas Dawtrey whom John Dawtrey, the English Captain's descendant, claimed was the model for Shakespeare's Falstaff.32

Perhaps it is only a coincidence that most of the references to butter in Shakespeare are made by or about Sir John Falstaff. The fat knight is several times compared to butter by himself and others (1H4: 2.5.517, 4.2.61; WIV: 3.5.107, 5.5.139-140). In The Merry Wives of Windsor, Falstaff calls Ford (unwittingly to his face) a "mechanical salt-butter rogue!" (WIV 2.2.268), suggesting that he is so mean and cheap he will buy imported salted butter rather than the fresh English stuff.33 We might also find a reference to May butter in 1 Henry IV when Prince Harry compares Sir John to "Titan kiss[ing] a dish of butter . . . that melted at the sweet tale of the sun's" (2.5.119-121). In The Merry Wives, having escaped a trick played upon him by Mistress Ford and Mistress Page, Sir John proclaims:

Have I lived to be carried in a basket like a barrow of butcher's offal, and to be thrown in the Thames? Well, if I be served such another trick, I'll have my brains ta'en out and buttered, and give them to a dog for a New Year's gift. (3.5.4-8)

Like the dietary authors, Shakespeare engages with a range of cultural sterotypes when Master Ford, thinking his wife has been unfaithful with Falstaff, claims

I will rather trust a Fleming with my butter, Parson Hugh the Welshman with my cheese, an Irishman with my aqua-vitae bottle, or a thief to walk my ambling gelding, than my wife with herself. (2.2.291-294)

The Germans do not escape national stereotypes that specifically involve food. In Cymbeline, Posthumous compares Giacomo to a German boar stuffed full of acorns when he imagines him having sex with Innogen (2.5.14-19) and in Othello neither the Danish, Germans, Dutch, nor English escape stereotyping when Iago tells Cassio that he learnt his drinking song:

. . . in England, where indeed they are most potent in potting. Your Dane, your German, and your swag-bellied Hollander - drink, ho! - are nothing to your English. (2.3.70-73)

The quotation refers to the fact that cattle farming dominated Dutch agricultural production in the early modern period. The Dutch consumed more of the produce at home than was sent for export, so their reputation for liking butter was not unreasonable.34 Not surprisingly, 'butterbox' was a nickname used for Dutchmen. In The Book of Sir Thomas More, in the part in which Shakespeare likely had a hand, the Clown urges action against resident foreigners in London: "Come, come, we'll tickle their turnips, we'll butter their boxes" (2.1.1-2). There is a pun on 'turn-up' that could mean the turned-up part of a garment (OED turn-up n. 2), perhaps specifically the backside of breeches, or prostitute (OED turn v. 81bb, turn-up n.1). 'Buttering boxes' could mean simply kicking foreign bottoms, specifically Dutch bottoms, but might also be a reference to sexual intercourse: Gordon Williams provides examples of 'box' meaning 'vagina' and 'butter' meaning 'semen' in early modern usage.35

    Ben Jonson enjoys drawing connections between the Dutch and butter-eating: in Volpone, Mosca observes

You shall ha' some will swallow
A melting heir, as glibly, as your Dutch
Will pills of butter, and ne're purge for't;

In Bartholmew Fair, Quarlous compares the Falstaffian Ursula to a quagmire or bog that if a man were to sink into "'T'were like falling into a whole shire of butter: they had need be a team of Dutchmen should draw him out" (2.5.92-93).

The butter-woman is mentioned in two plays by Shakespeare. In Alls Well That Ends Well, Paroles castigates himself for being too "foolhardy", specifically talkative: "Tongue, I must put you into a butter-woman's mouth, and buy myself another of Bajazet's mute, if you prattle me into these perils" (4.1.40-43), and in As You Like It, Touchstone criticises Orlando's verse: "I'll rhyme you so eight years together, dinners, and suppers, and sleeping-hours excepted. It is the right butter-women's rank to market" (3.2.94-96). It is not clear what Touchstone means but, as with the comment made by Paroles, bawdy innuendo is suggested. As R. W. Dent pointed out, butter women were considered scolds,36 a point also made by Alan Brissenden who further noted their sexually dubious reputation: "rank and market could all be associated with prostitution. 'Butter quean' and 'butter-whore' were both current usage".37 Gordon Williams noted, "Women who made or sold butter were proverbially fractious. . . . But they might also be wanton", suggested by the sense of butter as semen.38 Paroles makes the point that his loquacious tongue would better suit a woman selling butter, who would have had to attract customers by calling to them, but there is also the sense that the butter-woman is sexually available. The reference to butter women in As You Like It was explored in detail by Gary Taylor, who drew attention to their dubious reputation39 but he made no explicit connection between the notion that they are not chaste and the produce they sell, which is likely to corrupt quickly. Hence the tendency to salt it, the Irish efforts to preserve it, and the high esteem in which fresh English butter was held in the dietaries.


III. Capons

Corruption is a preoccupation for the young Danish prince Hamlet and he rejects the indulgence of the court, which he identifies with Claudius. But what exactly does he mean when he tells Claudius: "I eat the air, promise-crammed. You cannot feed capons so" (3.2.90-91)? A capon was a castrated cock and was a particularly fat bird. As noted earlier, the standard early modern view appears to have been that eating meat was divinely ordained and more healthy than a vegetarian diet but there were voices of dissent that considered meat-eating a barbaric and indulgent practice. The debate about the moral implications of eating animals was connected to the debate about hunting. Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, an especially scathing critic of hunting, saw it as a consequence of original sin, "which ended forever the peace between men and animals" and implied that life in Eden was vegetarian. Michel de Montaigne's essay "Of Cruelty" argues in the same vein when it refers to Pythagorean as well as Christian attitudes towards animals in his denunciation of the cruelty inflicted upon them.40 In Ovid's Metamorphoses, vegetarianism is a feature of the Golden World; Ovid imagines Pythagoras speaking in condemnation of the first meat-eater:

But that pristine age, which we have named the golden age, was blessed with the fruit of the trees and the herbs which the ground sends forth, nor did men defile their lips with blood. Then birds plied their wings in safety through the heaven, and the hare loitered all unafraid in the tilled fields, nor did its own guilelessness hand the fish upon the hook. All things were free from treacherous snares, fearing no guile and full of peace. But after someone, an ill exemplar, whoever he was, envied the food of lions, and thrust down flesh as food into his greedy stomach, he opened the way for crime. It may be that, in the first place, with the killing of wild beasts the steel was warmed and stained with blood. This would have been justified, and we admit that creatures which menace our own lives may be killed without impiety. But while they might be killed, they should never have been eaten.41

Contrary to the view of Pythagoras, in the early modern period the consumption of animal flesh was generally encouraged but there were various factors to be taken into consideration before consuming it, including whether or not a specific meat was suited to one's humour, occupation, and even nationality. For example, melancholics were generally urged to avoid beef, pork, venison and any flesh considered difficult to digest.42 Bacon was considered a meat especially suited to manual labourers or those involved in physical activity, and beef was often associated with the English, specifically those from the lower ranks. Beef was thought by some to have an adverse effect upon intelligence, perhaps because, like bacon, it was recommended for consumption by manual labourers, which helps explain Andrew Aguecheek's comment "I am a great eater of beef, and I believe that does harm to my wit" (Twelfth Night 1.3.83-84).Yet the dietary authors agree on the benefits of eating capon. Andrew Boorde is of the opinion that "Of all tame foul a capon is most best. For it is nutritive and is soon digested",43 a view also expressed by Thomas Elyot, who notes that "The capon is above all other fouls praised: for as much as it is easily digested, and maketh little ordure, and much good nourishment. It is commodious to the breast and stomach".44 Thomas Cogan, probably copying Elyot, wrote virtually the same as his fellow dietary author,45 and William Bullein cites Galen's approval of capon which he listed amongst "the meats which be without all blame" and which "do engender good blood".46

In Shakespeare, capons are often consumed by those from the higher ranks and are thus presented as an indulgence. That the capon is a particularly fat bird adds to the sense that it offered a satisfying meal. They are a favourite of Sir John Falstaff in 1 Henry 4 (1.2.7; 1.2.115; 2.5.461-462) and, when the fat knight is sleeping, one of Hal's followers, Harvey, finds a receipt for a capon in his pocket (2.5.538). In his 'seven ages of man' speech in As You Like It, Jaques refers to "the justice, / In fair round belly with good capon lined" (2.7.153-154); in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, the capon is desirable: Launce complains about his dog, Crab, who has stolen the food from Sylvia's table: "I came no sooner into the dining-chamber but he steps me to her trencher and steals her capon's leg" (4.4.8-10). In Love's Labour's Lost, a different kind of desire is suggested since 'capon' refers to the letter sent from Biron to Rosaline, about which the Princess says to Boyet "you can carve. / Break up this capon" (4.1.55-56); 'capon' here punning on the french for chicken, 'poulet', which also means "loue-letter, or loue-message".47

Despite approval for the bird being especially nutritious, as a term of abuse the capon, the castrated cock, could denote any type of dullness (OED capon n. 1. c.) but specific reference to unmanliness due to a lack of sexual potency or courage is common. In Edmund Spenser's epic poem The Faerie Queene, the narrator refers to the "Capon's courage" of the cowardly Braggadocchio ( In several plays by Shakespeare, the capon denotes stupidity: in The Comedy of Errors, Dromio of Syracuse mocks the other Dromio by calling the servants "Mome, malt-horse, capon, coxcomb, idiot, patch!" (3.1.31-32); in Cymbeline, the Second Lord calls the boastful Cloten a "cock and capon" (2.1.23-24); and in Much Ado About Nothing, Claudio alludes to Benedick as "a calf's head and a capon . . . [and] a woodcock too..." (5.1.152-155).

All this has important relevance for Hamlet's response to Claudiusís question. I have argued elsewhere that this indicates Hamlet's disgust at his own appetite. Feeding on air, as the chameleon was reputed to do, is what Hamlet desires: to no longer eat the "funeral baked meats" or drink the "rhenish" he identifies with the court and, thus, corruption.48 Thomas Browne refers to the belief that the chameleon lives on air as traditional and "a view affirmed by Soinus, Pliny, and divers others", although Brown himself considers it "questionable".49 In my previous consideration of Hamlet's response I noted that by reference to the capon, a fat bird, Hamlet reinforces the sense that he is disgusted by his own appetite, a feeling which began shortly after his fatherís death but has been accelerated by the knowledge that Claudius "took my father grossly, full of bread" (3.3.80). But there is more to Hamlet's lines than that and I'd like to clarify and elaborate upon my previous reading of this quotation. Claudius does not understand what Hamlet means (and who can blame him?), saying in reply to Hamlet's answer: "I have nothing with this answer, Hamlet. These words are not mine" (3.2.92-93).

Hamlet compares himself to a chameleon and thus apparently distinguishes himself from capons Ė but why mention capons at all? Editors have little to say about Hamlet's odd remark except for Harold Jenkins who annotated it as follows in his 1982 Arden edition of the play: observing that "promise-crammed" means "fed with (no more than) promises", he also noted that "[capons] ....are crammed (though not with air) to prepare them for the table. A veiled hint that Hamlet suspects the king of designs against him".50 But why state these designs in terms of food and feeding? It is here, I think, that gender as well as appetite comes into play: Hamlet thinks of capons because although he claims to have the appetite of the chameleon, he identifies not only with the capon's fatness but also with its reputation for dullness and, most importantly, its cowardice due to castration. The ambivalence with which the bird was regarded in early modern culture--good to eat according to the dietaries but also a symbol of cowardice elsewhere--mirrors the ambivalence Hamlet feels about himself and those around him. Like the capon, he lacks the courage that should enable him to do as Old Hamlet asks and kill his enemy.

In Hamlet's second soliloquy he denounces himself as "a rogue and peasant slave" (2.2.552) and "A dull and muddy-mettled rascal" (2.2.569). Asking "Am I a coward?" (2.2.573), he apparently compares himself to women of poor reputation when he claims that he

Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words
And fall a-cursing like a very drab,
A scullion! (2.2.588-590)

In effect, he feels himself to be emasculated, it is as though, like a capon or a woman, he does not possess that which denotes masculinity and thus courage; worse still, he is like the kind of woman who makes herself sexually available to many men. But the word 'scullion' muddies the waters somewhat since it occurs only in the Folio. In Q2 the word is 'stallyon', which is preferred by the editors of the recent Arden3 Hamlet, and which they gloss as "male prostitute". They note also that "Q1 and F's 'scalion'/'Scullion' means a kitchen boy or low-level servant".51 Yet the use of either 'stallyon' or 'scalion/Scullion' reinforces rather than undermines the notion that Hamlet considers himself effeminized since a male prostitute is economically dependent upon the customer and, as Lisa Jardine has pointed out, servants, because economically dependent, were perceived as sexually available and thus, in the case of male servants, feminized.52


IV. Food, Dietaries and Plays

It is surprising to discover that the three foods here considered--apricots, butter, and capons--carried sexual connotations for early modern dramatists, and yet these sexual connotations are either absent from or only hinted at in the dietaries. The connection between apricots and pregnancy is explored in the plays but only implied in the dietaries, butter connotes sex in the drama but nationhood in the dietaries, whilst capons are generally approved of as a nutritious foodstuff in the dietaries and only carry negative associations when used metaphorically.

There is no obvious reason why the dietaries ought not to have considered more overtly the sexual and sensual impact of specific foods. After all, the Cartesian division of mind and body, which dominates post-seventeenth century Western philosophy seems not to have occurred to the early moderns; they did not so readily distinguish, as we do, between the physical and mental or emotional. It might seem that the main difference between the dietaries and the drama is that the plays are more playful and less moralistic, but allusions to sexual behaviour in the plays complicate any strict dichotomising. The plays are alert to the kinds of admonitions present in the dietaries and--to borrow from Horace's Art of Poetry, to which Philip Sidney alluded in his Defence of Poetry--they do not merely delight but also instruct, as evident in the sexual and corruptive connotations of apricots and butter and Hamlet's reference to the capon, which he identifies with courtly indulgence, gluttony and cowardice.

The plays consider the moral dimensions of food and feeding as well as being entertaining but the same is true of the dietaries even if their moral dictates are often more pronounced; these apparently distinct genres sometimes cross-over in a curious fashion. For example, William Bullein's The Government of Health  invokes (albeit simplified) versions of the conflictual personalities and relationships found in the drama. This dietary is presented in the form of a dialogue between John-the-gourmand and Humphrey-the-moderate. The dialogue is at once medical treatise and literary work, but it also presents the kind of scene between two character types (innocent and expert) that we might expect from a play. John is a blissfully ignorant student, asking the most obvious questions such as "what is bread"53 and thus allowing Humphrey to outline in detail the composition, benefits and dangers of basic foodstuffs as well as providing information in response to more informed questions such as "Is the saffron that groweth in England as good as that, that come from the other side of the sea?". 54

Bullein includes as a preface to his dietary a poem in which he claims that, providing the reader follows his advice, "If death then shall come, whereto thou must trust, / Thy soul shall be safe, let him do his worst". Bullein also provides a moralizing epilogue assuring the reader that the work is meant to promote the "good estate, and happy health of mankind, which by daily casualties, surfeits and age do decay, and fall into many grievous and painful sicknesses". But moralizing epilogues are common too in stage plays of the period, such as Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, which announces "Faustus is gone, regard his hellish fall, /  Whose fiendish fortune may exhort the wise / Only to wonder at unlawful things" (Ep. 4-5). In neither genre, dietary or play, need we take these conventions as a conclusion to the text as a whole.

What we get in Bullein's dietary is the kind of conversation that might occur on stage. There is not the same degree of complex signification that is a feature of, say, Hamlet but there is an effort to engage the reader in the opinions of the speakers and to present their concerns as a reliable, indeed truthful, representation of the world. It is safe to conclude that the message of Bullein's poem that prefaces his dietary--that death is inevitable and one must consider one's soul--would not be out of place in Hamlet, or any early modern revenge tragedy, and that his epilogue--the human body will decay-- would function as an appropriate conclusion to such a play.


1A version of this essay was delivered to the Deutsche Shakespeare-Gesellschaft (German Shakespeare Society) Annual Meeting in Vienna, 24-27 April, 2008. It emerges from research I am currently undertaking for two forthcoming books: an Athlone dictionary entitled Shakespeare and the Language of Food and a critical edition of three early modern dietaries for the Revels Companion Library series.

2Joan Fitzpatrick, Food in Shakespeare: Early Modern Dietaries and the Plays (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007).

3Thomas Moffett, Healths Improvement: Or, Rules Comprizing and Discovering the Nature, Method, and Manner of Preparing All Sorts of Food Used in This Nation, 1st edition. Wing M2382 (London: Tho[mas]: Newcomb for Samuel Thomson, 1655), E3r-E3v. All quotations from the dietaries have been modernized.

4Moffett, Healths Improvement: Or, Rules Comprizing and Discovering the Nature, Method, and Manner of Preparing All Sorts of Food Used in This Nation, E4r.

5William Vaughan, Natural and Artificial Directions for Health, Derived from the Best Philosophers, as Well Modern, as Ancient. . . . Newly Corrected and Augmented By the Author, STC 24615 (London: T. S[nodham] for Roger Iackson, 1612), E4v.

6Gordon Williams, A Dictionary of Sexual Language and Imagery in Shakespearean and Stuart Literature, vol. 2: G-P, 3 vols. (London: Athlone, 1994), 'green-sickness'.

7Joan Thirsk, "Food in Shakespeare's England," in Fooles and Fricassees: Food in Shakespeare's England, ed. Mary Anne Caton (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999), 19.

8John Gerard, The Herbal or General History of Plants, STC 11750 (London: [Edm. Bollifant for [Bonham Norton and] John Norton, 1597), Mmmm4v.

9Joan Thirsk, Food in Early Modern England: Phases, Fads, Fashions 1500-1760 (London: Continuum, 2007), 300.

10Moffett, Healths Improvement: Or, Rules Comprizing and Discovering the Nature, Method, and Manner of Preparing All Sorts of Food Used in This Nation, Cc2r.

11William Turner, The First and Second Parts of the Herbal, STC 24367 (Collen: Arnold Birckman, 1568), J1r.

12Henry Butts, Diets Dry Dinner: Consisting of Eight Several Courses, STC 4207 (London: Tho[mas]. Creede for William Wood, 1599), C1v.

13Turner, The First and Second Parts of the Herbal, J1r.

14Moffett, Healths Improvement: Or, Rules Comprizing and Discovering the Nature, Method, and Manner of Preparing All Sorts of Food Used in This Nation, Cc2r.

15All quotations of Shakespeare are from William Shakespeare, The Complete Works: Compact Edition, ed. Stanley Wells, Gary Taylor, John Jowett, and William Montgomery (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988).

16Vaughan, Natural and Artificial Directions for Health, Derived from the Best Philosophers, as Well Modern, as Ancient. . . . Newly Corrected and Augmented By the Author, E4v.

17Butts, Diets Dry Dinner: Consisting of Eight Several Courses, C1v.

18Butts, Diets Dry Dinner: Consisting of Eight Several Courses, C1v.

19Dale B. J. Randall, "The Rank and Earthy Background of Certain Physical Symbols in The Duchess of Malfi," Renaissance Drama 18 (1987): 180.

20Randall, "The Rank and Earthy Background of Certain Physical Symbols in The Duchess of Malfi": 181-82.

21Randall, "The Rank and Earthy Background of Certain Physical Symbols in The Duchess of Malfi": 182-89.

22William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream, ed. Stanley Wells, New Penguin Shakespeare (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967), 7-8.

23Wendy Wall, Staging Domesticity: Household Work and English Identity in Early Modern Drama, Cambridge studies in Renaissance literature and culture, 41 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 129.

24Thomas Elyot, The Castle of Health, STC 7643 (London: T. Berthelet, 1539), H4r.

25Vaughan, Natural and Artificial Directions for Health, Derived from the Best Philosophers, as Well Modern, as Ancient. . . . Newly Corrected and Augmented By the Author, D7r.

26William Bullein, A New Book Entitled the Government of Health, STC 4039 (London: Iohn Day, 1558), Q2v.

27Thomas Cogan, The Haven of Health, STC 5484 (London: Anne Griffin for Roger Ball, 1636), Z3r.

28Cogan, The Haven of Health, Z3r.

29Andrew Boorde, Compendious Regiment or a Dietary of Health, STC 3380 (London: Wyllyam Powell, 1547), E2v.

30Cogan, The Haven of Health, Z2v.

31Thomas Tryon, A New Art of Brewing Beer, Ale, and Other Sorts of Liquors, so as to Render Them More Healthfull to the Body, and Agreeable to Nature . . ., Wing T3187 (London: For Thomas Salusbury , 1690), B12r.

32Hiram Morgan, "A Booke of Questions and Answars Concerning the Warrs or Rebellions of the Kingdome of Irelande," Analecta Hibernica 36 (1995): 85; 92.

33William Shakespeare, The Merry Wives of Windsor, ed. Giorgio Melchiori, The Arden Shakespeare (London: Thomson Learning, 2000), 192n264.

34Jan Luiten Van Zanden, "Taking the Measure of the Early Modern Economy: Historical National Accounts for Holland in 1510/14," European review of economic history 6 (2002): 134; 142.

35Gordon Williams, A Dictionary of Sexual Language and Imagery in Shakespearean and Stuart Literature, vol. 1: A-F, 3 vols. (London: Athlone, 1994), 'box'; 'butter'; Anthony Munday, Sir Thomas More, (Revised by Henry Chettle, Thomas Dekker, Thomas Heywood and William Shakespeare) Ed Vittorio Gabrieli and Giorgio Melchiori, The Revels Plays (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1990), 84n1-2.

36R. W. Dent, Shakespeare's Proverbial Language: An Index (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981), B781.

37William Shakespeare, As You Like it, ed. Alan Brissenden, The Oxford Shakespeare (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 159n94.

38Williams, A Dictionary of Sexual Language and Imagery in Shakespearean and Stuart Literature, , 'butter'.

39Gary Taylor, "Touchstone's Butterwomen," Review of English Studies 32 (1981).

40Edward Berry, Shakespeare and the Hunt: A Cultural and Social Study (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 24-27.

41Ovid, Metamorphoses, trans. Frank Justus Miller, vol. 2, 2 vols. (London: William Heinemann, 1916), 371-372; lines 96-110.

42Bullein, A New Book Entitled the Government of Health, N5r; Timothie Bright, A Treatise of Melancholy, STC 3747 (London: Thomas Vautrollier, 1586), B6v; Cogan, The Haven of Health, S1r; Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, Vvhat it Is. VVith All the Kindes, Causes, Symptomes, Prognostickes, and Seuerall Cures of it, STC 4159 (Oxford: Iohn Lichfield and Iames Short, for Henry Cripps, 1621), F4v.

43Boorde, Compendious Regiment or a Dietary of Health, F1v.

44Elyot, The Castle of Health, H1r.

45Cogan, The Haven of Health, T3v.

46Bullein, A New Book Entitled the Government of Health, G4r.

47Randle Cotgrave, A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues, STC 5830 (London: Adam Islip, 1611), 'poulet'.

48Fitzpatrick, Food in Shakespeare: Early Modern Dietaries and the Plays, 105-13.

49Thomas Browne, Pseudodoxia Epidemica: Or, Enquiries Into Very Many Received Tenents, and Commonly Presumed Truths (London: T[homas] H[arper] for Edward Dod, 1646), V3r.

50William Shakespeare, Hamlet, ed. Harold Jenkins, The Arden Shakespeare (London: Methuen, 1982), 293n94.

51William Shakespeare, Hamlet, ed. Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor, The Arden Shakespeare (London: Thompson Learning, 2006), 278n522.

52Lisa Jardine, Reading Shakespeare Historically (London: Routledge, 1996), 66-99.

53Bullein, A New Book Entitled the Government of Health, Q7r.

54Bullein, A New Book Entitled the Government of Health, R5v.