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Scholarship Beyond “Words, Words, Words”: Shakespeare’s Material World

In September 2015, I found myself confronted with the dead body of a rabbit. Its guts had been removed, but the rest of its preparation was up to me. Despite decades of pescatarianism, I gingerly wielded the cleaver, separating the rabbit’s head and feet from its body. The striking smell provoked nausea, but the job was not yet done. The fur and skin needed to be stripped from the body, the anal glands required removal, and the edible inner organs were designated for that evening’s rabbit pate´. After a weekend of foraging wild plants and seaweed at the Fat Hen Cooking School in Cornwall, the work had suddenly taken a turn away from the picturesque and become more immediate and real.  While my Facebook friends (mostly carnivores) from around the world howled about the demise of Peter Rabbit and the Easter Bunny, the menu at Gwenmenhir, Boscawen-noon Farm boasted a range of sustainable foods that brought us all back to the practices of our ancestors who lacked the charade provided by supermarkets which allow us to forget where our food comes from.  In Shakespeare’s world, skinning rabbits meant there would be dinner on the table.  Modern sensibilities could lead to starvation. 

Michael Boyd, then Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, presented this aspect of early modern life in his 2009 production of As You Like It. In a scene that apparently played well in the United Kingdom, Geoffrey Freshwater’s Corin skinned and beheaded a rabbit, preparing it for supper. As Ellen Gamerman notes in the Wall Street Journal: “The production attempts to present a realistic look of the play’s rural setting, rather than treat it simply as an idyllic escape. On stage, the country is depicted not by a lush green forest but by a mass of tumbleweed. In the scene in question, members of the court have fled to the Forest of Arden and are shocked to learn that countryfolk must hunt and kill their own food.” New York audiences were horrified by this scene, however, and raised sufficient complaints that the interlude was quickly stricken from the American tour of the production. Although the RSC had apparently followed all appropriate regulations for the treatment of animals, the outcry was too great to allow this culinary preparation to remain in the show.[1]

This essay will champion the other side of the story; namely, the importance for scholars, students, and audiences, to embrace opportunities to enjoy more visceral and other material encounters with early modern life than our typical experiences in theatres, classrooms, and libraries allow. Our understanding of Shakespeare, among other topics, would be enhanced. Words, whether written or spoken, only convey part of the knowledge needed for a complex understanding of earlier periods and their literature. In modern American education, however, learning that engages our other senses tends to be restricted to younger students, housed somewhere outside the realms of serious academic engagement and is often left to the devices of a range of non-academics. These latter, diverse categories of historians and others—whether re-enactors or tour guides or folk instructors—moreover, frequently attract condescension from professional academics, regardless of their level of skill. These non-university practitioners often amass knowledge beyond the scope of their academic counterparts, but rarely receive the level of respect their work deserves.[2] Their efforts in investigating and recreating early clothing, armor, music, and farming can greatly advance our scholarship and teaching, however.

Though not focusing on re-enactors or other practical educators, Stephen Greenblatt noted recently in the New York Times that undergraduate students have already begun to demonstrate the importance of non-conventional responses to canonical literary texts:

Many of my students may have less verbal acuity than in years past, but they often possess highly developed visual, musical and performative skills. They intuitively grasp, in a way I came to understand only slowly, the pervasiveness of songs in Shakespeare’s plays, the strange ways that his scenes flow one into another or the cunning alternation of close-ups and long views. When I ask them to write a 10-page paper analyzing a particular web of metaphors, exploring a complex theme or amassing evidence to support an argument, the results are often wooden; when I ask them to analyze a film clip, perform a scene or make a video, I stand a better chance of receiving something extraordinary.

Greenblatt is marking a trend that has already started to shift assignments in many classrooms, but one that could beneficially expand more broadly into scholarship as well as into secondary and tertiary education. Such moves would expand, rather than diminish, what we gain from the “words, words, words” of Hamlet and other texts. Our understanding of Shakespeare would only deepen from such practices.

As Greenblatt implies, modern students often strengthen their connection to early modern literature through the media they enjoy outside their academic study. Music (and film) continue to grow in popularity and provide valuable ways for students and others to adapt Shakespeare’s works.[3] At the same time, music from the period can also provides important insight into the era, particularly when presented live and with relevant commentary. London’s music group Passamezzo, for example, offers concerts with period music and costumes that bring a level of detail to the conversation that many professional academics lack.  Their interactive workshops, where undergraduate students can handle instruments and try on costumes, lead to substantial conversations about topics as diverse as the socio-political nature of music in the period, sumptuary laws, and the history and design of codpieces (C. S. Reed, Internal Medicine Journal, Vol 34, No. 12 (2004), pp. 684-686).  In conjunction with presentations by costume makers and creators of period instruments, both students and scholars gain knowledge that enhances their study of plays such as Twelfth Night, where both music and clothing laws (yellow stockings and branch velvet gowns) are predominant topics.  The type of expertise needed for such presentations is typically found outside of conventional academic structures, however, and universities rarely provide the kind of financial support necessary to bring these practitioners to their students on a regular basis or to compensate appropriately those who hold these types of expertise.  Full-time faculty specializing in such areas are also unusual, with few opportunities for educational posts dedicated to historical arts and crafts such as costuming, carpentry, dancing, period cooking, sewing, or blacksmithing.

There are obviously exceptions to this situation that largely separates literary study from experience in practical disciplines, but they are relatively uncommon, though of great significance. The Five Colleges Consortium in Massachusetts, for example, offers noteworthy scholarship and instruction in early music and dance. Their instructors, such as Nona Monahin (Dance) and Robert Eisenstein (Music; also Director of the Folger Consort) provide valuable resources in these areas for students and faculty. In addition, there are professors, such as the University of Toronto’s Katherine Larson, who combine literary scholarship with period musical study and performance. Sujata Iyengar from the English Department at the University of Georgia spent a year on a UGA “Study in a Second Discipline Fellowship,” where she worked with Eileen Wallace on Book Arts in the Lamar Dodd School of Art. Case Western University’s Erika Olbricht, who received her PhD in early modern drama from the University of New Hampshire, later completed an MA in Historic Gardens and Landscape Conservation from the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London. Other examples exist, of course, but this kind of training is not common and does not figure in traditional graduate education programs.

Instead, this kind of teaching is most commonly offered at museums or folk schools. In the United States, moreover, such educational opportunities tend to be offered primarily for children, if the offerings at Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts and Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia are representative. American “folk schools” offer courses for adults, but these tend to focus on arts and crafts native to particular regions in the United States. For scholars and students interested in the early modern period associated with Shakespeare, relevant course offerings or modules can be hard to find.

In England, there are more opportunities available, presumably since early modern England figures prominently in this country’s history, but these options also predominate outside colleges and universities. One of the more extensive programs can be found in West Sussex at the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum. While they run courses for young students, they also have an abundance of classes for adults, ranging from butchery to carpentry to cookery and sewing. As they note, however, their instructors are not professional academics; rather, “Our courses are taught by current practitioners in their fields, who are enthusiastic about their speciality and are generous in sharing their knowledge and skills.” Since my own practical skill set is limited (singing, sewing, and carpentry are all stretches to my talent base), I have undertaken a number of Weald and Downland’s Tudor cookery classes. If food historian Ivan Day resumes his series of classes, I hope to participate in them also. The museum also offers a range of other relevant classes for Shakespeareans, moreover, such as a weekend workshop devoted to making and shooting a longbow, something that could illuminate the study of Henry V during this 600th anniversary year of the Battle of Agincourt.

Given that these course are not taught by professional academics, I make sure to verify information I receive, although one hopes that such caution is a given regardless of one’s sources for historical knowledge. There are a number of pertinent places to search in libraries and online, however, including the website www.rarecooking.com, curated by University of Pennsylvania doctoral graduates Alyssa Connell and Marissa Nicosia.[4] Still, neither books, websites, nor television programs (“The Supersizers go Elizabethan”) can replace personal experience, even though it is impossible to recreate an early modern kitchen experience with complete accuracy. Doing it oneself creates an indelible memory more powerful than typical books, lectures, or films provide, as David Kolb’s classic text Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development demonstrates.

Spending time in Weald and Downland’s Tudor kitchen, with courses taught by Lesley Parker and others, opens up a new understanding of the life presented in Shakespeare’s plays. As the course description for one program suggests, these classes focus on aspects of Tudor culture that are familiar to scholars, but rarely resonate as strongly as they do after participation in the hands-on experience. In the “Tudor Brewing and Baking” class, for instance, we had the opportunity to better understand the ale that Elizabethan drank and to recognize its relationship to the baking of bread. The brochure copy details the content of the class:

Learn how the weekly bake was integral to the brewing of beer. Participants will bake simple loaves using live barm from beer and will brew simple low alcohol ale which would have accompanied every Tudor meal and graced even the richest tables. They will use the copper kettle in the kitchen and learn when brewing emerged and how women of the past made ale until the changes in the law prohibited women from profiting from the sales of ale/beer. The bread part of the day will focus on the bread assizes and the emergence of the stringent laws governing the sale of one of the most basic food stuffs available to the Tudor person. Using the bread oven, and other simpler baking methods, the participants will bake breads from some simple bread recipes from the twelfth century to the sixteenth century.

Soaking the door of the oven in water, then sealing it with a mixture of flour and water after filling and emptying the chamber of burning sticks creates an indelible portrait of the lives of those Elizabethans wealthy enough to afford such kitchens. Similarly, crafting (and decorating) an inedible “coffin” out of suet and the remains of coarse flour in order to fashion a cooking utensil that could withstand direct exposure to the coals illustrates the intensive amount of work and skill needed to create the feasts and ordinary meals so common in Shakespeare’s plays. I may be displaying my own ignorance, but happily admit that I did not know that these containers were used for cooking, then either fed to pigs or given to beggars, such as those referenced in Taming of The Shrew (Act Four, Scene Three, lines 4-5). In addition, the logic needed to sort out what kinds of ingredients might serve when a recipe merely states “add liquid” brings out social and economic issues that simply reading such instructions might not highlight so vividly. What liquids might be available and affordable, for example? What ingredients need to be used before they go to waste? How do the conditions of the kitchen and the seasons of the year dictate what might be included in different recipes? What ingredients would be present in kitchens belonging to people of different economic statuses? Many of these questions would have been answered at the time through experience or the shared knowledge of others. Today, trying to figure them out while hoping that the fire is heated sufficiently and that the “coffins” will hold bring new life to historical and dramatic texts.

Many of Shakespeare’s plays include cooking in ways that contemporary students do not understand. When Katharina is offered, then forbidden, access to a “neat’s foot” (Taming of the Shrew, Act Four, Scene Three), for example, 21st century students do not know whether she’s being tempted or scorned. A “neat’s foot” is not part of their vocabulary. Similarly, when the magical feast appears in The Tempest (Act Three, Scene Three) or when the Macbeths host a banquet (Act Three, Scene Four), typical undergraduates are unlikely to have any idea what might be served. While most Shakespearean scholars are better equipped to answer such questions, our knowledge is unavoidably limited by historical distance and by our standard focus on disparate research interests. The same quandary occurs when we are discussing armory or fabrics or blacksmithing. Some experts in the field will be knowledgeable, but few of us possess the personal experience that can expand and deepen these references to distant arts and crafts.

As we mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, it seems to be an appropriate time to reexamine the kinds of educational experiences associated with the study of Elizabethan and Jacobean life. There is much to be gained by better coordinating the practical knowledge acquired by singular academics and passionate amateurs into common academic discourse. Butchering rabbits will probably never feature on any doctoral examinations in Elizabethan literature and drama, but the experience can enhance our understanding of this era and its drama. Direct knowledge of butchering, baking, and candlestick making can make us better scholars and more adept teachers.


[1] Thanks to Diana Henderson for her comments on this production.

[2] In London, I am consistently impressed by the contributions to scholarship offered by the London Historians and the Battlefield Trust members. Few of them are professional historians, but their knowledge is critical to the work of more traditional academics. Collaborations between these practitioners, members of the public, and faculty in higher education have led to important advances in Shakespearean understanding. The significance of such partnerships has been evident throughout 2015’s Agincourt 600 events, as evinced by an impressive conference at Westminster Abby, entitled “Beyond Agincourt: The Funeral Achievements of Henry V.”

[3] University of Birmingham, UK, doctoral student Lindsay Whitehurst (enrolled concurrently in the Film and Medieval History Departments) is writing a relevant dissertation, tentatively entitled “Representations of medieval warfare in 20th /21st century film and television.”

[4] Thanks to Miriam Jacobson for this reference.


Dr. Sheila T. Cavanagh is the Fulbright/Global Shakespeare Centre Distinguished Chair (2015-2016), the Director of World Shakespeare Project, the Co-Director of “First Folio: the Book that Gave us Shakespeare” and Emory University’s Year of Shakespeare, 2016-2017. She is the author of Cherished Torment: The Emotional Geography of Lady Mary Wroth’s Urania (Duquesne, 2001) and Wanton Eyes and Chaste Desires: Female Sexuality in The Faerie Queene (Indiana, 1994) as well as numerous articles on Renaissance literature and pedagogy.