Eatable expressions: Shakespeare’s food idioms
Was William Shakespeare a gourmand? Unlike today’s discerning foodies, who prefer only the trendiest of delicacies – crossushi, raw water, mouth cooking – Shakespeare’s gastronomical preferences seem to have run the gamut. His thirty-nine plays are littered with aristocrats, boozed-up barflies, and even cannibals partaking in meals that range from gruesome to positively delectable – even by today’s standards. Shrewsbury cakes, mentioned in Twelfth Night, are still served as an English specialty. (The Macbeth witches’ stew of human entrails not so much!)
Writing about food, including the specifics of food preparation, was a way for Shakespeare to create striking moments of realism in his dramas, drawing on precise details from sixteenth-century life. Yet food also pervades Shakespeare’s use of idiomatic language: in many cases, Shakespeare’s references to food items were not meant literally. We get the idiom a feast fit for the gods from Brutus in Julius Caesar, but the ‘feast’ in question is no extravagant meal. It’s Caesar himself, who Brutus hopes to ‘carve up’ like meat.
Like Shrewsbury cakes, several of Shakespeare’s food-related idioms are still popular today. How did Shakespeare use these idioms, and how do we use them? Some are embedded with hidden meaning: after all, Shakespeare was a master of sly ironies, coruscating double–entendres, and saucy innuendo. Here are three of Shakespeare’s most famous culinary sayings and their histories:
The world is your oyster
Definition: You are in a position to take the opportunities that life has to offer.
In The Merry Wives of Windsor, Act 2, scene 2, the servant Pistol utters this well-known adage to Sir John Falstaff, the rotund, debauched knight best known as the companion of Prince Hal, the future Henry V, from Henry IV, Part 1 and Part 2. (The latter is the most frequently cited Shakespeare play in the Oxford English Dictionary, with 1,761 total quotations.) Pistol – also a fixture of the Henry plays – is a braggadocio, a comic character whose boastful statements are often false. In this scene, Falstaff, who’s low on cash after spending most of his money on booze, refuses to loan Pistol ‘a penny’. Pistol replies: ‘Why, then the world’s mine oyster/Which I with sword will open.’
The implication here is that Pistol will go and make his fortune on his own – likely through brute force (robbery or pillaging), symbolized by his sword. At the same time, though, it isn’t clear that Pistol will ‘open’ the ‘oyster’, representing the surrounding ‘world’, and ultimately discover a pearl, or the fortune he craves. Oysters, after all, do not always have pearls inside, and opening them – even with an instrument as powerful as a sword – is no easy feat. It takes force and care to shuck oysters, and it’s easy to injure yourself on the blade of an oyster knife. Shakespeare seems to be suggesting that for all of Pistol’s bravado and confidence, his impulsive violence might be ill-suited to the task at hand. Or he might simply be unlucky: he might not find any ‘pearls’, or unwitting victims to rob.
Yet today, we often use the world is your oyster without registering any of the ironies Shakespeare evokes to subtly criticize Pistol’s arrogance. We would probably use this phrase in the same way that Pistol uses it, minus the violent subtext – to brag about our own ability to take full advantage of the world’s opportunities and discover success.
Definition: The period when one is young and inexperienced; the peak or heyday of something.
In Antony and Cleopatra, Act 1, Scene 5, fresh off of a sordid vacation with Mark Antony, the Roman leader she’s seduced, the beguiling queen Cleopatra complains about missing Antony to her maid Charmian. Charmian asks her why she’s fallen so hard for Antony. After all, Cleopatra once loved Julius Caesar, his predecessor, with the same intensity. Cleopatra retorts:
My salad days,
When I was green in judgment: cold in blood,
To say as I said then!
Scholars have commonly interpreted these remarks to mean that as a younger queen, Cleopatra was inexperienced with relationships. This inexperience led her to believe that her infatuation with Caesar was love – but she has since realized, in older age, that only her love for Antony is real.
These lines pun nicely on the physical qualities of salad (‘green’ and ‘cold’), but the descriptive phrase ‘cold in blood’ hardly smacks of naiveté. Historians speculate that Cleopatra recognized Caesar’s power and actively pursued him, hoping to use the general’s influence to force her brother, Ptomely XIII, to give up control of the Ptolemaic Kingdom. Her love for Caesar may have been ‘cold-blooded’: that is, impassioned and calculated. Antony, too, may have been a pawn in Cleopatra’s scheme for power, since he had the authority to return lands to her kingdom that had fallen under Roman rule. So Cleopatra’s ‘salad days’ may not have been so innocent after all. In fact, her successful courting of Caesar – which allowed her to usurp the Ptolemaic throne – may have been the peak of her political career.
Interestingly, Cleopatra’s use of salad days might align with either of the current definitions for the phrase, though ‘days of youthful inexperience’ has fallen out of favor as the idiom’s primary meaning. (Most contemporary references to salad days are roughly synonymous with halcyon days.) As Shakespeare cleverly insinuates, the green-ness in judgment one experiences during one’s salad days might not be ingenuousness but freshness, vibrancy, and prosperity.
In a pickle
Definition: A difficult or messy situation.
In The Tempest, Act 5, Scene 1, Shakespeare provides the OED with an instance of ‘pickle’, from 1623 published as part of the First Folio. ‘How camest thou in this pickle?’ asks Antonio, Prospero’s troublesome brother, to the jester Trinculo. ‘I have been in such a pickle since I saw you last that, I fear me, will never out of my bones,’ responds Trinculo, meaning that he has been so drunk since he last saw Antonio that he will never get the alcohol ‘out of his bones’ (we might say ‘out of his system’ today). Here, Shakespeare is referring to the kind of ‘pickle’ that would have been familiar to sixteenth-century audiences: ‘a salt or acid liquid (usually brine or vinegar, frequently seasoned or spiced)’ used as a preserve for vegetables and fruit, according to the OED.
It’s not exactly clear if Shakespeare is likening Trinculo’s inebriation to the condition of being in pickle (a hypothetical situation in which one might find oneself in a jar of briny, stinging solution) or being pickled – chopped up, boiled, covered in spices, and served. Both options seem pretty unpleasant, and both evoke some of the pain and discomfort we might associate with heavy drunkenness. (Or, perhaps, its aftermath: the dreaded hangover.)
Shakespeare’s alcohol-related definition for in a pickle has largely been usurped by the definition we’re familiar with today, ‘a difficult situation’, though inebriation continued to be a common theme in occurrences of the idiom through the nineteenth century. Nonetheless, Trinculo’s long-standing drunkenness does cause problems for him, albeit easily resolvable ones – he could use a few days of sobriety.
What do these fascinating idioms, still familiar to us today, reveal about Shakespeare’s dramatic language? Shakespeare was adept at translating physical qualities of food items – oysters, salad, pickle – into pithy, often humorous statements. He proved himself to be not only an inventive, witty wordsmith, but also deeply engaged with the quotidian world, able to transform the mundane – specific details of everyday meals – into sharp, sparkling prose, infused with more meaning than a surface reading might suggest. Though we don’t use Shakespeare’s culinary phrases in the same ways that he did, we help preserve his dazzling, multifarious writing whenever we talk about our salad days, complain that we’re in a pickle, or declare that the world is our oyster.