Stuff in the time of the Bard

I recently read a delightful history book called Shakespeare’s Restless World: A Portrait of an Era in Twenty Objects, by Neil MacGregor. This book takes a great approach to painting a picture of Elizabethan London: MacGregor finds twenty objects from that era and writes about each, telling how each particular item reflects the era and describing for us what we learn from these objects. There’s no dry recitation of facts and dates here; MacGregor’s book genuinely captures what it was like to be alive at that point in history, in terms of what you would carry with you, what you would read, what you would think about by way of politics, and what you ate.

I think most of us have some idea of what people are likely to have felt when they first watched the great love scenes from Romeo and Juliet or heard Macduff being told of the killing of his children. The words move us now as we imagine thay must have always moved an audience. But in this chapter I want to ask a less elevated question: what did Shakespeare’s public eat in the theatre? What were you likely to be nibbling or crunching as you first heard “To be or not to be”? Modern audiences embark on films and plays armed with chocolate and popcorn, glasses of wine or bottles of water. What about the ELizabethans? It is a question that recent archaeological work has taken us a long way towards answering. Over the last few decades the Museum of London has excavated the sites of a number of Elizabethan theatres: they have found huge quantities of glass and pottery fragments, fruit seeds, nuts and mussel shells, and, in among all the detritus, this sharp and stylish fork.

It has a slender shape, a little longer (9 inches) and much narrower than the kind of fork we use today, with two fierce-looking prongs at the end; it is easy to imagine somebody languidly pronging a delicacy with it while watching a play. But this is not the equivalent of disposable plastic cutlery, thrown away at the end of a performance: this fork is made of durable iron and it once had an elegant wooden handle — you can still see the pins that held the wooden plates in place — with at the end a tiny brass knob (a rounded ornamental handle) beautifully engraved with the initials “A.N.” This sort of fork, a sucket fork as it is known, is for spearing suckets or sweetmeats — selections of marchpane (marzipan), sugar-bread, gingerbread and the like, the equivalent of a box of chocolates. This is very smart cutlery, and it is meant to last. And last it did, for this particular fork lay for centuries on the site of the Rose Theatre on the south bank of the River Thames.

Good book! Check it out if the Elizabethan world or Shakespeare is of any interest. And even if they’re not.

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