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How to Eat a Book

By Frances E. DolanJuly 27, 2015

Eating and Ethics in Shakespeare’s England by David B. Goldstein

DAVID GOLDSTEIN is not only a literary critic who specializes in the Renaissance, but also a food writer and a poet. (I suspect he’s a good cook, but I don’t know that for sure.) He has drawn on all of his interests and skills in crafting Eating and Ethics in Shakespeare’s England, and the result is a book that both appetizes and satisfies. His focus on eating rather than food enables him to avoid the trap of festive description in order to explore the deeper pleasures of critique. He considers not food as a thing, but eating as a process, and a relationship “at once material and symbolic.”

Goldstein’s focus is actually broader than “Shakespeare’s England,” including a chapter on the early Reformation, several decades before Shakespeare’s birth, as well as chapters on works written long after Shakespeare’s death (by Anne Fanshawe and John Milton). Reaching beyond Shakespeare’s life and works, he is able to showcase the huge shifts in the ethics of eating, as well as their impacts that make this period such an important one in the history of eating — a period to which even non-specialists might want to return.

These shifts include the Reformation, which made the meaning of the host a life-or-death question: was it transformed into the real presence of Christ or did it remain bread representing that presence? Goldstein argues that these theological debates also transformed the meanings of all communions or shared meals, secular and sacred, making each meal “both a battleground and an opportunity, an act of nourishing or poisoning.” Even a martyr like Anne Askew understood communion not just as the dividing line between herself and her tormentors, but as her connection to her co-religionists, present and future.

For Goldstein, the Reformation, in distinguishing the host from Christ’s body, did not disembody or desacralize eating:

In many cases, at least in this early period of Protestantism’s development, something altogether weirder happened: a memorial interpretation of the Eucharist opened a path for unifying the bodily experience of eating with the spiritual experience of Christ’s mystery.

The voyages of exploration and conquest that brought New World foods to Old World tables also introduced the English to new ethics of eating, including cannibalism, which was both threateningly other and not different enough from the Christian ritual organized around eating the body of the beloved.

The English Civil Wars in the mid-17th century also figure here as disruptions in the ethics of eating, which made it newly urgent to register “the shifting web of social connectivity and obligation,” in part, Goldstein argues, through recipe notebooks that attributed each recipe to a particular person. “The [attributed] receipt becomes a record of relationship, a giving of credit where credit is due.”

While the title leads us to think about era-defining individuals — Shakespeare’s England! — Goldstein actually works against the assumption that the individual triumphantly emerged in this period, whether the possessive individual of early capitalism, or the Protestant with his unmediated relationship to God. Building on Emmanuel Levinas’s claim that “Only a subject that eats can be for-the-other,” Goldstein argues that, once we focus on eating, we realize that the self can never be fully individuated because each of us is made up of what we have eaten; the self is a patchwork of others: “a human being is a mixed bag, a surfeit of scraps, comprising both inwardness and exteriority.”

Instead of the robustly inward, self-aware and self-owning, bounded individual, then, we find here companions and commensals gathered around a table. Goldstein’s focus is “the ways in which the act of sharing food helps build, demarcate, and destroy relationships — between eater and eaten, between self and other, and among different groups.” He draws our attention to several key words that will resonate for readers after they have finished the book. One is “commensality,” which he hopes to pull into more common usage: rooted in words meaning “with” and “table,” it captures the process not just of being together, but eating together at a shared table. Another is “receipt,” the precursor to “recipe.” As Goldstein explains in a fascinating “excursus” on the recipe, it begins in the Latin word recipio or recapio (to seize back):

At the heart of the recipe we find a gift that is a kind of violence, a re-conquering or reclaiming of something lost or given away. The meaning from which the modern recipe is directly derived, that of a compilation of ingredients, is post-classical, having originated in the Roman medical practice of writing recipe, “you receive,” at the head of a prescription. The recipe as demand, imperative, not as choice. What to do with this strangeness?

The strangeness is what draws us again and again to this period. Like a good host, Goldstein sets a place for the stranger at his table; as he shows, “receipt” also meant to make welcome. A recipe might serve as a metaphorical food gift or a record of a relationship. It could also be a record of a payment, a discharged obligation, or a pledge of a future obligation.

Sometimes dismissed as beneath serious attention, then, the recipe here functions as a point of entry into complex networks of connection. For Goldstein, manuscript recipe collections are “eating communities enacted upon the page.” Placing Anne Fanshawe’s manuscript compilation in conversation with Shakespeare’s plays and Milton’s epic poetry, he reflects on which texts we find worthy of attention and what an author is in ways that yield insight into all of his texts and authors.

While Goldstein insists that we think about communities more than individuals, his chapters are organized around authors and texts, yielding vivid insights into what is particular to each. The book begins with two bracing accounts of Shakespeare’s consistently negative depictions of eating. In Shakespeare, Goldstein argues persuasively, “communal eating” is “a spectacularly failed endeavor.” In Merchant of Venice, for example, the shared meals proposed are either refused or disrupted. Shakespeare emerges here as “a radical skeptic prodding the permeable divide between self and other.”

Goldstein shows that in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, the depiction of cannibalism, like the bizarre pie or stew the cannibal was often thought to cook up, mixes together Old and New World stories, images, and meanings. Goldstein shows us how eating tears apart bodies and communities in this play, infamous for its dismemberments, rape, and forced cannibalism. What’s even more interesting, however, is how he domesticates the play’s outrages. As he points out, “cannibalism is more a sensationalist account of normal eating than a category shift away from it.”

In the particular case of Tamora, to whom Titus feeds a pie containing her sons, Goldstein argues that her “literal consumption is ‘unnatural’ in that it reverses the normative vector of female generation, turning birth into devourment. But what seems repugnant on the bodily level is business as usual on the political one.” The Roman Empire, like Tamora, is a mother who “absorbs and destroys what it can, and ejects and destroys what it cannot.” While Tamora does not know what she eats, the Roman Empire does.

Goldstein finds more positive prospects in texts that are simultaneously by women writers and collaborations. The first is John Bale’s edition of Anne Askew’s Examinations, her account of her interrogations, which ultimately led to her burning at the stake for heresy in 1546. Where some have seen a competition between Askew and Bale for control of the account (which Bale edited and published after her death), Goldstein sees Bale and Askew as collaborators across the great divide of death, working together to make community and communion possible through the shared story of Askew’s suffering body.

Bale’s text is, then, a recipe “for how to forge a new collectivity in the face of an obdurate state bent on fracturing that community into its vulnerable individuals.” The Eucharist itself resembles the kinds of recipes Goldstein discusses. Those were usually titled “To make . . .” and here we might imagine the goal as “To make a Christian community.” Jesus’s words anticipate the injunction with which most early modern English recipes begin: “Take…” In this case, “Take my body and eat it.”

Goldstein’s discussions of cannibalism and the Eucharistic debate might be called “how to eat a body.” He then moves smoothly from them into a wonderful chapter on “how to eat a book” and manuscript recipe culture. However different the worlds of Bale’s Examinations and Fanshawe’s recipe manuscript, which was both hers and a collaboration, “each work becomes a set of instructions for how to create community,” each “shows how to render visible the network of obligations and duties that bind one person — textually, socially, religiously — to another in order to form a society.”

Eating and Ethics builds toward a reading of Milton as “the great poet of community and commensality,” and Paradise Lost as a story as much about shared eating as about individual choice. As Goldstein reminds us, the middle four books unfold over a single meal Adam and Eve share with the angel Raphael. For Goldstein, hospitality is at the center of the poem, but even before the fall, humans must figure out commensality for themselves, since God is resolutely solitary. Temperance is not an achievement as much as it is a compensation: it “is all that we have to fall back on once the prop of trustworthy society is removed.” What defines Eve’s world-shattering bite is that she takes it alone.

The book ends with a call for a relational ethics of eating, a focus not just on what we choose to eat, but on “the power of food to build and destroy the lineaments of society.” In the focus on individual diets and choices, whether we eat animals, or gluten, or GMOs, we “all become like Eve, facing off against the serpent with only our good sense to protect us. We become eaters of the world rather than in it.” As Goldstein acknowledges, attempts to change the food system focus on relationships as well as individual choices — know your food, know your farmer, root yourself in a network of economic, social, and environmental relations.

Goldstein leaves loose ends that offer generative uncertainties. He reminds us, for instance, of the dangling plot thread in Titus Andronicus: what happens to Aaron’s baby, the leftover of his relationship with Tamora, who survives them both — or does he? Anne Fanshawe breaks off her memoir midsentence. Adam and Eve, famously, leave Eden to venture into human history at the end of Milton’s account of how they lost Paradise. We know what happens next — but then again, we don’t. We seem always to be getting expelled from Paradise again, gathering the fragments of our dispersed commensality.


Frances E. Dolan is Distinguished Professor of English at the University of California, Davis.

LARB Contributor

Frances E. Dolan is Distinguished Professor of English at the University of California, Davis. She is the author of five books, most recently True Relations: Reading, Literature, and Evidence in Seventeenth-Century England (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), as well as editions of Shakespeare plays and numerous essays on a wide range of topics.


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