Communal eating can shape or destroy relationships. That’s what York English Professor David Goldstein found while researching and writing Eating and Ethics in Shakespeare’s England, published by Cambridge University Press. His book recently won the Shakespeare’s Globe Book Award for 2014.
The award is given to a work which makes an important contribution to the understanding of Shakespeare, his theatre or his contemporaries. The biennial award is shared this time between two authors; the second is Gillian Woods of the University of London for her book Shakespeare’s Unreformed Fictions, published by Oxford University Press.
“I’m thrilled to receive this recognition—after so many years of working on a book, you send it out into the world and fear it will just sink into the abyss, but you hope people will enjoy it and engage with it,” says Goldstein.
Eating and Ethics in Shakespeare’s England argues for a new understanding of Renaissance England from the perspective of communal eating. Rather than focus on traditional models of interiority, choice and consumption, Goldstein demonstrates that eating offered a central paradigm for the ethics of community formation.
“People tend to think of the English Renaissance as a dark time for eating because modern English food has such a bad reputation (increasingly undeserved, by the way) – all weak tea and hunks of meat,” he says. “But English food during Shakespeare’s time was fresh, complex, experimental and undergoing rapid transformation. The customs of the table were also changing in response to foreign influence, as well as major shifts in attitudes toward hospitality, humanism, foreign influence and religion. So it’s an exciting time in which to think about how food, literature and culture interact with each other in subtle and powerful ways.”
Goldstein’s book examines how sharing food helps build, demarcate and destroy relationships – between eater and eaten, between self and other, and among different groups. An example of this comes from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, which Goldstein says depends on the play’s power to stage and frustrate acts of communal eating.
“At the beginning of the play, Shylock famously refuses to sit down and eat with the Christians who seek to do business with him, citing the kosher laws. But a few scenes later, he goes off to eat with them anyway. What we might see as an indication of harmonious food sharing turns out to be a disaster – Shylock sees the meal as a way to siphon Christian resources, while the Christians use Shylock’s absence to help Jessica escape from her home. The meal becomes a symbol of the ways in which the play turns community into self-interest – food drives people apart rather than bringing them into productive contact.”
Tracing these eating relations from 1547 to 1680 – through Shakespeare, Milton, religious writers and recipe book authors – Goldstein shows that to think about eating was to engage in complex reflections about the body’s role in society. In the process, he radically rethinks the communal importance of the Protestant Eucharist. Combining historicist literary analysis with insights from social science and philosophy, his arguments reverberate well beyond the Renaissance, ultimately forcing a rethink of people’s relationship to food.
The book award comes with a £3,000 cash prize. The winners will deliver a public lecture on their work at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse Oct. 1 in England where world-renowned Shakespeare scholar Professor Stanley Wells will present Goldstein and Woods with their award.
Goldstein writes on issues related to Shakespeare, early modern and Renaissance literature, food studies and contemporary poetry. He has received numerous grants and awards, including fellowships at the Huntington Library, the Lilly Library and the University of Wisconsin, Madison. A former food magazine editor and restaurant critic, he is also a widely published poet. Before joining the faculty at York, he was an assistant professor of English at the University of Tulsa.