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“’twill Fill Your Stomachs”: Illicit Sex, Rape, And Cannibalism In Early Modern Drama

Cannibalism occurs in various forms throughout early modern drama. From the demonization of colonial subjects (for example, Caliban in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest ), to the references to mummy or balsamum in plays such as Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist or John Webster’s The White Devil, human flesh as a consumable product recurs throughout sixteenth- and seventeenth-century drama. In many instances of dramatic cannibalism, the ingestion of human flesh is connected to illicit sex and/or rape. Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi (1612-4) includes references to the Duchess’s body as consumable flesh after her forbidden marriage to Antonio and the births of their children. The Young Queen of Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker’s The Bloody Banquet (1609) is forced by her husband, the Tyrant, to eat the flesh of her lover, Tymethes, after an affair. In perhaps one of the most famous cannibalism plays, Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus (1591-2), Chiron and Demetrius – Lavinia’s rapists –are baked into pies and fed to their mother. Through an examination of these three plays – one with references to cannibalism and two with actual acts of cannibalism – this essay explores the relationship between illicit sex/rape and cannibalism in early modern drama. Within these works, the human body moves from being consumed as a sexual commodity, to becoming a consumable food source.

Before I begin the analysis of these plays, though, it is worth considering the discourses surrounding cannibalism in early modern culture. There were various ways in which the topic was approached: unsurprisingly, it was a contested subject that carried with it negative connotations of monstrosity and savagery. It often occurred in travel narratives as a way of creating an us/them or Self/Other divide; the supposed cannibalism of the natives in foreign lands painted them as uncivilised and therefore inferior to the English people: “fear of the Other is often expressed through images of being literally and metaphorically consumed by that Other. Cannibalism has a long history of being used to ‘other’ particular groups. The configuration of colonial subjects, working classes, women, homosexuals, Christians and non-Christians, as cannibalistic is suggestive of the fear and repulsion these groups evoked at various times” (Brown 4). The early modern English subject – who would often not have strayed beyond her/his hometown, let alone the country – may experience fear and apprehension regarding colonial subjects. The cannibalistic narrative is both an expression of that fear and a way for the white, Christian, ‘civilised’ English to situate themselves as superior to these ‘savage’ subjects. As Richard Sugg writes, “For European Christians, cannibalism was a fundamental signifier of barbaric otherness – an absolute nadir of unnatural and unthinkable behaviour. Mummy, on the other hand, was clearly a very popular medical treatment” (41). Despite the apparent savagery of these foreign natives who supposedly consumed human flesh, early modern Europeans were using mummified corpses for medicinal purposes to the extent that there became a trade in “counterfeit mummy”: “Human flesh, blood, bones, and fat, along with the ‘moss of the skull’ (‘usnea’) were all used in various ways to cure a number of afflictions” including epilepsy (Sugg 40). This, of course, was a controversial practice as, despite the dried-out and ancient flesh embalmed using spiritual and mystical processes, there was no escaping the fact that people were consuming products from a human corpse. The popularity led to a rise in anti-cannibalism tracts, including writings by people such as Michael de Montaigne. Pascale Aebischer reads his take on cannibalism as “far from justifying colonial violence against the abject other, [it] becomes a pretext for an analysis of barbarian customs practiced by the Europeans themselves: what starts out as an investigation of difference is contaminated by cannibalism’s attraction to sameness and transformed into an acknowledgement of fundamental similarity” (70). Indeed, in his essay, ‘Of the Canniballes’, Montaigne writes:

I am not sorie we note the barbarous horror of such an action, but grieved, that prying so narrowly into their faults we are so blinded in ours. I thinke there is more barbarisme in eating men alive, than to feed upon them being dead; to mangle by tortures and torments a body full of lively sense, to roast him in peeces, to make dogges and swine to gnaw and tear him in mammockes (as wee have not only read, but seene very lately, yea and in our owne memorie, not amongst ancient enemies, but our neighbours and fellow-citizens; and which is worse, under pretence of pietie and religion) than to roast and eat him after he is dead. (104)

This particularly graphic description of torture and execution in early modern England serves to depict these customs as more monstrous than those of “the Canniballes”. However, the natives are still demonised as Montaigne describes the “barbarous horror” of their cannibalism, thereby working to highlight the monstrosity of both the colonial subjects and the English. Cannibalism’s demonization of the Other, then, serves to highlight the savagery of the Self, particularly when one considers that Europeans were themselves consuming human flesh in the form of medicinal cannibalism.

Another aspect of this Self/Other divide (however blurred it may become) is the association between cannibalism, witchcraft, and blasphemy as their “Ceremonies have often involved the consumption of fat, flesh, blood, or bone (usually roasted, ground up, or burned and then mixed with other substances such as fluid or honey) because something analogous to a soul or vital spirit was believed to be located in these areas” (Sugg 37-8). One may consider the witches of Macbeth to illustrate this point. As the weird/wayward sisters gather around their cauldron, the ingredients to their potion grow increasingly cannibalistic. They move from throwing in “poisoned entrails” (4.1.5), to “Witches’ mummy, maw and gulf” (4.1.23) [i], to the “Liver of blaspheming Jew”, “Nose of Turk and Tartar’s lips, / Finger of birth-strangled babe / Ditch delivered by a drab” (4.1.26; 29-31). Through this scene, Shakespeare uses more recognisably human parts to construct the witches’ potion. The unspecified species from which the sisters gather their “poisoned entrails” and the distanced nature of the “witches’ mummy” could present something merely gruesome and macabre rather than specifically cannibalistic, but the body parts of people – albeit othered people – adds an undeniable human element to their potion. It is unclear as to what exactly the potion is for, but for an audience viewing three women placing body parts into what is effectively a cooking pot, this scene is likely to conjure up images of cannibalism.

After the Reformation, when England became a Protestant country under Henry VIII, debates surrounding the nature of the Eucharist started to emerge. As Catholics believe that the bread and wine given at communion literally become Jesus’s body and blood (and as the new Church of England wanted to remove traces of Catholicism from the country), the Catholic communion came to be figured as a type of cannibalism. Just as the veneration and worship of human remains came to be seen as Popish and a sign of devil worship, [ii] so too did the transfiguration of the communion into Christ become deemed blasphemous and monstrous. Catholic worship came to be associated with witchcraft and the devil in this attempt to assert the dominance of Protestantism. Thus, the Catholic Eucharist was figured as monstrous, blasphemous, and cannibalistic.

When cannibalism – whether that is in act or references – appears in early modern drama, it carries with it these associations. It is at once monstrous, foreign, and Other, a sign of European consumption, and blasphemous. By associating illicit sex and rape with cannibalism, dramatists transfer these qualities onto the rape/sexual act. This does, of course, have different effects based on the context. For the remainder of this essay, I shall consider instances of cannibalism specifically in The Duchess of MalfiTitus Andronicus, and The Bloody Banquet, but it is worth keeping these debates in mind throughout; even where an instance of cannibalism seems more overtly connected to, say, the demonization of foreigners, it still carries connotations of these other debates.


Cannibalism as Monstrosity

All three of these plays use cannibalism as a way of portraying monstrosity in their characters. In The Bloody Banquet, the Tyrant is figured as monstrous as he forces his wife to eat Tymethes’s flesh. The characters who witness this scene, as well as the audience, are horrified by what they see. Thus, the Tyrant, and not the woman who eats the human flesh, becomes the monstrous figure. In Titus Andronicus, on the other hand, Titus’s revenge perhaps seems more justified to the audience. After Chiron and Demetrius, encouraged by Tamora, rape and mutilate Lavinia, frame Titus’s two sons for the murder of her husband, causing them to be executed, and revel in Titus’s feigned madness after the loss of his children and his hand, it seems more like justice when the two brothers are killed, baked into pies, and fed to their mother. The character who orchestrates the cannibalism is not as monstrous as those who are victims of the cannibalism. However, despite the evident monstrosity in these scenes, I here focus on The Duchess of Malfi. I shall refer to Banquet and Titus, but their main analysis appears at the end of this essay. The physical acts of cannibalism, as well as their status as revenge acts, set them apart from Malfi. I therefore focus my attention on them in the section titled ‘Cannibalism as Revenge’.

The Duchess of Malfi’s brothers are portrayed as particularly monstrous as they arrange her torture and murder. While there is no literal cannibalism within the play, Webster includes frequent references to the Cardinal and Ferdinand consuming the Duchess’s flesh. As Aebischer writes, “The play’s obsession with corpses thus boils down to an obsession with the body of the Duchess, which is to be investigated, carved up, and consumed” (80). The one overt reference to cannibals occurs when the Duchess is in labour: a story is spread about a Swiss mercenary in the Duchess’s chamber with a gun in his codpiece, to which an officer responds, “Oh, wicked cannibal!” (2.2.47). Readers see, relatively close to the beginning of the play, that those who threaten the Duchess are aligned with cannibalism. Although this instance, within the context of the plot, is a work of fiction, intended to distract from the Duchess’s labour, Webster introduces the idea of the Duchess’s flesh as a consumable object; the monstrous Other, as well as threatening the Duchess with a pistol, threatens her with his appetite.

Once the Duchess’s forbidden marriage to Antonio is revealed, the brothers – particularly Ferdinand – begin to refer to cannibalism with more frequency. On discovering that the Duchess has had a child with Antonio, Ferdinand states that he must “Apply desperate physic. / We must not now use balsamum, but fire, / The smarting cupping-glass, for that’s the mean / To purge infected blood – such blood as hers” (2.5.23-6). Here, Webster refers to “balsamum” – mummy, or medicinal cannibalism. This may have the effect of cementing the foreign location; like many early modern tragedies, The Duchess of Malfi is set abroad, where the violence and depravity do not threaten English society. Thus, the characters of Webster’s tragedy may be Othered by the suggestion that they use medicinal cannibalism. However, this line also suggests that the Duchess will be consumed by her brother. Ferdinand moves from applying balsamum to fire that must “purge infected blood”. There is a shift, after the Duchess’s marriage, pregnancy and, by extension, forbidden sexual relationship, are discovered. Rather than applying balsamum, a product to be consumed by the Duchess, Ferdinand wishes to apply fire that, in contrast, would consume her. This is the beginning of the Duchess’s downfall as her brother seeks to destroy her body.

The monstrosity of the brothers is emphasised as the play progresses. When Ferdinand learns of the Duchess’s marriage and pregnancies, he fantasises about “boil[ing] their bastard to a cullis, / And giv[ing it to] his lecherous father, to renew / The sin of his back” (2.5.72-4). Here, Webster draws on the classical motif of the revenger feeding the children to the unsuspecting parent, which will be seen in much more detail in Titus Andronicus. There is, however, nothing to avenge. The Duchess may have married lower than her social class and against her brothers’ wishes, but she has nevertheless married and produces legitimate children, she has not engaged in sex outside of wedlock, and she has been married before and so secured the privileges that her brothers would look for in a marriage. Her torture and murder therefore seem excessive and unnecessarily cruel, which is apparent in Webster’s cannibalistic language.

As the torture of the Duchess increases, her body is presented as meat to be consumed by her brothers. When she is first captured by Bosola, she is promised that her brothers will treat her with pity, to which she responds: “Pity! / With such a pity men preserve alive / Pheasants and quails when they are not fat enough / To be eaten” (3.5.112-4). The Duchess, then, sees herself as an animal waiting for the slaughter. Her brothers are painted as cannibalistic as they are to consume her, thereby emphasising the monstrosity of their actions, particularly as it is known that the Duchess will be killed. Before the Duchess dies, she instructs Bosola to “Go tell my brothers, when I am laid out, / They then may feed in quiet” (4.2.233-4). In one of her final speeches, the Duchess envisions her brothers feeding on her body; particularly when considered alongside the image of the pheasants and quails, these lines imply that Ferdinand and the Cardinal’s intention in torturing and murdering the Duchess was to feed on her flesh. Rather than cannibalism as a side-product of their revenge, it becomes the purpose of the murder, thus depicting the brothers as particularly monstrous.


Cannibalism as a Sign of Madness

As Webster demonises the Cardinal and Ferdinand, he simultaneously uses cannibalistic references to portray Ferdinand’s madness. [iii] After the murder of the Duchess, which has been commissioned by Ferdinand, he seems to repent as he says to Bosola, “What an excellent / Honest man mightst thou have been / If thou hadst borne her to some sanctuary” (4.2.272-4). From the moment that Ferdinand begins to show repentance, he falls into a madness in which he believes himself to be a wolf, “only the difference / Was, a wolf’s skin was hairy on the outside, / His on the inside” (5.2.16-8). This particular type of madness is perhaps anticipated in the Duchess’s torture as Ferdinand commissions inmates at a local insane asylum to perform in front of her. Not only does the song literally contain the word “howl’, but in the surviving music, it appears that the actors would sound like they are howling as “[Webster] penned something that is full of weird harmonic changes, abrupt changes of tempo … and you’re playing a piece that switches, moves so abruptly and dramatically, that’s how he suggests their madness” (McGowan, qtd. Shapiro n.pag.). When Ferdinand believes himself to be a wolf, then, he takes on the madness of these characters from the earlier scene.

It may at first seem that there is nothing inherently cannibalistic in Ferdinand’s madness. However, the wolf is continually linked to the consumption of human flesh. In The Bloody Banquet, Middleton and Dekker provide an explicit link between social cannibalism and literal cannibalism as their Clown describes “court-wolves”, “country-wolves”, and “city-wolves” who will “feed upon any whore, carrion, thief, or anything” (2.1.49-50). There is thus a link between the use of people for social advancement, and the consumption of human flesh by wolves, which is brought out by Webster in Malfi. As the Duchess is preparing to die, she says, “Farewell, Cariola. / In my last will I have not much to give; / A many hungry guests have fed upon me” (4.2.194-6). In this speech, Webster once again refers to the brothers’ consumption of the Duchess’s flesh, but also suggests that they have consumed her property as she no longer has anything to leave in her will. Thus, the cannibalistic brothers use the Duchess socially as well as physically.

When Ferdinand goes mad and believes himself to be a wolf, he makes literal the behaviours that he has already been exhibiting; as he has fed on the Duchess and her rank throughout the play, he now becomes the animal that, as Middleton and Dekker demonstrate, feeds both physically and metaphorically on people. While the Duchess has been making the connection between her torture and the ingestion of her body throughout, Ferdinand only here shows himself to be a creature that feeds on human flesh. The Doctor, describing his patient’s condition, states that “One met the Duke ‘bout midnight in a lane / Behind Saint Mark’s Church, with the leg of a man / Upon his shoulder” (5.2.13-5). One might be reminded here of the body parts used in witchcraft, suggesting a blasphemous quality to the act (particularly considering that he was found behind a church and so was presumably digging up consecrated ground). However, there is a perhaps more disturbing suggestion when one considers what he intends to do with the leg; he believes himself to be a wolf, and wolves eat flesh, which he now holds in the form of a human leg. Therefore, Webster implies that Ferdinand has strayed from the metaphorical cannibalism associated with consuming the Duchess, and into literal cannibalism as he is perhaps intending to eat this man’s leg. The Duchess’s secret marriage and what the brothers believe to be illicit sex between her and a servant, then, bring out the monstrosity of the brothers who metaphorically consume their sister through her torture and murder. Racked with guilt after her death, Ferdinand believes himself to be the animal that preys on human flesh, making literal the Duchess’s imagery of consumption. In his madness, Ferdinand may indeed eat the flesh of a human corpse, literally feeding on the body as the Duchess claims he has done throughout. Ferdinand’s madness, then, is a way of physically enacting his inner personality.

Ferdinand’s is not the only madness that is observable in these plays. In Titus Andronicus, after the rape and mutilation of his daughter, the execution of two of his sons and banishment of the third, and the loss of his hand, it would be understandable if Titus were to go mad. However, he merely feigns madness in a confrontation with Tamora, Chiron, and Demetrius. After he plays along when the three pretend to be Revenge, Rapine, and Murder, Tamora says:

For now he firmly takes me for Revenge,

And, being credulous in this mad thought,

I’ll make him send for Lucius his son,

And whilst I at a banquet hold him sure,

I’ll find some cunning practice out of hand

To scatter and disperse the giddy Goths,

Or at least make them his enemies. (5.2.73-9)

It is, of course, this very banquet that allows Titus to enact his final revenge as he feeds Chiron and Demetrius to their mother. While I discuss the revenge act in the next section, it is here worth considering the various ways in which madness and cannibalism may be connected. In Malfi, Ferdinand acts out his cannibalistic personality because of his madness (indeed, in Banquet, too the Young Queen appears mad in the final banquet scene, allowing her to eat her lover’s flesh). In Titus, though, this feigned madness allows him to force others into cannibalism. Rather than being linked to madness itself, cannibalistic revenge is brought about by a fundamental disbelief in the “mad” person’s ability to act.


Cannibalism as Revenge

The final, and lengthiest, part of this essay focuses on cannibalism as a revenge act in Titus and Banquet. Each of the cannibalistic scenes comes about as an act of revenge for rape or illicit sex. As Richard Sugg states, “While the Italians understood death as a clean and absolute extinction of life, the British, among others, believed that a dwindling but stubborn degree of life persisted in the corpse for up to a year” (27). Despite the Roman/Italian settings of the plays, the audience would bring with them their own British belief. What, then, does this mean for a body that is consumed almost immediately after death? When describing the practices of his “Canniballes” in consuming the prisoners taken during war, Montaigne writes, “It is not as some imagine, to nourish themselves with it, (as anciently the Scithians wont to doe,) but to represent an extreme, and inexpiable revenge” (104). To consume the flesh of an enemy is believed to be an extreme act of revenge, whereas Europeans would, as I mention above, consume ancient flesh – mummy – for medicinal purposes. In Christianity, the body is sacred, partly because it was believed to have been created in God’s image, and partly because of the belief in the resurrection of the body at the last judgement. To consume the corpse – one that is fresh, not yet decaying, and one that is still believed to harbour life – is to tamper with the body and its resurrection, making it a stronger act of revenge in European Christian culture.

However, no matter how gruesome, the act of revenge is not necessarily condemned in Titus Andronicus. The acts against Titus’s family are particularly horrific, making the final cannibalistic banquet scene seem justified to the audience. Early on in the play, Shakespeare includes the stage direction, “ Enter the Empress’ sons [ Demetrius and Chiron ] with Lavinia, her hands cut off and her tongue cut out, and ravished ” (2.4). What happens to Lavinia is not merely reported to the audience, but they must see the character appear without her hands and tongue, presumably making extensive use of stage blood. She appears throughout the play, silent and mutilated, to be viewed by both characters and audience. The horrific image that she presents forces the audience to confront her rape. While the bodies of the murdered are kept offstage and so are more easily forgotten, Lavinia’s rape and mutilation is present throughout the play, forcing the audience to keep her in mind.

As in Malfi, the female body is presented as meat to be consumed. Not only is Lavinia raped during the hunt, but her rapists also construct her as prey to be hunted. Aaron instructs Chiron and Demetrius to “Single you thither this dainty doe, / And strike her home by force, if not by words” (2.1.124-5). As the brothers, under the guidance of Aaron, portray Lavinia as a consumable object, Shakespeare forges a connection between (forced) sexual consumption and cannibalistic consumption; the violence of rape is tinged with the violence of cannibalism in this imagery. It therefore seems more justified when Titus bakes the brothers in pies. As they have viewed Lavinia’s flesh as something to be consumed, they too become a mere product to be eaten.

Perhaps even more horrific than the cannibalism itself is the fact that Chiron and Demetrius are being fed to their mother. This, though, becomes just as justified as the revenge on the brothers. Before the rape, Lavinia appeals to Tamora’s identity as a woman to prevent the crime, but the Empress instead encourages her sons and states, “But when ye have the honey we desire, / Let not this wasp outlive, us both to sting” (2.3.131-2). She not only condones the rape but also encourages them to ensure Lavinia cannot tell anyone what has happened, which they do by cutting off her hands and tongue. As Tamora makes the crime even more horrific through the suggestion of murder – which becomes interpreted as mutilation – there is a sense of gruesome justice when she becomes one of the revenger’s victims; she is forced to consume her sons as she encouraged them to consume Lavinia.

The actual cannibalism scene of Titus Andronicus works on the audience in different ways to both horrify, and to condone the revenge act. Sally Templeman looks at inn-yard performances of early modern drama and argues that Titus was likely first performed in an inn-yard playhouse. Thus, when Titus first brings out the pies, “the aroma of roasting meat [from the inn’s kitchen] would have been assailing the hungry spectators in the Bell Savage’s yard” (84). She argues that, “In fact, in inn-yard venues, it is quite likely that Tamora’s pie had been baked in the inn’s own kitchen and its appearance would, therefore, have been identical to the suppertime pies that playgoers were salivating for” (89). As gruesome as the thought of eating a human pie may be, Shakespeare may in fact be working with the performance space to encourage the spectators to crave one of those very pies. This creates a sense of horror as the audience considers that they would be willing to eat human flesh, but it may also incite humour at how ridiculous the situation is. Alternatively, the audience may begin to condone the cannibalism as they gain pleasure from the sight and smell of the pie.

If the audience are unmoved by the physical presence of these pies, they may be encouraged to condone Titus’s revenge through the context of the plot. Louise Noble, in her discussion of medicinal cannibalism, writes, “I have chosen Titus Andronicus because, more than in any other revenge tragedy, the extravagant, seemingly senseless acts of revenge violence are in fact ordered within a cool logic of medical justice and performed as a form of corpse therapy” (37). In this play, Ancient Rome is figured as a brutal, savage place, filled with rape, mutilation, and murder. If we follow Noble’s reading, the final cannibalistic act must happen in order to purge Rome of these negative forces. In the transcript of the seminar on stage blood at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, Farah Karim-Cooper writes:

Kingsley-Smith points out that blood-letting was considered healthy in the early modern period and that this line of thinking would have been transferred into the playhouses. Blood on the stage or bleeding on the stage, would result in a purging of the corrupted stage after the representation of tragic violence. (21)

As Chiron and Demetrius are bled like slaughtered animals in preparation for the pie, the audience might recall the restorative effects of bloodletting, and therefore see the banquet as a sign of hope for the future of Rome. Noble, in her discussion specifically of cannibalism rather than stage blood in general, connects this with the culture surrounding medicinal cannibalism. She writes, “In an extraordinary attempt to restore political stability to Rome, horrifying acts of revenge perform harsh homeopathic remedies wherein each savage crime, each act of defiling violence is countered by another one, yet more savage and defiling” (42). In order to purify Rome after the brutal rape and mutilation of Lavinia, Titus must perform an even more extreme act, which comes in the form of cannibalism. Noble writes, “As recycled matter, Chiron and Demetrius form the polluting corpse drugs of Titus’s corrective; not only the blood and flesh of revenge, but the crucial ingredients of early modern pharmacology are deployed for the health of Rome” (53). In this scene, Shakespeare presents, not only the purifying bloodletting in the murder, but the restorative powers of medicinal cannibalism. Thus, however horrific the thought of cannibalism may be, it becomes necessary within the context of the play to purge Rome of its crimes.

I will turn now to Titus’s speech when he describes his method of preparing the bodies in order to examine how the play’s cannibalism works. Shakespeare writes:

Hark, wretches, how I mean to martyr you.

This one hand yet is left to cut your throats,

Whilst Lavinia ‘tween her stumps doth hold

The basin that receives your guilty blood.

You know your mother means to feast with me,

And calls herself Revenge and thinks me mad:

Hark, villains, I will grind your bones to dust

And with your blood and it I’ll make a paste,

And of the paste a coffin I will rear

And make two pasties of your shameful heads,

And bid that strumpet, your unhallowed dam,

Like to the earth swallow her own increase.

This is the feast that I have bid her to,

And this the banquet she shall surfeit on:

For worse than Philomel you used my daughter,

And worse than Progne I will be revenged,

And now prepare your throats. Lavinia, come,

Receive the blood, and when they are dead,

Let me grind their bones to powder small

And with this hateful liquor temper it,

And in that paste let their vile heads be baked.

Come, come, be everyone officious

To make this banquet, which I wish might prove

More stern and bloody than the Centaurs’ feast.

He cuts their throats

So, now bring them in, for I’ll play the cook,

And see them ready gainst their mother comes. (5.2.180-205)

This passage may seem unnecessarily repetitive: Titus has already explained that he will use their bones and blood to make a pie, so why does Shakespeare repeat this with “Let me grind their bones to powder small / And with this hateful liquor temper it, / And in that paste let their vile heads be baked”? It is absolutely imperative that the audience understands that the final banquet will be one of cannibalism. Whether performed in an inn-yard, or the outdoor Rose theatre, the crowd would be large and packed in (consider, for instance, that our current Globe theatre, with a larger floor space than the original, holds half the capacity of the first or second Globes which had a similar design to the Rose). There would be a famously rowdy crowd surrounding the stage and people selling food and drinks. Shakespeare therefore uses this repetition to ensure that Titus’s final revenge is not lost in the performance space when the audience is distracted. The audience must know of the cannibalism before it is revealed to Tamora in order for the full effect of the revenge to work.

In each of the descriptions of the pies, Shakespeare specifically mentions that their heads will be baked. As Margaret E. Owens states, “Among the broad spectrum of cultures widely scattered across space and time, the human head has been venerated out of the belief that it is the corporeal repository of the soul or spirit. In these cultures, to possess the head is to possess the soul” (170). Titus is not merely feeding Tamora an arm or a leg like the one potentially consumed by Ferdinand, but he is feeding her the heads of her sons. He ensures that she consumes, not only their flesh, but their essence – their souls – too. Shakespeare demonstrates Titus’s control over Chiron and Demetrius as he is able to possess and manipulate the repository of their souls.

Of all the motives that Titus has to seek revenge, Shakespeare chooses to mention only one in this scene. Titus specifically states that the brothers will be killed, “For worse than Philomel you used my daughter”. Shakespeare is here referring to the story of Philomel that is found in Ovid’s The Metamorphoses. In the tale, Philomel is raped and has her tongue cut out to prevent her from telling what happened. However, she is able to weave a tapestry to tell her story (which is why Lavinia also loses her hands) before she is metamorphosed into a nightingale. This, in Roman mythology, is why the nightingale sings such a beautiful song – because it is the way in which Philomel regains her voice. Titus laments the fact that Lavinia is used worse than Philomel; she loses her physical chastity (and with it, the family’s honour), her tongue, and her hands. Although she does eventually tell her story by showing the family the story of Philomel, throughout most of the play she is rendered silent. Despite the fact that Titus’s sons have been executed, his son-in-law murdered, and his own hand cut off, it is only the rape and mutilation of Lavinia that seems to spur him on to revenge. Lavinia, too, is given an active role as she “‘tween her stumps doth hold / The basin that receives [their] guilty blood”. The passive victim becomes active revenger in this scene and the sight of Lavinia catching her rapists’ blood in the bowl between her stumps perhaps adds an element of righteousness to the revenge; however brutal the murder and cannibalism may seem, it is continually contrasted against the mutilated body of Lavinia, thereby adding a sense of justification to the act.

The cannibalism of The Bloody Banquet, on the other hand, is figured as nothing but horrific. The adultery of the Young Queen does not compare with her later treatment by the Tyrant; his gruesome revenge is never condoned in the text because it is not warranted by his wife’s crime. Throughout the play, Middleton and Dekker equate sex with banqueting as the Tyrant states, “This night we’ll banquet in these blissful arms” (1.4.109) after kissing his wife, and (before the beginning of the affair), Tymethes is later greeted with “ Loud music. Enter two [ visored servants ] with a banquet, other two [ visored servants ] with lights: they set ‘em down and depart, making obeisance ” (3.2). The audience is conditioned to think from the beginning, then, that the banquet of the title will present a mixture of sex and violence.

The play’s final scene works particularly well with the conditions of the indoor playhouse to create a sense of horror for the audience.  Regardless of Gary Taylor’s insistence that “any sane person will probably recoil from what the play demands that we confront” (2), it is worth considering what exactly the audience would see in the performance. The play was first performed in the Phoenix, an indoor playhouse that was lit by candles in both chandeliers and wall sconces. In order to display the cannibalism, Middleton and Dekker write, “ Soft music. Enter the Tyrant with the [ young ] Queen, her hair loose; she makes a curtsy to the table. Sertorio brings in the flesh, with a skull all bloody. [ She sits at the table, and begins to eat the flesh, and drink the blood from the skull. ] They all wonder ” (5.1). In this stage image, there is an emphasis on Tymethes’s blood as, not only is the skull “all bloody” both from the recent vivisection and the blood that the Queen proceeds to drink, but the flesh, too, would presumably be relatively fresh and, therefore, bloody. We can see the effects of stage blood in candlelight in the Globe’s Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, a venue that has made much use of blood in performance. For instance, in the final scene of John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore (performed 2014), Giovanni appears with the heart of his sister and lover, Annabella, on a dagger. In this particular production, the actor was covered in stage blood (which stood out well in contrast with his white shirt) and the heart, too, was coated in blood. Both the heart and Giovanni’s skin shone as the deep red of the blood caught and reflected the candlelight. The flesh was made to look – rather disgustingly – juicy with its shininess, an effect that could easily be achieved with the skull and flesh in The Bloody Banquet. Such a quantity of stage blood on the skull and the flesh would be emphasised in the glistening candlelight, naturally drawing the eye with its shine.

The space of the indoor playhouse does not only alter the lighting, but the intimacy, too. The Phoenix, like all indoor playhouses, was significantly smaller than the outdoor playhouses, meaning that the whole of the audience is significantly closer to the action. This, of course, affects their view of the stage, but it also engages senses beyond sight. It is possible that real animal blood was used on the stage. For example, George Peele’s The Battle of Alcazar specifies that sheep’s blood should be used (Munro 79). This creates a more realistic visual, but also engages the olfactory sense. As Lucy Munro writes, “Stage blood addressed the eye and, if animal blood was used, the nose, while a consistently developed rhetoric of blood addresses the ear; together, they create a multi-sensory impression of violence and bloodshed” (84). Animal blood would smell and, trapped within a small, enclosed space, the audience is more likely to recognise this in the Phoenix than in an outdoor playhouse. As well as creating a disturbing visual image that works with the candlelight, the potential use of animal blood has an unpleasant smell that would create greater discomfort in at least the audience members who are closest to the stage. The audience is therefore exposed to the sight of the blood and flesh, the sound of the language referring to the cannibalism, and potentially the smell of animal blood. Thus, the playwrights appeal to multiple senses to create an atmosphere of horror.

While the audience is transfixed by the sight of the cannibalism – and, presumably, are horrified by it – the Tyrant’s revenge nevertheless seems odd, not only because of the extreme violence. As I briefly touch on in the article cited above, the Queen’s act of cannibalism recreates her affair with Tymethes, an idea on which I will expand here. When Tymethes is killed and the Tyrant describes his revenge, he states:

So, bring ‘em forward yet, there; bestow ‘em.

Before her eyes lay the divided limbs

Of her desirèd paramour. So. You’re welcome,

Lady, you see your cheer: fine flesh, coarse fare.

Sweet was your lust; what can be bitter there?

By heaven, no other food thy taste shall have,

Till in thy bowels this corpse find a grave.

Which to be sure of, come: I’ll lock thee up safe

From the world’s pity. – Hang those quarters up! –

Sertorio and Lodovico hang up Tymethes’ limbs ]

The bottom drink’s the worst in pleasure’s cut. (4.3.273-82)

This is, of course, a gruesome and horrific threat that will likely provoke disgust in the audience. The Queen is being imprisoned, forced into cannibalism, and turned into a “grave” for her lover. Furthermore, the presence of the limbs on the stage (which will be present for the remainder of the play) not only serve a sensationalist purpose, but also force viewers to remember that the flesh she eats and the blood she drinks is that of Tymethes ; the presence of recognisably human body parts on the stage does not allow the audience to disengage and pretend the flesh is animal, and instead acts as a constant reminder of the cannibalism.

But the Tyrant, oddly, connects the flesh to the affair in a way that allows the Queen to continue their relationship. When he states that it is “fine flesh, coarse fare” and asks, “Sweet was your lust; what can be bitter there?”, he implies a certain degree of pleasure that is to be gained from consuming the flesh. Later on, he states, “The lecher must be swallowed rib by rib. / His flesh is sweet; it melts, and goes down merrily” (5.1.203-5). This language may, of course, be a taunt to the Queen as the pleasure the Tyrant describes juxtaposes her suffering. But, as Taylor asks, “If she is willing to die, why is she not willing to starve to death? She, who alone of all the play’s characters has proven herself capable of closing her mouth, opens it to eat and eat and eat her lover’s corpse” (30). The Tyrant’s taunts, then, may not be entirely unfounded in truth. The Queen, who proves herself willing to die, chooses to eat Tymethes’s flesh and to drink his blood. She chooses to take Tymethes’s body into her own, mirroring their sexual affair. Even as the Tyrant is torturing his wife, she is able to gain back a certain amount of control of her sexuality as she decides to once again take in Tymethes, rather than starve to death.

The sexual dynamics throughout the play are perhaps not what one would expect of this time, and this is mirrored in the cannibalism. As in Titus Andronicus and The Duchess of Malfi, the female body is presented as a consumable object as Lavinia and the Duchess are described in terms of butchered meat. As Taylor writes, “women were conceptualized not as eaters, but as eaten ... After all, women not only nursed infants (as does the Old Queen in The Bloody Banquet ), but also prepared the food that adult men ate – as does the new Queen” (16). One does indeed see women as a source of food throughout the play as the Old Queen, starving in the woods, struggles to nurse her children, and the Young Queen prepares the banquet for Tymethes. However, it is the man and not the woman who is eaten in the end. Just as Lavinia is described as the “dainty doe”, the Tyrant states, “Thou killd’st a buck which thou thyself shalt eat” (4.3.213), and “Here’s a deer struck dead with thy own hand; / ‘Tis venison for thy own tooth” (4.3.215-6). Tymethes, much like Lavinia and the Duchess, becomes the animal to be eaten (although Tymethes really is eaten, unlike Lavinia and the Duchess). The Tyrant, then, takes the opportunity of Tymethes’s death to feminise him, to project him into the passive role that is usually associated with women. This, though, as I have already discussed, gives the Young Queen a certain level of control as she chooses to consume Tymethes’s flesh and therefore recreate their sexual affair. Furthermore, the alignment of Tymethes with the deer may serve to highlight class difference rather than gender difference. In the play, “Both genders are edible; they are simply different dishes. She is a refined super-civilized desert, her lover a ‘course’ animal – thus reversing the usual opposition between female nature and male culture” (Taylor 18). There is, of course, a gender binary in this reading, but I would emphasise here the juxtaposition between the “refined” woman and the “course” man. There is an evident social hierarchy here in which the Queen is set against the lower-class Tymethes. Thus, when the Queen embarks on her affair with Tymethes, and when she later chooses to consume his body, she does not just transcend the boundaries of sexual conduct, but of class too, making her actions all the more transgressive.



Cannibalism in early modern drama serves many functions. It is a sensationalist act that demands the audience’s attention and forces them to remember the drama. It is used to excite and disgust – to provoke a reaction that will ultimately result in a good run for the theatre. However, as this essay has shown, cannibalism goes beyond the seemingly senseless violence and highlights the sexual politics of the play. Rather disturbingly, cannibalism in early modern drama turns the human body from a commodity of sexual consumption to a product of literal consumption.

In The Duchess of Malfi, the least explicitly cannibalistic of the plays I have chosen to discuss here, the Duchess’s secret marriage to Antonio and their forbidden sexual relationship cause the brothers to depict her body as a consumable meat product. The monstrosity of their acts as they torture and murder the Duchess is highlighted by Webster’s use of cannibalistic references. The Duchess becomes the victim of their unnatural hunger – the pheasant on which they will feed. When Ferdinand repents the murder, he develops a madness in which he believes himself to be the flesh-eating wolf; he becomes the cannibalistic animal that the Duchess describes throughout the play.

Titus Andronicus is perhaps the best-known of these cannibalism plays. The rape and mutilation of Lavinia becomes a direct spur for Titus’s revenge. Despite the numerous hardships and injustices faced by Titus and his family, he specifically names the rape of his daughter as the reason for his revenge. After Chiron and Demetrius depict Lavinia as the doe that is to be hunted in the woods, Titus ensures that it is they who become the meat. The excessive violence throughout the play and the constant presence of Lavinia who reminds the audience of her violation mean that, however gruesome the final banquet might be, the audience does not necessarily condemn Titus for his actions.

The cannibalism of The Bloody Banquet, on the other hand, is gruesome and unnecessarily cruel. The space of the indoor playhouse works to create a visual and olfactory effect that is disgusting to the audience, thereby highlighting the torment of the Young Queen. However, the Queen, who is so willing to die, chooses to eat her lover’s flesh instead of starving to death. In the final scene, she decides to consume Tymethes, taking his body into her own in a way that mirrors their affair. Even when she seems to be at her most powerless, she in fact asserts an autonomy that allows her to symbolically continue this physical relationship.

Cannibalism is viewed as barbaric, savage, and beyond the bounds of civilised behaviour. It symbolises monstrosity, witchcraft, and blasphemy, and those who partake in the act are seen as the Other. Yet, cannibalistic references and acts of cannibalism abound in early modern drama. There is a fascination in theatrical culture with the idea of one human being consuming another. I have drawn here on only a few examples of plays containing cannibalistic references, but I believe they illuminate the relationship between illicit sex/rape and cannibalism. Even when one looks outside of these texts, to plays such as The Tempest or ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, one sees cannibalism aligned with sex/rape. [iv] Playwrights take the destructive nature of illicit sex (which destroys social, familial, and romantic relationships) and the violence of rape, and connect these to the act of cannibalism. It seems then, that the body of early modern drama is at once a commodity for sexual consumption, and a product for ingestion.

BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE: Christina Boyle is an Instruction/Reference Librarian and Assistant Professor at CUNY - College of Staten Island, where she teaches freshman composition and information literacy courses. She holds an MA in English and an MLIS, both from St. John's University. Christina is interested in researching within the fields of library and information science as well as English literature. Her main research interests include: popular culture as outreach tools and curriculum support in academic libraries, emerging technologies in libraries, and British literature of the medieval period and the 18th century. She is particularly intrigued by the portrayal of marriage within these eras. As an academic librarian, Christina emphasizes the importance of information literacy and digital literacy within the current information age. In her spare time, Christina enjoys reading fantasy novels, including George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series and Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series.



Works Cited

Aebischer, Pascale. Screening Early Modern Drama: Beyond Shakespeare. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2013. Cambridge Books Online. Web. 1 Nov. 2015.

Brown, Jennifer. Cannibalism in Literature and Film. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. Palgrave Connect. Web. 1 Nov. 2015.

Crangle, Jenny. A Study of Post-Depositional Funerary Practices in Medieval England. White Rose: eTheses Online. 2016. Web. 10 Feb. 2017.

Karim-Cooper, Farah and Ryan Nelson, ed. “Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre History Seminar: Stage Blood: A Roundtable. 13 July 2006. Proceedings and Conclusions.” Shakespeare’s Globe. 2006. Web. 13 Mar. 2015.

Middleton, Thomas and Thomas Dekker. “The Bloody Banquet: A Tragedy.” Thomas Middleton: The Collected Works. Ed. Gary Taylor and John Lavagnino. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007. 637-669. Print.

Montaigne, Michael de. The Essayes or, Moral Politike and Mikitarie Discovrses of Lord Michael de Montaigne, Knight. London: printed by M. Flesher, 1632. EEBO. Web. 7 Feb. 2017.

Munro, Lucy. “‘They eat each other’s arms’: Stage Blood and Body Parts.” Shakespeare’s Theatres and the Effects of Performance. Ed. Farah Karim-Cooper and Tiffany Stern. London: Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare, 2014. 73-93. Print.

Noble, Louise. Medicinal Cannibalism in Early Modern English Literature and Culture. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. Palgrave Connect. Web. 21 Oct. 2015.

Ovid. “Book VI, Fable V.” The Metamorphoses. Trans. Henry T. Riley. Digireads, 2004. 122-125. Kindle AZW File.

Owens, Margaret E. Stages of Dismemberment: The Fragmented Body in Late Medieval and Early Modern Drama. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2005. Print.

Shakespeare, William. “The Lamentable Tragedy of Titus Andronicus.” William Shakespeare: Complete Works. Ed. Johnathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen. London: Macmillan, 2007. 1616-1674. Print.

-- “The Tragedy of Macbeth.” William Shakespeare: Complete Works. Ed. Johnathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen. London: Macmillan, 2007. 1859-1917. Print.

Shapiro, James. The Mysterious Mr Webster: BBC Arts at the Globe. Box of Broadcasts. 25 May. 2014. Web. 7 Dec. 2014.

Sugg, Richard. Murder after Death: Literature and Anatomy in Early Modern England. New York: Cornell UP, 2007. Print.

Taylor, Gary. “Gender, Hunger, Horror: The History and Significance of The Bloody Banquet.” Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies 1.1 (2001): 1-45. MUSE. Web. 1 Nov. 2015.

Templeman, Sally. “‘What’s this? Mutton?’: Food, Bodies, and Inn-Yard Performance Spaces in Early Shakespearean Drama.” Shakespeare Bulletin 31.1 (2013): 79-94. MUSE. Web. 5 Jan. 2016.

‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore. By John Ford. Dir. Michael Longhurst. Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London. 29 Nov. 2014. Performance.

Webster, John. “The Duchess of Malfi.” English Renaissance Drama: A Norton Anthology. Ed. Bevington, et al. New York: Norton, 2002. 1755-1830. Print.


[i] According to Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen’s notes on the text, “maw” and “gulf” both refer to the stomach and throat.

[ii] I discuss this in relation to bones elsewhere in ‘“That skull had a tongue in it”: Skulls, the Flesh, and the Individual in Early Modern Drama.’ Durham University Postgraduate English Journal. No. 33 (2016): Autumn. See also: Jenny Crangle, A Study of Post-Depositional Funerary Practices In Medieval England.

[iii] I here use “madness” to refer to Ferdinand’s condition to reflect the approaches within the text. The generalised and sensationalist approach to the scene means that Webster does not present a known mental illness as we would know it today, but a general “madness” that may be seen in other drama such as Hamlet and, as I shall discuss, Titus Andronicus. However, when approaching early modern conceptions of “madness”, it is worth considering the differences between definitive mental illness and dramatic “madness”.

[iv] Consider Caliban’s relationship with the cannibalistic “native” and his attempted rape on Miranda, or Giovanni’s desire to consume his sister and lover, Annabella.