Meads, Chris. Banquets Set Forth: Banqueting in English Renaissance Drama. The Revels Plays Companion Library. Manchester:  Manchester UP, 2001. x+258 pp.. ISBN 0 7190 5567 9.

Hillary Nunn
University of Akron

Nunn, Hillary. "Review of Chris Meads, Banquets Set Forth: Banqueting in English Renaissance Drama". Early Modern Literary Studies 10.1 (May, 2004) 12.1-5 <URL:>.

  1. Chris Meads's tantalizing book offers a vivid account of the early modern stage’s fondness for banquet scenes, exploring an amazing number of dramatic incidents that unfold in the presence of these food-laden tables. Meads lists an astounding ninety-nine plays staged between 1585 and 1642 that contain banquet scenes, pointing out that at least fifteen dramas feature more than one banquet in the course of their action. According to Meads, the rituals of the banquet offered playwrights an efficient method for foregrounding questions of social order, particularly in revenge tragedies, while at other times the decadent, tempting nature of the food itself served as an evocative backdrop for seduction scenes. The versatility of the banquet setting, Mead argues, explains its enduring popularity on the early modern stage because the food, not to mention the rituals of eating and hospitality, added layers of meaning to the drama, establishing a visual shorthand for communicating with the playhouse audience.

  2. The book's first four chapters offer intriguing discussions of the role that banqueting played in early modern society. Meads defines the term banquet precisely, pointing out that a banquet served as a light repast or perhaps the final course of a feast rather than a feast in itself. Meads' survey of cookery books shows that banquets often featured highly spiced and intensely sweet foods, and he makes clear that authors ranging from Plato and Seneca to Ovid and Spenser called upon banquet scenes to illustrate themes of hospitality, sensuality, and revenge. In these works, as well as in staged dramas, the banquet's selection of foods provided clues as to the host's disposition and social status.  As the book's examination of stage directions associated with banquet scenes make clear, however, the plays' texts often fail to specify which foods should be presented. Early modern recountings of the furnishings at court banquets, along with notations from playhouse records, show that properties ranging from wood to paper might have stood in place of food – which, Meads points out, rarely needs to be ingested in the course of the action. Historical sources provide Meads with the ingredients for concocting one particularly intriguing solution to the problem of furnishing rare and expensive fruits like the grapes in Doctor Faustus and The Duchess of Malfi's infamous apricots. Marchpane – that amazingly moldable, edible, and even durable concoction of sugar and ground almonds – could have stood in for these and other foods, and the Court of Revels accounts for 1573-74 suggest that grocers in fact furnished significant quantities of the necessary ingredients for dramatic productions.

  3. In the remaining five chapters, Meads offers an impressive number of readings of individual banquet scenes, addressing the plays in chronological groupings. This approach proves effective for the earliest plays under discussion; it underscores the structural significance of The Spanish Tragedy's early banquet, which establishes an atmosphere of ordered, stately celebration that the remainder of the play systematically destroys, and it makes clear the banquet's increasing association with matters of politics and revenge with its subsequent readings of Alphonsus, Emperor of Germany and Titus Andronicus. Linking the plays' banquets to early modern discussions of gluttony, these readings of tragedies soon give way to treatments of Elizabethan comedies, where banquets highlight themes of rejuvenation and reconciliation, as in As You Like It, and disguise and chaos, as in The Wisdom of Doctor Dodypoll. The sheer number of Heywood plays with banquet scenes lends unity to the book's second chronological grouping, underscoring the immense flexibility and apparent popularity of the banquet set piece in both comic and tragic drama.

  4. The chronological organization proves less useful later in the book, however, where chapter titles like "Mainly Middleton" and "Fletcher and Company" effectively prevent any sustained examination of the variations displayed in the era's banquet scenes. The final chapter, for example, examines what Meads calls a "revival" of supernatural banquets in the Caroline era, but makes no mention of how these later scenes might have called upon earlier haunted banquets in Macbeth or even The Spanish Tragedy. The book's organization also forces Meads to bring up – and quickly drop – the complicated questions of dating, authorship, and collaboration that his approach invokes. Thematic groupings of plays that would foster extended study of, say, banquets of seduction or scenes of cannibalism may well have proven more productive. In addition, the book lacks a concluding chapter and offers no larger evaluation of the impact of banquet scenes in the early modern period, nor does it offer any information regarding the device's fate in the Restoration.

  5. Even with these reservations, Meads has provided a valuable book for those interested in the role of banquets and other set pieces onstage. His appendix of plays that include banquet scenes will prove an extremely helpful resource to all those interested in his subject, and the huge amount of research presented, as well as the brief but cogent readings of often-overlooked plays, makes Banquets Set Forth a useful contribution to the study of dramatic set pieces in the early modern era. Opting for coverage over depth, the book provides a valuable starting point for future explorations of the banquet's continually shifting capacity to epitomize social structures, and to reflect individual motivations, on the early modern stage.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at

© 2004-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).