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Welcome to Episode #93 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.

For many of the performances we know Shakespeare performed at Whitehall Palace, including staging “Twelfth Night” in 1602, he would have performed at Banqueting House. Unfortunately, the original Banqueting House burned down after Shakespeare died, and while rebuilt in 1622 by the famous Inigo Jones for James I , the structure there today is not the original site where Shakespeare’s company would have performed. Nevertheless, the name Banqueting House reminds us that for Queen Elizabeth the banquet was a large affair, full of all the pomp and circumstance you might expect from the Queen of England. After all, these state occasions were often used to welcome and entertain visiting dignitaries as well as to mark special occasions, such as royal birthdays or the Christmas season. But what was Shakespeare’s role at these banquets? We know he was there, but was he just a performer, there to put on a play, or was he allowed to be a guest at the lavish dinners as well? And what were the standard aspects of a royal banquet in the 16th century that would have been seen and heard in the Palace of  Whitehall or Hampton Court Palace those years that Shakespeare was performing there?

Here to take us back to Shakespeare’s lifetime and help us experience the formal banquet through the eyes of Shakespeare is our guest, Julia Lupton.

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Julia Reinhard Lupton is professor of English at the University of California, Irvine, where she co-directs the New Swan Shakespeare Center. She is the author or co-author of five books on Shakespeare, including Shakespeare Dwelling: Designs for the Theater of Life (Chicago, 2018). She has also written two books about design with her twin sister Ellen Lupton, DIY Kids and Design Your Life. She is a former Guggenheim Fellow and an award-winning teacher.

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In this episode, I’ll be asking Julia Lupton about :

  • During a formal court banquet, which came first, the meal or entertainment?
  • The space where the banquets were held is very open, and does not contain a raised platform for a defined stage area. Julia, how was the Great Hall set up for feasting and for entertainment?
  • Julia’s book calls attention specifically to marzipan as being a food designated for banquets, which Shakespeare seems to have known about since it is the food served at the Capulet’s banquet in Romeo and Juliet, and which was also called Marchpane in that play. Julia, what other foods were considered specifically “banqueting stuffe?”
  • … and more!
And I'll go seek the Duke; his banquet is prepar'd.

As You Like It (II.1)

Image depicting the Nurembourg peace banquet held in 1649 to mark the end of the Thirty Years War. Gives a good idea of what an elaborate banqueting meal setup would look like, even though this event occurred well after Shakespeare's death.
By Wolfgang Kilian(1581-1663)“Das Friedensmahl des Kurfürsten Karl Gustav von der Pfalz im Nürnberger Rathaus”, 25 September 1649. Source

Food was a centerpiece attraction

Roasted meats and pies were enormous in size, often cook with whole animals inside of them. Often live animals inside them frogs or birds that would hop out when the pie was opened. After meat courses, you’d have a series of lighter courses featuring foods that were symbolic, heraldric shapes, jellies, etc that would have a meaning in particular. Taste was not the emphasis of the chef. It was communicating the royal family, the guests, the theme of the event. 

An Elizabethan feast would usually have consisted of at least five courses. The first courses would have featured meats and pies. The pies could be huge affairs, holding whole cooked animals, their elaborate crusts decorated with silver and gold, and groups of pies stacked together to form a crown. Other courses would have been lighter, but also would also have featured foods shaped to communicate ideas through color and shape, such as jellies in red and white, or wafers with insignia. Pastries might be shaped like swans. Sugar works refers to a whole art form of sculpting in sugar. Plates were also made of sugar and painted with emblems and insignia, sometimes with poesies and games to encourage conversation among guests. Meaning and marvel was more important than taste.


An example of Tudor Banquet Fair

From my friend, Brigitte Webster, Tudor food historian and owner of Tudor & 17th Century Experience. She recently attended an exclusive event at the Fitz Museum in the UK, where food historian Ivan Day recreated a Baroque feasting table circa 1650. These elaborate large animal dishes would have appeared at banquets Shakespeare attended. See Brigitte's full story here.

Away with the joint-stools, remove the court-cupboard, look to the plate.
First Servant

Romeo and Juliet (I.5)

This is a picture of the round tables and outdoor setting of the Banqueting Turrets at Longleat House. These images are inside Anne Wilson's book “Banqueting Stuffe”. This photograph was taken by me, Cassidy Cash, during the interview with Julia Lupton in 2019.

Banqueting Turrets

Not all banquets were held in elaborate halls. Often, private individuals of the aristocracy held banquets in their stately homes, during which this banqueting or dessert course was held in a much more intimate venue. 

An example of the comparison is the banqueting turret, shown in these images from a book called Banqueting Stuffe by Anne Wilson. Julia shares these images as part of her interview, and they are included here for you to see. I have linked to Anne Wilson's book here and in the recommended resources below.

On a private estate, during the hosting of a banquet affair, all of the guests would be seated together for the main meal, but the banqueting turret was for just 6 people, where there would be held a dessert course and that environment was a very close knit, intimate setting. As you can see in the image, the table was round, allowing people to converse and be more open with one another in a way that's strongly opposed to the long tables of the main feast, where guests could not communicate at all with people on opposite ends of the table from themselves. 

The feast proper would be in the Great Hall, which was closer to the kitchen and required a lot more service. Dessert banquets were cold foods, more self-serve where you could just pick it up from a sideboards or “court cupboards” (Romeo and Juliet) outfitted with cordials, cookies, and fruit. Many of the still life paintings we have from this period reflects these gorgeous arrangements of liquids and sugared and fruited laid out on a table for the taking.

Aristocracy would have this, but not lower classes. The turrets showed off the estate and the beauty of the stars,  as part of a very private, separate life. 

The Audio Shakespeare Pronunciation App

Audio Shakespeare Pronunciation App gives you the correct pronunciation of words found in the text of Shakespeare's plays, with audio accesibility at the click of a button. This app lets you keep a professional voice coach right in your back pocket. 
 Download the app here.

This app is an official sponsor of That Shakespeare Life.


Come in, and let us banquet royally, After this golden day of victory.
Charles, King of France

Henry VI Part I (I.6)

Interior of Banqueting House, London, Whitehall Palace, 2017. Image by Grahampurse. This building is not what Shakespeare would have seen, as the one Shakespeare visited burned down in the 17th century. However, it gives a good visual for the kind of open performance space Shakespeare would have had available. Source

Banqueting House vs Great Hall

Banqueting House is detached from main palace, requires a short walk, set apart, and is generally temporary. The Elizabethan temporary strutures made of timber covered in canvas, and canvas was painted. The interior was painted with pastoral scenes and teh ceiling painted with sky. So it was protected fromthe elements, but it was meant to have an outdoor feel. 

Great House aristocratic estate existed as well, not just Elizabeth. Largest could seat as many as 1000 guests for a performance of a play or masque.

The word “banquet” can refer to the feast as a whole, but more often to a particular course: what we would consider the dessert course, though that word did not become common in English until the late seventeenth century. The “banquet” was often taken in a separate space, “a banqueting house” or garden pavilion. Banqueting houses were built out of timber and covered with canvas that was painted with pastoral scenes on the walls and a sky on the ceiling. They were semi-temporary structures (though they might last for years). Some were large enough to house as many as 1000 spectators for a play or for dancing as well as for light dining on sweet meats and cordials. 

“The 14th century great hall at Penshurst Place showing the screens passage, from Ancestral Homes of Noted Americans by Anne Hollingsworth Wharton (1915). It remains in the same state today. Many great halls have been lost and many have been modernised. Very few from before 1500 have survived into modern times with so few alterations.” Source

The idea that you move from a formal indoor space for the feast to a more informal indoor/outdoor space for the “bankett” or “banquet” (we would call it dessert) can be seen at the end  of “The Taming of the Shrew.” The wedding party has eaten a meal at the house of the bride, but now moves the groom’s lodging for “a banquet” (the word appears in the stage directions) designed to “close our stomachs up / After our great good cheer.” That might be fruit, nuts, cordials, and other lighter foods. They were thought to be “digestives,” to “close up the stomach,” as Lucentio puts it. The pastoral setting of The Winter’s Tale with its dairy delights also reflects the pastoral feeling of the banqueting course and the garden-like banqueting houses where plays were sometimes performed.

Banqueting houses could be set up as theaters, but plays were also performed in great halls and in great chambers (the large lobby at the start of the monarch’s series of chambers).

The banqueting house rebuilt by Inigo Jones under James I was a very different affair, built for the ages with ceilings painted by Ruebens. It was built to be permanent structure, distinctly different from Elizabethan ones which were not permanent.  Plays couldn’t be performed there because the candles would have ruined the ceilings, so other structures, small permanent theaters entered into use in the next decades of the seventeenth century, before the Civil War.  

You couldn’t have plays in this later place, because the candles would have ruined the paintings.

Great Hall and Great Chamber existed at palaces and artistocratic houses, not just the monarchy. 

Use our collection of activity kits to can cook, play, and create your way through the life of William Shakespeare with recipes, games, and crafts straight from Shakespeare's lifetime (and mentioned in his plays!) It's the most fun way to explore history.

…my love is as fair As any mother's child, though not so bright As those gold candles fix'd in heaven's air…

Sonnet 21

Henry VIII's Great Watching Chamber. Taken on September 15, 2013 by Andrew Thompson. This image shows both how candles can be positioned on candelabras (the word “chandelier” not entering the English language until the mid 18th century, was not a word Shakespeare used. However, this image also shows how the tapestries could be draped upon the walls of a Great Hall.Image used under Creative Commons License BY-NC-ND 2.0 Source

Nighttime affairs, lit by Chandelier

We know that one of the main tasks of the Office of the Revels, a court department, was providing lighting for performances, which involved hanging chandeliers, quite a complex process. This process of setting up for the performance, or getting the rooms ready for the event was called “making ready” as well as “appareling” and the main aspect was establishing the seating. As you have seen in these pictures of the spaces themselves, it was largely an open room. Whether it was to consume a meal, or to view a 2-hour performance, guests had to be provided a place to sit.

Built of timber, assembled, and sturdy these bleacher like seats were crafted to hold a lot of weight, including women wearing heavy gowns, jewels, and accouterments. The seats were raised up at an angle, both so that all the guests were able to view the spectacle at hand, regardless of their seat, as well as to maintain organization according to social order.

The word “appareling” was used specifically to describe the act of getting ready for a banquet because tapestries had to be hung. These tapestries were kept in storage other times of the year, as part of the Office of the Wardrobe, but they were brought out and hung up for special occasions. Heavy, elaborate, pieces of woven cloth, these tapestries not only provided warmth to the room but they acted as accents to the room or even props to assist a performance as many of them featured scenes on them similar to paintings or set decorations. Additionally, these tapestries were woven with gold and silver threads, which means they reflected the room's candlelight, which amplified the ambiance of the room.

In order for the lighting in the rooms to be effective, the chandeliers had to be setup. The Master of the Revels kept records of the equipment, tallow, etc, where chandeliers (the person, not the apparatus) had to operate the candles for the lighting of events. Chandeliers usually operated after the meal, but that doesn’t mean that food was not served after a play. Usually a dessert style course would be served after the night's main entertainment, except remember that that “dessert” was not in the English lexicon at this time. Instead, they called it a “bankett” or “banquet.”

Related Episode You Might Enjoy:

Books & Resources Julia Lupton recommends:

If you enjoy this topic, and want to explore further, Julia has provided her short list of excellent resources you can use to learn more. Here are a few of her recommendations, along with links to Julia's work and resources as well.


Nice link about Renaissance music,
including dance music for court:

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