At an Early Modern Banquet: Marchpane in Romeo and Juliet (c. 1595)

By Gašper Jakovac

Early Modern marchpane
Early Modern marchpane

Both Petrarch and Romeo enter the labyrinth of love fiercely, suddenly, and in a very particular place and point in time. The juxtaposition of their encounters is, however, characterized by stark discrepancies. Whereas the former meets his beloved for the first time in the Church of St. Claire in Avignon, on ‘the day the sun’s ray had turned pale / with pity for the suffering of his Maker’ (The Canzoniere, 3.1–2), the later beholds his object of affection in a rather more secular, worldly milieu, during a masked ball in the Capulet household. Place and time, or rather distinct spaces and social occasions, shape the expectations of our lovers. Petrarch is tricked: he is visiting a church on Good Friday, a period of solemnity and mourning, when one does not anticipate the need for keeping ‘guard against / Love’s blows’ (3.5–6). On the other hand, the feast at the Capulets is designed precisely to encourage sociability and courtship. It is a chance for ‘lusty young men’ (1.2.27) to delight in company of ‘fresh female buds’ (1.2.30), an opportunity for Paris to woo Juliet, and for Romeo to either get a glimpse of Rosalind or distract himself by other beauties of Verona.

There is something distinctly Dionysian about the ball and, when reading Lord Capulet’s warm-hearted welcomes and his brief exchange with his older cousin about their long-gone dancing days, I am always reminded of the grey-headed Cadmus and Tiresias, dancing, fawn-skinned, in Euripides’ The Bacchae. However, the unforeseen and unexpected workings of love are common to both scenarios. If Petrarch’s mind is bent on the suffering of our Lord, and thus seemingly indisposed for love, Romeo considers himself already pricked by Amor’s arrow and is therefore equally baffled by what he is experiencing when meeting Juliet: ‘Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight! / For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night’ (1.5.50–1).

Shakespeare, however, continues in Petrarchan mode, or, at least, the language he uses immediately evokes unmistakably Petrarchan idealisation and sanctification of the beloved. But although Juliet imagines herself to be a stone image of a saint that does not move and should, therefore, remain physically unresponsive to Romeo-pilgrim’s pursuits and, as Laura, unattainable and distant from her lover, she does not participate in the game of wooing only ‘literally’, by ‘co-writing’ with Romeo the sonnet on pilgrims and saints, but also physically, by offering him a kiss. Shakespeare thus employs Petrarchan discourse only to subvert it – Romeo is not a poet sanctifying his unattainable lady, but rather a real-life suitor at a party devised to facilitate romantic relationships amongst the youths of Verona. Shakespeare positions the elevated encounter between Romeo and Juliet into a realistic, although skilfully ironized, representation of early modern household sociability.

Capulet’s ‘old accustomed feast’ (1.2.20) is not just a gathering of friends, but has a noticeable tinge of that traditional all-inclusive hospitality, which Shakespeare would have experienced when entertaining the court or touring provincial England with his company and performing at noble households. All, even those not invited, are welcome to enjoy Capulet’s generosity. The Montagues’ intrusion is therefore not really an intrusion, but rather a permissible transgression – commonly recognized strifes and social distinctions are during Capulet’s ball temporarily suspended. It is therefore not surprising that the master of the house should reproach Tybalt when he seeks quarrel with Romeo and firmly reiterates the rules of hospitality: ‘I would not for the wealth of all the town / Here in my house do him [Romeo] disparagement’ (1.5.67–8). However, effects of Capulet’s generosity in relation to individuals occupying different positions within the social hierarchy are rather less discernible. The actions of the social elite are penetrated from below only at the very beginning of the scene, in a short exchange between servants where the only item of food eaten during supper is mentioned: marchpane. ‘Away with the joint-stools, remove the / court-cupboard, look to the plate,’ orders the first servant to his sluggish underlings, and then, ‘Good thou, save / me a piece of marchpane’ (1.5.4–6), he adds, being afraid that all banquet leftovers will disappear too quickly.

An almond pastry called marchpane, which is not unlike marzipan and practically identical to pasticcini di mandorle native to Sicily, was a paramount Elizabethan banquet sweet of the well-off. Recently I have come across a list of expenses for Elizabeth Neville and Roger Rockley’s wedding banquet in 1536, where guests were entertained with a play and a masque, followed by a feast of 110 meat dishes. After a long list of various fish, fowl, and venison, a tart, gingerbread, marchpane, and another rather elaborate dessert of apples and cheese strewed with sugar and sage are mentioned. Household handbooks from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries routinely provide recipes for marchpane paste and how to cut and mould it into various animal shapes to impress ones guests at the dinner table. One such manual, Delightes for Ladies (1602) by Sir Hugh Plat, begins with a prefatory poem, which parodies classical epic by singing of sweets and preserved food instead of arms and man. In any case, a good number of verses are dedicated to marchpane, which clearly indicate its importance:

I teach […]
To make both marchpaine paste, and sugred plate,
And cast the same in forms of sweetest grace.
Each bird and foule so moulded from the life,
And after cast in sweet compounds of arte,
As if the flesh and forme which nature gaue,
Did still remaine in euerie lim and part.

If Capulet’s hospitality enables Romeo to meet Juliet, it also permits his servants to enjoy the culinary delights of their master’s table. Furthermore, first servant’s order to let ‘the porter let in Susan Grindstone and Nell’ (1.5.7) may even suggest that servants have their own party planned and that uninvited Montagues are hardly an exception. It seems that the brightly coloured and perfectly formed marchpane ending up in the unwashed hands of the pantry servants hovers emblematically above the scene. It is a premonition of a much more fatal trespass, a kiss that sealed a ‘death-mark’d love’ (Prologue, 9).

Nico's marchpane
Nico’s marchpane

Marchpane (makes about a dozen)

Ingredients :
125gr ground almonds (or whole almonds, to grind)
125gr granulated sugar
4 tbsp rosewater
A few sliced almonds

1. Grind the almonds with a pestle and mortar, or a blender,  unless already ground.
2. Mix the almonds with the sugar.
3. Add the tablespoons of rose water, gradually, and stir with a wooden spoon until the whole mixture becomes of a darker tinge.
4. Shape the dough in little round balls with a sliced almond on top of each, and place on a baking tray, previously lined with baking parchment.
5. Bake in the oven at 180° for 10 to 15 minutes.  They are ready when they are a bit golden on the surface and they have hardened a little!
6. Our Renaissance marchpane was baked, probably to make it easier for banquet guests to pick it up with their hands and eat it, as that would make it firmer. Baking it would also make it last longer. If you want to make marchpane from the Southern Italian tradition instead, you can stop at step 3 and then put the marchpane to rest in the fridge.  You can then use it to cover sweets and cakes, or just eat it as it is!

Petrarca, Francesco, Selections From the Canzoniere and Other Works, ed. by Mark Musa (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).
Plat, Hugh, Delightes for ladies to adorne their persons, tables, closets, and distilatories with beauties, banquets, perfumes and waters (London, 1602).
Shakespeare, William, The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet (London, 1623).


2 thoughts on “At an Early Modern Banquet: Marchpane in Romeo and Juliet (c. 1595)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s