“Funeral Baked Meats”: Cannibalism and Corpse Medicine in “Hamlet”

HORATIO:   My lord, I came to see your father’s funeral.

HAMLET:   I prithee do not mock me, fellow-student;

     I think it was to see my mother’s wedding.

HORATIO:   Indeed, my lord, it followed hard upon.

HAMLET:   Thrift, thrift, Horatio. The funeral baked meats

     Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables.    (Hamlet, 1.2.175-80) [1] [2]

As the prince’s bitter jest implies, concepts of life, death and consumption are closely related in Shakespeare’s Hamlet (c.1600), a play in which a son yearns to “drink hot blood” (3.2.360), a wife enjoys her husband “as if increase of appetite had grown / By what it fed on” (1.2.144-5), and where kings and beggars are but “two dishes … to one table” (4.3.24). Something is indeed “rotten in the state of Denmark” (1.4.67), and the smell appears to be coming from the kitchen. While no character literally eats anyone else in the play, the reasons for and the effects of the undercurrent of cannibalism which runs throughout Hamlet have been the subject of a good deal of critical discussion in recent years. The cannibal is, to put it mildly, a complex and loaded symbol. To an early modern audience, allusions to anthropophagy (that is, man-eating) would have conjured up all kinds of ideas and associations ranging from vengeance and classical mythology, to transubstantiation and the Eucharist, to colonial discourse and the new world savages.

Today, however, I suggest that the cannibalistic connotations in Hamlet may be interpreted in the context of specific cultural anxieties relating to the popular and problematic use of corpse medicine, or mumia. I’ll divide my argument into two parts.

Firstly, I’ll demonstrate how Shakespeare represents corpses throughout Hamlet in ways which reference food and culinary practices. In doing so, Shakespeare not only emphasises the tragic objectification of the dead, but also links life and death inextricably to figurative and literal consumption. In the second half of this paper I will explore how the cannibalistic allusions in Hamlet may be considered through the lens of contemporary medical consumption of corpse medicine. While the use of corpse medicine was semantically distinguished from anthropophagy in early modern society, I argue that Shakespeare’s depiction of man-eating in Hamlet forces his audience to confront their own unsavoury distinctions between “acceptable” and “unacceptable” forms of cannibalism.


Modern audiences appreciate Hamlet’s joke in the passage above: food prepared for his father’s funeral has been served up for his mother’s marriage in what Stephen Greenblatt calls a “confounding of categories that has stained both social rituals in the service of thrift”. [3] The joke functions both as a swipe at bourgeois values – what Greenblatt terms “an economy of calculation and equivalence” – and as an angry comment on the speed with which Hamlet’s mother remarried. [4] As Robert Appelbaum writes, “only by marrying within a few days of the funeral would it have been possible to serve pies originally intended for the funeral”. [5]

There is, however, a more subversive current of meaning at work in Hamlet’s joke than may be initially apparent. Linking “wedding”, “funeral”, “coldly”, and “baked meats”, Hamlet brings into uncomfortably close proximity contrasting ideas of hot and cold, life and death. His juxtaposition of corpse and cuisine places Hamlet’s dilemma firmly in the realms of cannibalistic discourse, and in this context his chosen culinary example – baked meat – takes on a grisly significance.

A “baked meat” in early modern London was similar to a pasty or meat pie, although the construction of these gastronomic treats was often a more complex process than one might imagine, as demonstrated in this recipe from London cookbook, The Good Huswifes Jewell (1596):

Take a leg of Lamb, and cut out all the flesh, and save the skin whole, then mince it fine … then put in grated bread, and some egg white and all, and some Dates and Currants, then season … temper it all together, then put it into the leg of lamb again, and let it bake a little before you put it into your pie. [6]

Example of a traditional “baked meat” – the contents of this are rabbit.

However, while this recipe may seem innocent – and delicious! – enough to modern eyes, there are elements to the dish which may well have been construed by a Shakespearean theatregoer as having darker significance. Firstly, the pastry shell in which the meat is cooked was commonly known as a coffin – the same kind of “coffin” that Hamlet’s spiritual predecessor Titus forges with relish from the blood and bones of his enemies, Chiron and Demetrius:

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 in that paste let their vile heads be baked.
                                                                                   (Titus Andronicus, 5.2.185-199)

Anthony Hopkins as Titus in Julie Taymor’s 1999 “Titus”. Note the jaunty angle of the chef’s hat.

Like Titus (albeit with a soupçon more subtlety), Hamlet’s reference to “funeral baked meats” plays with the idea that a “coffin” can be either both the focal point of a funeral or something containing food. Compounding the macabre efficacy of Hamlet’s imagery is the manner in which these dishes were traditionally served. As demonstrated in both Thomas Dawson’s and Titus’ recipes, the meat of the meal, while reconstituted, is cooked as an entire joint that, as Appelbaum notes, would not have lent itself well to being portioned equally in slices like a pie. Instead, the pastry coffin “had to be opened up … while the main ingredient was brought forward for display and then carved and parceled out”. [7]

Thus, a transgressive and ritualistic impression of embalmment, interment, and disinterment underlays the consumption of Hamlet’s baked meat. This anticipates the deaths of several characters over the course of the play. The unfortunate Polonius, for example, becomes meat from the moment of his death: Hamlet refers to his still-warm body as merely “the guts” (3.4.186). His corpse is then hidden away and left to be revealed “At supper”, as Hamlet puts it, “Not where he eats, but where he is eaten” by “politic worms” (4.3.18; 20). Ophelia suffers a similarly unwholesome posthumous return during her funeral in 5.1. as the fate of her corpse mimics to some extent the culinary steps of a baked meat. In death, her body is physically altered through drowning (and “water is a sore / decayer of your whoreson dead body,” the gravedigger reminds us [5.1.158-9]), and then buried. No sooner is she placed in her “coffin,” however, than she is disinterred by her grief-struck brother. Once she is placed on display, Hamlet and Laertes fight for their portion of the “funeral baked meat” that is Ophelia’s body. [8]

Shakespeare capitalises on the semantic associations of “baked meats” most explicitly, though, in his description of Old Hamlet’s death, in which death is tied most vividly to ideas of consumption. One of the distinguishing features of our recipe for baked lamb involves a complete reconstitution of flesh cooked inside the pastry. Deboned, minced, mixed with spices and restored into the skin, the animal transformed into something else in what Appelbaum terms a “re-presentation of the dead”. [9] Let us consider the transformed leg of lamb in relation to Old Hamlet’s description of his death by poison:

… with a sudden vigour it doth posset
And curd, like eager droppings into milk,
The thin and wholesome blood. So did it mine;
And a most instant tetter barked about,
Most lazar-like, with vile and loathsome crust,
All my smooth body.  (1.5.66-73)

Old Hamlet’s death takes the form of a physical transformation very similar to that found in the baked meats to which he is compared three scenes earlier. Effects of the poison are described in unequivocally culinary terms. Like the reconstituted leg of lamb in Dawson’s cookbook, Old Hamlet’s body is gruesomely transformed from the inside out: his blood curdles like a posset and his skin develops pastry-like crust. As Appelbaum argues, Old Hamlet’s living flesh becomes, in essence, decaying food, akin to a mouldy cheese or a corrupt pie. In this context, Marcellus’ remark that “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” (1.4.67) picks up extra unsavoury significance, becoming a joke on “carnality and decay”. [10]


Shakespeare’s depiction of bodily transformation presents more than simply a dark reflection of common cooking practices, though, and his language in the above passage brings us to the second half of my argument. After all, as Peggy Reeves Sanday observes, “Cannibalism is  never just about eating but is primarily a medium for nongustatory messages”. [11] In the case of Hamlet’s anthropophagic allusions, I argue, these messages relate to the deeply problematic objectification and consumption of human flesh in contemporary medicine.  

Corpse medicine, generally referred to during the period as mumia, was medicine produced from human corpses and sold in the form of ointments, scrapings or powder to be applied topically or sprinkled into food. The consumption of this cannibalistic open secret in early modern Europe has been well documented. Officially-speaking, as William Arens has demonstrated, the idea of cannibalism itself appalled civilised Christian nations (who often cited evidence of savage man-eating to justify their violent colonisation and civilisation of the New World), and in English literature from the period anthropophagy was commonly associated with distinctly un-Christian practices such as revenge or, even worse, the heretical Catholic belief in consumption of the real presence of Christ’s flesh and blood in the transubstantiated Eucharist. [12]

Despite such misgivings, however, there prevailed a commonly-held and officially-sanctioned belief in the curative powers of corpse medicine: as Michel de Montaigne relates matter-of-factly in his 16th-century essay “On Cannibals,” “Physicians … are not afraid to use a corpse in any way that serves our health, and will apply it either internally or externally”. [13] The faith placed in what Louise Noble terms “medicinal cannibalism” appears to be constructed around the notion that by ingesting corpse materials, one gains the strength of the person consumed. [14] Simply put, subscribers to corpse medicine sought to receive life from dead human flesh – a desire which echoes the transubstantiated holy sacraments of Catholic communion, and therefore seems ill-suited to a Protestant culture which, as Philip Schwyzer observes, “recoiled phobically from the very aspects of medieval Christianity that might conceivably have allowed mummy-eating a comfortable niche”. [15] Despite this curious double-standard, the taste in Europe for “human flesh, fat, blood or bone – usually drunk or topically applied” persisted well into the eighteenth century. [16]

The popularity of pharmaceutical mummy increased over the early modern period despite the fact that the distinction between corpse medicine and cannibalism became “almost impossible to sustain”. [17] Within decades, the demand for long-buried corpses from the distant East far outstripped supply, and even “the corpses of executed criminals, beggars, lepers and plague-victims” were not enough to satisfy the growing market. [18] By the sixteenth century mummy was no longer dug up – it was manufactured. Below, Samuel Purchas (1617) describes the Ethiopian method of preparing mumia, and the processes involved read like a gruesome inversion of Dawson’s recipe for baked meats:

[T]hey take a captive Moore … cut off his head in his sleep, and gashing his bodie full of wounds, put therein all the best spices … after which they burie him in a moist place, covering the bodie with earth. Five days being passed, they take him up againe, and … hang him up in the sunne, whereby the body resolveth and droppeth a substance like pure balme, which liquor is of great price. [19]

The end product of the Ethiopian method is a “pure balme” bearing little resemblance to its original human form. To the general population living a safe distance from its production, the reconstitution of man into medicine helped to make mumia acceptable.

We see as much in these entries in Thomas Blount’s 1661 dictionary, the Glossographia:

Canibals. A barbarous kinde of people that eat mans flesh. (sig.H)

Mumie or Mummie (Lat. Mumia. Ital. Mummia) a thing like pitch … good against all brusings, spitting of blood, and divers other diseases. [It is] digged out of the Graves, in Arabia and Syria, of those bodies that were embalmed. (sig.Dd) [20]

While cannibals simply and explicitly “eat mans flesh”, mumia is tentatively described as a “thing like pitch”, Blount’s entry may reveal that this substance is dug out of graves, but mumia is never explicitly identified as the corpse itself. Nor does the language of consumption enter Blount’s entry for “Mumie”: he does not elaborate upon the method for use. We know only that it is good for the health, while to eat “mans flesh” is “barbarous”. Via a careful process of transformation and defamiliarisation mumia is “the human body reduced to an undifferentiated and formless mass,” according to Schwyzer, “stripped not only of life but also of particularity and context”, unrecognisable as human flesh. [21] The consumption thereof is thus aesthetically and palpably different to savage man-eating, and for early modern consumers, this appears to have been the vital distinguishing factor between the two.  

To return to Old Hamlet’s description of his body, we might read in Shakespeare’s invocation of food items the same kind of semantic distancing as demonstrated in the descriptions of mumia above. In this sense the Ghost is not the victim of literal consumption – he is instead food for thought, as it were: his language conveys the horrific manner of his death and the tragic objectification of his body as the king becomes “a thing … Of nothing” (4.2.22-24). Raymond Rice states that in Shakespeare’s works the consumption of human flesh represents “the symbolic order’s limit point”. [22] The language of Hamlet adheres to this “limit point” by shifting the focus away from the violence of humans eating humans and onto consumption of more conventional food. Figurative anthropophagy is not restricted to Old Hamlet’s body. For example, the soon-to-be-murdered Rosencrantz and Guildenstern become apples in the corner of an ape’s jaw, “first mouthed to be last swallowed” (4.2.16-17). In the words of Hamlet, his two erstwhile friends are not consumed as humans, but as fruit by an animal, thus softening the idea of man-eating by filtering it through an image both non-human and vegetarian. Through these kind of semantic shifts, Shakespeare capitalises on fears of man-eating without foregrounding them. He thus creates an effect at once markedly cannibalistic and comfortably non-human in order to symbolise the inherent corruption of Hamlet’s Denmark, and emphasise the severity of the “limit points” which have been broken: the sins which have divided families and crumbled friendships.

However, while Shakespeare seems to separate Hamlet from cannibalism he subverts almost immediately the kind of semantic distancing of which he has just demonstrated the effectiveness. In the scene which immediately follows that of Hamlet’s ape and apple simile, we see the following exchange:

HAMLET:   A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king,
                    and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm.

KING CLAUDIUS:   What dost thou mean by this?

HAMLET:   Nothing but to show you how a king may go a progress
                     through the guts of a beggar.  (4.3.27-31)

The beggar is twice removed from the scene of his cannibalistic crime. Firstly, by the fact that the worm which initially ate the king’s body is the prime consumer, and a secondly time by the fish which ate the worm. Just as if one would not necessarily be considered a cannibal for eating a king transformed into a baked meat, the beggar would seem to be the least culpable member of his chain of consumption. Unavoidably, though, the same steps which put distance between the beggar and the crime of eating of his fellow man also connect him to it. Hamlet is fully aware of the link he creates between corpse and beggar via fish and worm (the same kind of “politic worms”, perhaps, which feast on poor Polonius [4.3.21]). The fact that the body of the king ends up in the form of a fish is suggestive of the manner in which mumia, is unidentifiable as human – an “undifferentiated and formless mass”. [23] And while the chain that Hamlet describes seems to hint at the “shifting blame” that was, as Schwyzer notes, so pervasive in contemporary discussions about mumia, [24]  and which put early modern medicine-takers at ease, Hamlet’s conclusion is cuttingly free of ambiguity. When Claudius asks Hamlet to explain himself, the prince’s answer is to remove the links which separate corpse from cuisine so as to evoke nothing less than pure cannibalism, in a manner which may have been most uncomfortable for his mumia-consuming audience: “a king may go a progress / through the guts of a beggar”.


I would like to end this paper by recalling Robert Stam’s observation that the cannibal, in literature, so often symbolises something other than itself, serving as the “name of the other”, the ultimate marker of difference in a coded opposition of light / dark, rational / irrational, Protestant / Catholic, civilised / savage. [25] Hamlet is no exception to this rule, undoubtedly bringing to mind the kinds of unsanctioned anthropophagy that so intrigued and horrified Shakespeare’s audience. However, Shakespeare’s allusions to the act of cannibalism throughout this tragedy serve also to bring the “other” into uncomfortably close proximity to the self, in a way which indicts damningly the hypocrisy of a society that distances itself from the cannibal bogeyman even as it defends the use of pharmaceutical products derived from dead bodies. There will never be what might be considered a “definitive” reading of Hamlet, but, to conclude, I suggest that if we wish to uncover what exactly is “rotten in the state of Denmark”, we may wish to start with the food.


[1] This paper is written as presented at the British Shakespeare Association Conference 2016, which was held at the University of Hull, 8-11 September 2016.
I owe a debt of thanks to my diligent proof-readers, Eleanor-Rose Gordon and Leyla Spratley. Their diligent and constructive feedback improved the clarity and cohesion of this piece beyond recognition.

[2] Citations from the play are all from the Norton edition, conflating Q2 and FF: Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. from The Norton Shakespeare: Tragedies, 2nd Edn., gen. ed. Stephen Greenblatt (New York: Norton, 2008). 336-424, 1.2.175-80.
All citations of other works by Shakespeare also refer to this edition, unless stated otherwise.

[3] Greenblatt, Stephen. Hamlet in Purgatory (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000). 155.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Appelbaum, Robert. Aguecheek’s Beef, Belch’s Hiccup, and other Gastronomic Interjections: Literature, Culture, and Food among the Early Modern (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006). 17.

[6] Dawson, Thomas. The Good Huswifes Jewell (London: 1596). 11-12. Quoted in Appelbaum. 15.

[7] Appelbaum. 20.

[8] Discussion of the thin line between gastronomic and sexual hunger throughout Hamlet lies outside of the scope of this paper, but for different takes on Hamlet’s relationship with female flesh, see: Adelman, Janet. “Man and His Wife is One Flesh: Hamlet  and the Confrontation with the Maternal Body” in Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origin in Shakespeare’s Plays, “Hamlet” to “The Tempest” (New York: Routledge, 1992). 11-37, arguing that Shakespeare sees female sexuality as giving birth to tragedy itself; Freud, Sigmund. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. ed. and trans. James Strachey. 24 vols. (London: Hogarth Press, 1953-74). 14:239-58, for the original analysis of Hamlet’s Oedipal desires.

[9] Appelbaum. 19.

[10] Ibid. 15.

[11] Sanday. Peggy  Reeves. Divine  Hunger: Cannibalism  as a cultural system. (Cambridge: CUP, 1986). 3.

[12] See Arens, William. The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy (Oxford: OUP, 1980). 23-5 and passim, and Rice, Raymond J., “Cannibalism and the Act of Revenge in Tudor-Stuart Drama” from Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900. vol. 44, No. 2. Tudor and Stuart Drama (Spring, 2004): 297-316.

[13] de Montaigne, Michel. “On Cannibals” from Essays. J.M. Cohen trans. (London: Penguin, 1993). 105-119. 114.

[14] Noble, Louise. Medicinal Cannibalism in Early Modern English Literature and Culture (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011). 3 and passim.

[15] Schwyzer, Philip. Archaeologies of English Renaissance Literature (Cambridge: CUP, 2007). 71-2.

[16] Sugg, Richard. “‘Good Physic but Bad Food’: Early Modern Attitudes to Medicinal Cannibalism and its Suppliers” Social History of Medicine. vol.19, no.2 (August 2006): 225-240. 225.

[17] Noble, Louise. “Corpus Salubre: Medicinal Cannibalism in Early-Modern English Culture”. Queen’s University, Ontario, unpublished PhD thesis. 2002.

[18] Sugg. 227.

[19] Purchas, Samuel. Purchas his Pilgrimage. 2nd edn. (London: 1613). 571.

[20] Blount, Thomas. Glossographia. (London: 1661).

[21] Schwyzer. 83.

[22] Rice. “Cannibalism.” 298.

[23] Schwyzer. 83.

[24]  Ibid. 74.

[25] Stam, Robert. Subversive Pleasures: Bakhtin, Cultural Criticism, and Film. (Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1989). 125.

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