Shortcake has been around at least since William Shakespeare mentioned it in The Merry Wives of Windsor. But the reference is to a person, not a dessert. Just who was Alice Shortcake?

Strawberry Shortcake with Star Anise Sauce
Credit: © Anna Williams

In this series, we reveal the secrets, histories and quirky bits of trivia behind your favorite foods.

Fact: Shortcake has been around since at least the Elizabethan era. The evidence? William Shakespeare himself mentions it in The Merry Wives of Windsor. While the play does in fact contain the word "shortcake," the Bard isn't referring to the delicious fruit and biscuit dessert but to a person: Alice Shortcake. So just who is Alice Shortcake?

The short answer is that no one seems to know, but it's pretty clear that it's some sort of clever Shakespearean wordplay. In the play's opening scene, Abraham Slender asks his servant: "You have not the Book of Riddles about you, do you?" The servant replies that the book in question was lent to Alice Shortcake—and that's the end of the conversation. So just what was Shakespeare alluding to? Scholars theorize that it may refer to real-life Countess Alice Spencer (the wife of Ferdinando Stanley, a.k.a. Lord Strange, who was one of Shakespeare's patrons) or to someone who gave out bread to the poor or, perhaps, that "shortcake" is a bawdy nickname for one of Slender's lady friends.

We may not be able to unravel Shakespeare's facetious shortcake shout-out, but we can make some delicious berries and biscuits while we ponder it. Try one of these simple and delicious shortcake recipes at your next summer dinner party.