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Shakespeare in the tavern

Categories: History of food

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, sometime resident of Southwark. Jane Levi, writer and visiting research fellow at King’s College London, examines the bard’s attitude towards alcohol

Illustrations: Johnny Hannah

“I have very poor and
unhappy brains for drinking: I could well wish
courtesy would invent some other custom of
entertainment…
I’ll do’t; but it dislikes me.”

(Cassio, Othello, act 2, scene 3)

The first step on the path towards Othello’s tragedy is taken when Cassio, a self-confessed lightweight, is persuaded by Iago to join the other men in the tavern for just one more cup of wine. He ruefully wishes the custom of the time didn’t require alcohol, but in Shakespeare’s plays there seem to be few entertainments or gatherings without some kind of wine, ale or mead-like metheglin.

As in Othello, many a plot turns on an ill-judged drink or missed toast. Lady Macbeth reminds her husband to “give the cheer” to his guests (Macbeth, act 3, scene 4), although her efforts at normal behaviour are undone by his response to the appearance of Banquo’s ghost. In Richard III, the Duke of Clarence demands a cup of wine, to be told, chillingly, “You shall have wine enough, my lord, anon”(Second murderer, Richard III, act 1, scene 4), before he is stabbed and drowned in a butt of malmsey.

Now mainly produced in Madeira, malmsey or malvasia, the dark brownish sweet wine, was in Shakespeare’s time imported from Greece via Venice. Canary, frequently called for by Falstaff in the tavern, was another commonly drunk sweet white wine of paler colour brought in (the clue being in the name) from the Canary Islands. When it comes to Falstaff’s drinking habits, his best known tipple is probably sack, or ‘sherris sack’, a sherry from Jerez probably most like today’s oloroso. Falstaff extols sack’s virtues and qualities in a lengthy speech, concluding that it bestows wit and courage on the drinker and so:

“If I had a thousand sons, the
first human principle I would teach them should be to
forswear thin potations and to addict themselves to sack.”

Falstaff, Henry IV Part 2, act 4, scene 2

Shakespeare in the tavern

But Falstaff’s strong defence of alcohol reveals more about his somewhat dubious character than the generally acceptable drinking practices of the time. The negative effects of too much booze were clear to all. Rosalind (as Ganymede) warns Phoebe “I pray you, do not fall in love with me, for I am falser than vows made in wine” (As You Like It, act 3, scene 5) while Feste warns that a drunkard is “Like a drowned man, a fool, and a madman: one draught above heat makes him a fool, the second mads him, and a third drowns him” (Twelfth Night, act 1, scene 5).

Anyone who has indulged in even a fraction of Falstaff’s drinking (or been with a slurring companion who has) can readily identify with the tipsy malapropism of Bardolph’s declaration that Slender had “drunk himself out of his five sentences” (Merry Wives of Windsor, act 1, scene 1), while those disturbed by loud voices outside the local pub might almost feel sympathy with the pompous Malvolio’s remonstrance to Sir Toby Belch: “Do you make an alehouse of my lady’s house, that you squeak out your coziers’ catches without any mitigation or remorse of voice? (Twelfth Night, act 2, scene 3)

Ale, the lightly-hopped beer most commonly drunk in Shakespeare’s time, appears less frequently than wine among his high status characters, but its place as the traditional, common drink associated with home and good cheer is made clear in Sir Toby’s rebuttal of Malvolio’s criticisms. Partly a rejection of his holier-than-thou attitude, and partly a snobbish pulling of rank, Sir Toby’s “Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?” (Twelfth Night, act 2, scene 3) forces the audience to side with him. Of course, we want, as Page suggests in The Merry Wives of Windsor to “drink down all unkindness” (act 1 scene 1), preferably with cakes and ale for all—but perhaps not in Belch or Falstaffian proportions.