On Wednesday I celebrated Shakespeare’s birthday by baking a Warden Pie that he mentions in The Winter’s Tale. For all that Shakespeare talks a bit about food in his plays, though, it is drinking that really seems to occupy the majority of his attention. John Shakespeare, the father of the Bard and as functionally illiterate as his son was wordy, held the prestigious position of “ale taster of the borough” in Shakespeare’s home town of Stratford-upon-Avon, so the young Will would have grown up with an appreciation of good booze. In Act 4, Scene 3 of Henry IV, Part II, Falstaff declares this a key part of a father’s duties: “If I had a thousand sons, the first humane principle I would teach them should be to foreswear thin potations and to addict themselves to sack.”
At the same time, however, he was well aware of many of the negative effects of drink and drunkenness and mines a rich seam of observational humour (of varying degrees of genuine amusement) and dramatic incident from the subject.
In Othello for example, there is the sensible sounding advice in Act 2, Scene 3: “Good wine is a good familiar creature, if it be well used”. The only thing is that these are Iago’s words as he is trying to ply the relatively lightweight Cassio, who for his part proclaims: “I have very poor and unhappy brains for drinking: I could well wish courtesy would invent some other custom of entertainment”, with as much wine as possible to get the latter to cause a scene and get into trouble with the eponymous general.
That same scene has the devious Florentine extolling the author’s (and his audience’s) countrymen for their spectacular drinking ability: “In England where, indeed, they are most potent in potting: your Dane, your German, and your swag-bellied Hollander – Drink, ho! – are nothing to your English…Why, he drinks you, with facility, your Dane dead drunk; he sweats not to overthrow your Almain; he gives your Hollander a vomit, ere the next pottle can be filled.”
Perhaps the most famous pontificating on the subject of alcohol and drinking comes in the boozy ramblings of Macbeth’s carousing porter to Macduff, an accurate portrayal of a drunk thinking they are brilliantly insightful while the sober around them find them tedious: “Drink, sir, is a great promoter of three things…nose-painting, sleep and urine. Lechery, sir, it provokes and unprovokes; it provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance.”
At the end of the day, a surfeit of alcohol promotes one more thing: an early grave (and not just in the fashion of Clarence in Act 1, Scene 4 of Richard III, drowned in a butt of malmsey). It is this that is colloquially believed to be the cause of Shakespeare’s own demise 398 years ago this week. According to John Ward, vicar of the church where Shakespeare was buried some years after, a night on the tiles with friends and fellow writers Ben Jonson and Michael Drayton resulted in the fever from which Shakespeare would eventually die, the ultimate conclusion to the great writer’s relationship with alcohol.