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What Did Shakespeare Drink?

OLIVIA What's a drunken man like, fool?
CLOWN 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 (1.5.127-30)
Ale and Beer

Ale (beer made with a top fermenting yeast) was the drink of choice in Shakespeare's day. Everyone from the poorest farmer to the Queen herself drank the brew made from malt, and a mini brewery was an essential part of every household. Shakespeare's own father was an official ale taster in Stratford – an important and respected job which involved monitoring the ingredients used by professional brewers and ensuring they sold their ale at Crown regulated prices. Beer, however, eventually became more popular than ale. "In 1574, there were still 58 ale brewers to 33 beer brewers in the City [London], but beer gradually replaced ale as the national drink over the course of the century" (Picard, 187).

Wine

Wine was available in Shakespeare's England, but it was very expensive (about twelve times more costly than ale (Singman, 137)) and so only the upper classes could enjoy it regularly. English grapes were not adequate for winemaking so they imported their wines from France, Spain, and Greece. Sack, a sweet wine fortified with brandy (known today as sherry), was most popular with the Elizabethans.

Shakespeare's Prince Hal and the lads at the Boar's-head Tavern in Eastcheap were impassioned by the scrumptious drink. The following is a passage from 2 Henry IV in which Falstaff praises the benefits of sack to one’s constitution:

A good sherris sack hath a two-fold operation in it. It ascends me into the brain; dries me there all the foolish and dull and curdy vapours which environ it; makes it apprehensive, quick, forgetive, full of nimble fiery and delectable shapes, which, delivered o'er to the voice, the tongue, which is the birth, becomes excellent wit. The second property of your excellent sherris is, the warming of the blood; which, before cold and settled, left the liver white and pale, which is the badge of pusillanimity and cowardice; but the sherris warms it and makes it course from the inwards to the parts extreme: it illumineth the face, which as a beacon gives warning to all the rest of this little kingdom, man, to arm; and then the vital commoners and inland petty spirits muster me all to their captain, the heart, who, great and puffed up with this retinue, doth any deed of courage; and this valour comes of sherris. So that skill in the weapon is nothing without sack, for that sets it a-work; and learning a mere hoard of gold kept by a devil, till sack commences it and sets it in act and use. Hereof comes it that Prince Harry is valiant; for the cold blood he did naturally inherit of his father, he hath, like lean, sterile and bare land, manured, husbanded and tilled with excellent endeavour of drinking good and good store of fertile sherris, that he is become very hot and valiant. If I had a thousand sons, the first humane principle I would teach them should be, to forswear thin potations and to addict themselves to sack. (4.3.100)
Shakespeare also mentions the following varieties of wine in his plays:

Malmsey

A rich and sweet wine brought to England from Greece in the 16th century, Malmsey is now produced on the island of Madeira. Shakespeare writes about Malmsey in Love’s Labour’s Lost (5.2.240) and 2 Henry IV (2.1.36), but the most famous reference to Malmsey in all of literature can be found in Richard III, when Richard orders the execution of his brother, the Duke of Clarence. Richard’s hired assassins decide to drown Clarence in a large cask (butt) of the brew. When they arrive at the Tower of London to carry out the task, the unsuspecting Clarence asks for a cup of wine. The Second Murderer offers this ghastly retort: “You shall have wine enough, my lord, anon” (1.4.153).

Metheglin (Mead)

Known also as honey wine, metheglin was more of a tonic than an enjoyable cocktail. It was made of water, yeast, honey, cloves, and potent herbs. References to metheglin appear in Love’s Labour’s Lost (5.2.240) and The Merry Wives of Windsor (5.5.170).

Canary

Similar to malmsey, canary wine was a sweet white variety with a yellow tint. Canary wine was imported to England from the Canary Islands off the north-western coast of Africa. Shakespeare refers to canary wine in Twelfth Night (1.3.74) and The Merry Wives of Windsor(3.2.83).

References

Picard, Liza. Elizabeth's London. London: Phoenix Press, 2003.
Singman, Jeffrey L. Daily Life in Elizabethan England. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1995.

How to cite this article:

Mabillard, Amanda. Shakespeare's Drinking. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2000. (date when you accessed the information) < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/faq/shakespearedrinking.html >.
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