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Welcome to Episode #107 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.

During the life of William Shakespeare, plain water was often unclean and filtration, while available, was rudimentary at best. It was not safe to drink the water of the Thames river, and in order to compensate for a general lack of fresh drinking water, the most popular beverage in Elizabethan England even for regular meal times, was beer or ale. Drunkenness was a common occurrence, as was the consistent consumption of large amounts of alcohol. There are court records showing the monarchs of England often celebrated festivals, parties, and visiting dignitaries with the serving of excessive amounts of alcohol, at times amounting to hundreds of barrels of wine, beer, or ale. One of Shakespeare’s most enduring characters is a drunken knight, and even Shakespeare’s own death is shrouded in a mystery involving excess drink. With all of this drinking going on in the life of William Shakespeare, what was the opinion and response to drunkenness?

Our guest this week, Rebecca Lemon, included an entire chapter on beer and addiction to alcohol in her latest publication titled Addcition and Devotion in Early Modern England. Dr. Lemon joins us today to explain some of the most common alcoholic beverages, the state of alcoholism in the 16th century, and what understanding these facts about the cultural relationship to alcohol can tell us about Shakespeare’s characters whose personalities were specifically inclusive of drunken behavior like Falstaff and Prince Hal.

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Rebecca Lemon is the author of three books on Shakespeare, including most recentlyShakespeare’sKing Richard III: Language and Writing (2018) and Addiction and Devotion in Early Modern England(2018). She is professor of English at the University of Southern California, and her award-winning writing on Shakespeare, law, political philosophy, and the history of medicine has been supported by numerous fellowships. Her work in Addiction and Devotion, which challenges conventional theories of addiction by tracking its longer history from the 16thcentury, has been featured in a range of venues, from popular radio broadcasts to political blogs to the publications of the American Academy of Religion. 

In this episode, I’ll be asking Rebecca Lemon about :

  • What about the rivalry Iago is referring to here with the Germans, Danes, and apparent skill of the English at drinking–was there a national rivalry around drinking? 

  • Falstaff’s famous drink is called Sack, and he gives this beverage credit for his own wit. Rebecca, what is sack?

  • Some of the taverns in England were actually used as performance spaces during Shakespeare’s lifetime, before and alongside the advent of purpose built theaters. Was the Boar’s Head one of these?

  • … and more!

Use this Hand Illustrated Print to Explore The Theaters and Inns of 1600 London

Early in Elizabethan times, players performed at any public house that would allow it; including Inns, Taverns, and Play yards. In this map of 1600 London, you can see the locations of several of the theaters of London (including the Boar's Head mentioned in today's episode). This map shows most of the major competing playhouses that rivaled Shakespeare when he was writing for the The Globe, and the Blackfriars playhouse.

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They [the English] are most potent in potting. Your Dane, your German, and your swag-bellied Hollander—drink, ho!—are nothing to your English.

Iago

Othello (II.2)

“The Beer Brewer” by Josh Amman, 16th century engraving. Image source

Potting

In Shakespeare's Othello, Iago says to Cassio, “They [the English] are most potent in potting. Your Dane, your German, and your swag-bellied Hollander—drink, ho!—are nothing to your English.” Potting here refers to alcoholic drinking, and this quote suggests that heavy drinking was a mainstay of English culture in Shakespeare's lifetime.

Justices of the Peace regulated “inordinate haunting and tipling…” with heavy fines associated with essentially hanging out too long at the alehouse. First and second offenses were heavily fined (Up to $2000 in today’s money) but those regulations were still too lenient for the Puritans, who felt stricter regulations were necessary.

There were several more stringent efforts to stop drinking (woodcuts of people dying from alcohol consumption) and as the Puritans rose in numbers, they worked in Parliament to try and pass acts against drunkenness. Generally, those bills were hissed on the floor of Parliament, since laws on trying to regulate drunkenness and tavern attendance were viewed as an assault on English pastimes. Finally, in 1606, the Puritan efforts did succeed and a law against drunkenness passed successfully under James I, just after Othello was written. Shakespeare's mention not only of “potting” but specifically aligning the behavior with English patriotism is a reflection of the pulse of English culture in that moment.

Related Episode You Might Enjoy

Lord: What's here? One dead, or drunk?
See, doth he breathe?

Second Huntsman: He breathes, my lord. Were he not warm'd with ale,
This were a bed but cold to sleep so soundly.

Lord: O monstrous beast, how like a swine he lies!

Prologue

Taming of the Shrew

Painting by Pieter the Younger, Brueghel, Peasants Making Merry outside a Tavern ‘The Swan' c. 1630. Source

Binge Drinking

The patriotism surrounding drinking was a rivalry between the Dutch and the Germans over the drinking strength and celebrating the English prowess at drinking. Writers of (William Pryn) Thomas Nashe, condemn the way the English have picked up Dutch drinking habits during the Low Country Wards. New modes of drinking  were condemned by some and celebrated by others. 

One of these “new modes of drinking” was the kind of liquor being consumed. In England, ale was the primary drink of choice which is made from water, malt, and yeast. Ale did not have the hops used in beer which has more alcohol and less grain. The ale became associated with a low alcohol content. The Dutch and Germans, being primarily beer brewers, had a drink associated with a higher alcohol content so in addition to the drunkenness rivalry, you also had a competition between beer and ale. 

In a recent episode of Did Shakespeare on youtube, we interviewed a historical beer craftsman on the proper way to make 16th century ale. Watch that here.

In Shakespeare's England, the Puritans were Protestant, but they were a specific faction of Protestantism who specifically opposed drunkenness. For moderate protestants, like Queen Elizabeth, pastimes like “Wits and Ales” where one would go to the taverns on the weekends, was not only desirable but expected and even patriotic.

Elizabeth I might not have condemned these activities outright, because ale consumption was part of a daily diet for calories, for lack of clean water reasons, and not wanting to upset tradition.

However, we do know Elizabeth I Did not like binge drinking–there was a notorious practice called “health drinking” which is what’s happening in the scene from Shakespeare's Othello, and happens again in Antony and Cleopatra, with Toby Belch in Twelfth Night and even Claudius in Hamlet. In a nutshell, it was basically an Elizabethan form of “I double dog dare you” where friends at a table would propose a toast to one's health, and everyone at the table was obliged to take a drink. This continues until a casual drink at the alehouse develops into an all night drinking session. 

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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.
Falstaff

Henry IV Part 2 (IV.3)

Falstaff with big wine jar and cup” by Eduard von Grützner c 1896. Source
 

Falstaff and Sack

Falstaff’s famous drink is called Sack, and he gives this beverage credit for his own wit.

Sack was a dry, fortified, white, wine, high alcohol. Sgar was added to it and it was primarily imported from the Canary Islands, off the north-western coast of Africa. Shakespeare refers to canary wine in Twelfth Night (Act 1 Scene 3) and The Merry Wives of Windsor (Act 3 Scene 2). (Source) Being imported to England from the Canary Islands is why you'll see Falsaff refer to the drink as both “sack” and “canary.”

Falstaff is considered disreputable and an outcast socially, but his choice of sack as a drink seems to be intentional when compared with Christopher Sly in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew who refuses sack and demands instead a “pot of ale” saying “call me not “honor” nor “lordship” I never drank sack in my life.”

Sack was associated with the upper classes and just as Christopher Sly is trying not to behave outside of his station, the ability to seem greater than he was in reality is precisely why Falstaff chooses sack for himself.

This is an example of the kind of tankard that wine and spirits were stored in at taverns. (You see Falstaff holding on in the portrait above) Balusters were used in taverns as measures for wines and spirits. Some may have been drunk from, although the fact that balusters of a gallon downwards were common suggests that some were used for the sale of wine or ale, which was then poured into a cup or mug of pewter, leather, wood or pottery. Until 1826 two national systems of capacity were in use in England: the wine pint being smaller than the ale pint”. An incomplete cast pewter measure of Post-Medieval date, probably seventeenth century (AD 1600 – AD 1700). Overall length: 97.2mm; maximum diameter: 60.1mm. Weight: 196.56g. The capacity of the measure is c. 100ml when completely full. Isle of Wight Council. Source

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ELIZABETHAN BEARDS HISTORY EBOOK

Coordinates with Episode 27 of That Shakespeare Life. Listen Here.

Farewell: you shall find me in Eastcheap.

Falstaff

Henry IV Part 1 (I.2)

Detail of a matchlock revolver (Germ. Drehlling). Made in Nuremberg, Germany ca. 1580. Germanisches Nationalmuseum Nürnberg Inventory No W 1984. Image of the complete Rifle, 2nd photo at the data set of an other weapon at Germanisches Nationalmuseum (Germnan). Source

The Boar's Head Inn in Eastcheap

Near the Curtain Theater, where Shakespeare launched Henry IV Psrt 1, there was a tavern called the Boar’s Head–built in 1537, we call it “The Boar’s Head inn” but the Boar’s Head Tavern and Inn are different places. (In fact, there are several places from within this area of London and Shakespeare's lifetime with the name “Boar's Head”)

For performance purposes, an “Inn” had a courtyard, with balconies for spectators. These Inns were great places for early performances. Some scholars say that the public playhouses, like The Curtain or The Globe were built in a structure that miciked that of an Inn because that’s where plays were being performed.

A “Tavern”, by contrast, was a place where people would have a meal, but it had various rooms in it. It was not a place like an Inn which had a larger performance space, and patrons wouldn’t stay overnight.

Edward Walford in his work, “Southwark: Famous Inns” describes the Boar's Head in terms of Falstaff and historical papers from The Paston Family which shed light on the Inn's place in society at this tme in history. He writes “the “Boar's Head,” which formed a part of Sir John Falstolf's benefactions to Magdalen College at Oxford. Sir John Falstolf  was one of the bravest of English generals in the French wars, under Henry IV. and his successors. The premises are said to have comprised a narrow court of ten or twelve houses, but they were removed in 1830 to make the approach to New London Bridge. We learn from Mr. C. J. Palmer's “Perlustration of Great Yarmouth,” that the Falstolf family had their town residence in Southwark, nearly opposite to the Tower of London, and that the “Boar's Head Inn” was the property of Sir John Falstolf. Henry Windesone, in a letter to John Paston, dated August, 1459, says, “An it please you to remember my master (Sir John Falstolf) at your best leisure, whether his old promise shall stand as touching my preferring to the ‘Boar's Head,' in Southwark. Sir, I would have been at another place, and of my master's own motion he said that I should set up in the ‘Boar's Head.'” (View his entire paper here) <—this paper has a lot of great information and more pictures on inns and taverns of this period. I'm not affiliated with this work.

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Books & Resources Rebecca Lemon recommends:

 

Here are some articles that are not available as printed books but do offer excellent information and resource on today's topic. The links provided go to websites where you can read these texts online.  

Rebecca Lemon, “Compulsory Conviviality in Early Modern England,” English Literary Renaissance 43.3 (Sept 2013): 381-414

 

Some additional texts Cassidy thought you might like if you are wanting to study this topic further.

(There is a poem about ale wives in here from 1624)

(Parts of this book is available on Google Books Here.)

(Parts of this book is available on Google Books Here.)

Pages 360-380 primarily deal with beer and ale in Tudor England.

Use this map to Explore Theaters of 1600 London

Early in Elizabethan times, players performed at any public house that would allow it include Inns and Play yards. In this map of 1600 London, you can see the locations of several of the theaters of London and while this map does not include all of the smaller churches and inns which might have houses plays, it shows most of the major competing playhouses that rivaled Shakespeare when he was writing for the The Globe, and the Blackfriars playhouse.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter right here and immediately download this map as our free gift. 

Get Shakespeare Weekly

Join today, and I'll send you this hand illustrated map of Theaters in 1600s London to welcome you.

We won't send you spam. Unsubscribe at any time. Powered by ConvertKit


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