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Here’s to Shakespeare

For William Shakespeare's 450th birthday celebration, we're hosting a blog series to highlight the events that took place around the world for the Bard's 400th birthday back in 1964. Here Helen Cook delves into alcoholic references in Shakespeare's plays.

Helen Cook
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Shakespeare mentions alcoholic drinks many times in his works and as such his words have been linked with beer and wine many times. I’ve come across two particular examples produced during 1964: a White Horse beer mat, and a leaflet focusing on Shakespeare and ‘Sherris sack’ - a strong white or amber wine from Spain.

Shakespeare makes over 35 references to sack, including larger than life Falstaff’s famous speech in its praise which is mentioned in the leaflet:

"A good sherry-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."

Henry IV Part II, Act IV Sc3

Shakespeare and alcohol
A collection of items focusing on Shakespeare’s words about alcohol

According to another reference in Henry IV Part I, you could buy two gallons of sack for the sum of 5 shillings and 8 pence. To put this in context, there were 20 shillings to a pound and 12 pennies to a shilling. Some labourers and ordinary working people would only ever have traded in pennies, or divisions of pennies, as the higher coins were beyond their reach.

Shakespeare also makes at least 70 references to wine: "I'll heat his blood with Greekish wine tonight" -Troilus and Cressida, Act V ScI

Wine, including sack, was most often drunk by the wealthier classes and thousands of tons were imported from European countries, such as France, Spain, Greece and Germany.

Ales and beers however were a staple, everyday drink and Shakespeare makes at least 12 references to ale, ale-wives and houses. Taverns and alehouses were commonplace, as pubs are today. Shakespeare even converted part of the house where he was born into one, after inheriting it from his father. It became The Swan and Maidenhead. Beers and ales were also commonly brewed within the home with people adding their own particular balance of preferred herbs and spices, such as sage, mace or nutmeg.

"You are to call at all the alehouses and bid those that are drunk get them to bed" -Much Ado About Nothing, Act III Sc3.

As well as all these references to wine, sack, and ales, Shakespeare’s words have been used to represent alcohol in other ways too. A quotation used on the White Horse Beer mat reads: "I have yet Room for six scotches more" -Antony and Cleopatra, Act IV Sc 7, but by ‘scotches’ Shakespeare is most likely referring to six wounds in a fighting context, not six drinks in the pub!

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