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Shakespeare's Drinking Songs

From "Henry IV" to "Twelfth Night", "The Tempest" to "Othello", drunkards appear throughout Shakespeare's plays – and with drinking comes the drinking songs.

Alcohol and music are constant companions, and everybody recognises a rowdy drinking song, whether it comes from 1613 or 2013. Shakespeare was a master of showing all facets of human nature – including the raucous underbelly of life in the tavern, and the characters who like to parade their musical "talents" after a few drinks.

Falstaff and Justice Silence in the RSC production of Henry IV Part 2, 2000.
Falstaff and Justice Silence in the RSC production of Henry IV Part 2, 2000

In Henry IV Part 2the character Silence is a country justice, and (as his name suggests) is a quiet and quite elderly character. But in Act Five Scene Three, he, Falstaff, and Justice Shallow have been drinking more heavily than he is used to, and he bursts into bawdy song:

“Do nothing but eat and make good cheer, 
And praise God for the merry year; 
When flesh is cheap and females dear, 
And lusty lads roam here and there, 
So merrily, 
And ever among so merrily.”

Henry IV Part 2, 5.3

He continues to sing throughout the scene, to the surprise of all the other characters, which has a great comic effect.

In Twelfth Night, Sir Toby Belch, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and Feste the fool are making merry in the middle of the night, singing popular songs, or “catches”, when they are interrupted by Malvolio, the disapproving steward. Sir Toby and Feste share a raucous duet, singing over Malvolio as he attempts to hush them.

There are also scenes with three drunkards in The Tempest: when Stephano first enters, he is singing bawdy songs with a bottle in his hand, and he continues to drink throughout the scene with Trinculo and Caliban.

L-R: Sir Toby Belch, Feste and Sir Andrew Aguecheek, watched by Maria and Malvolio (Twelfth Night); Stephano, Trinculo, and Caliban (The Tempest, RSC production, 1957)

In all three plays, the bawdy songs are a mix of different popular ballads from Shakespeare’s time, such as “A cup of wine that’s brisk and fine”, “On the twelfth day of December”, and “I shall no more to sea”. Ballads like these would have been heard in taverns and on the streets everywhere in Shakespeare’s time. As the method of circulating music was to sing or perform it in public and pass it on, the popular songs would become familiar to a wide audience.

The soldiers’ merrymaking in Othello, and Iago’s fake drunkenness.
The soldiers’ merrymaking in Othello, and Iago’s fake drunkenness

There are other forms of drinking song in Shakespeare’s other plays: such as Iago’s fake drinking song in Othello, “let the cannikin clink”. Iago sings it as he and his fellow soldiers are off-duty in the castle hall, to trick his enemy Cassio thinking that he is harmless:

"Iago: Some wine, ho!
And let me the canakin clink, clink; 
And let me the canakin clink 
A soldier's a man; 
A life's but a span; 1205
Why, then, let a soldier drink. 
Some wine, boys!

Cassio: 'Fore God, an excellent song.
Iago: I learned it in England, where, indeed, 
they are most potent in potting”

Othello, 2.3

This would probably have been a popular soldiers’ drinking song in England at the time: Iago goes on to describe how superior the English are to the rest of Europe at drinking, which would have pleased the English audience. He sings another song, which distracts Cassio – Iago manages to get him drunk, with disastrous consequences.

In Antony and Cleopatraat the opposite end of the social scale to the rowdy soldiers’ barracks, the Roman leaders call for a song as they drink together, led by Domitius Enobarus, who shouts:

Illustration of merrymaking in Antony and Cleopatra.
Illustration of merrymaking in Antony and Cleopatra

"Shall we dance now the Egyptian Bacchanals, 
And celebrate our drink?... All take hands.
Make battery to our ears with the loud music:
The while I'll place you: then the boy shall sing;
The holding every man shall bear as loud
As his strong sides can volley.

The song: Come, thou monarch of the vine, 
Plumpy Bacchus with pink eyne!
In thy fats our cares be drown'd,
With thy grapes our hairs be crown'd:
Cup us, till the world go round,
Cup us, till the world go round!"

Antony and Cleopatra, 2.7

Although the song sounds more melodic than the rougher, more familiar English folk ballads, the sentiment is the same. Shakespeare paints a picture of drunken (and usually disorderly) revelry through the universally recognisable drinking song, from English taverns and households, to Cypriot barracks to imperial Roman galleys.

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