Stratford upon Avon
Words by: Theodora Sutcliffe
A seventeenth century vicar once claimed that William Shakespeare died after a heavy session at a "merry meeting" with his fellow poets Michael Drayton and Ben Jonson. Was he right? Possibly. Although Shakespeare doesn't seem to have been a hard-drinking, hard-partying, bar-fighting, 24/7 tavern animal like his contemporary Christopher Marlowe, every single one of his plays contains a reference to alcohol.
Everybody in Elizabethan England drank, of course. A lot. Water wasn't safe to drink, while the national fondness for a nice cup of tea lay a long way in the future. In fact, Elizabethans treated water with suspicion even when it came to washing (they believed that bad things in water could slip into the body via holes or "crevices", causing disease).
So everyone from the Virgin Queen herself to children hydrated with beer or ale, from breakfast onwards. Workers in the fields were typically allowed two half-hour breaks, one in the morning, one in the afternoon, for a "drinking" - chugging pint after pint to rehydrate, top up B vitamins and, of course, socialise.
What was the beer like? Well, ale and beer that were brewed for sale seem to have been considerably stronger, sweeter and darker than beers today, which makes the practice of spicing them with ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves a bit more comprehensible. A letter of complaint from a courtier survives, recording that the beer the Queen was served was too strong for her to drink.
"Beers" seem to have been more bitter than "ales", and Shakespeare's father, who was at one time the official ale-taster for Stratford-upon-Avon, would have tasted ales at at least two strengths, "single" and "double".
Yet there was also super-strength ale and beer around - the Tennent's Extra of its day. Known as "double-double", as well as more colourful names, such as "the mad dog", "huffcap", "dragon's milk" and "Father Whoreson", it clearly did exactly what was said on the pot.
As a successful playwright and property owner, Shakespeare wouldn't have been limited to ale and beer. He could drink imported wine, which cost at least twelve times as much as beer, at upscale spots like the Mermaid Tavern in Bread Street, a literati hangout - and he almost certainly did. His characters name-check an impressive range of wines, from Muscatel and Rhine wines through to Bordeaux, and many, many more favour wine than beer.
Shakespeare would certainly have tried the new, strong, sweet fortified wines like Sack (a type of sherry), Malmsey and Canary wine. But he tends to assign these to lushes in his plays – and the rash of strong wines lay behind a myriad bar fights at the time. Given that well-to-do Elizabethan lads about town carried both swords and daggers, antiseptic and anaesthetic didn't exist, and surgery techniques were basic, the average Elizabethan tavern brawl ended rather more disastrously than yer common-or-garden bar fight.
No cocktails for Shakespeare, sadly. But he would have consumed mixed drinks, like caudles and possets. Caudles, mainly served to the sick, were a hot thin gruel mixed with spiced, sweetened ale or wine. Possets were based on hot milk, turned with alcohol - sack was popular. Folk drank them both for medicinal purposes and as an after-dinner drink, out of special pots, called posset pots.
What else? Metheglin, a type of mead mixed with herbs, was drunk more as a medicinal tonic than a beverage; "cordials", the early liqueurs, were considered not only delicious but good for the health; and a few of Shakespeare's characters knock back aqua vitae (roughly distilled spirits, which could mean brandy or whiskey) for their nerves.
Here's a few of the Bard's best drunks.
The Old Soak - Falstaff
In his own words: "Give me a cup of sack: I am a rogue, if I drunk to-day."
Bloated, overweight, with a habit of unbuttoning his clothes after supper and passing out in inappropriate places, Falstaff guzzles sack (a type of sherry) by the gallon, often with extra sugar, eats his considerable bodyweight in food, is often to be found in brothels or chasing barmaids, and has a fab line in invective: "whoreson caterpillar", anyone? Queen Elizabeth (I) was a huge fan.
The Village Drunk - The Porter
In his own words: "Drink, sir, is a great provoker of three things... nose-painting, sleep and urine."
Drinks: Extra-strong beer or ale, most likely
The word "whiskey" didn't even enter the English language until 1715, so it's unlikely that it was aqua vitae that kept the Porter up until 3am, drinking till he couldn't stand up. Between his requests for tips and his banter about brewer's droop, he's a model of the village lush.
The Lad About Town - Mercutio
In his own words: "True, I talk of dreams, which are the children of an idle brain, begot of nothing but vain fantasy."
Of course Mercutio drinks wine, as any self-respecting chap would when lining up to gate-crash a party after a busy morning brawling... Witty, sophisticated, cynical - yet far too up for a fight - Mercutio is a human banter machine: he even cracks a joke on his deathbed.
The Street Drinker - Barnardine
In his own words: "You rogue, I have been drinking all night; I am not fitted for 't."
Drinks: Not fussy
Barnardine can find a drink anywhere - even in prison, where a stinking hangover saves his life, as he looks too rough to be executed in place of a different prisoner. Less charmingly, Barnardine is a convicted murderer. In a tavern brawl, no doubt.
The Party Animal - Toby Belch
In his own words: "I'll drink to her as long as there is a passage in my throat and drink in Illyria."
Drinks: Fortified wine - sack and Canary
A monster of consumption, Toby Belch's main interests are drinking, eating, sex and gambling - oh, and palming his niece off on his drinking buddy, who is also funding his activities. He has a fine line in creative language, when he's not waking the house up with drinking songs.