It’s party time. Last night I went to The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s annual Christmas get-together (in fact, I even appeared briefly as Father Christmas to help spread a little festive cheer). We had lots to eat and not a bit to drink, and it set me thinking about Shakespeare’s attitude to alcohol.
There was a seventeenth-century rumour that he died after a bout of heavy drinking with Michael Drayton and Ben Jonson. Is it likely that he was a heavy drinker? Certainly Jonson was; it was said of him that ‘drink was the element wherein be lived.’ But Shakespeare? There’s no suggestion from his own time that he was a boozer. He seems to have led an orderly life, he kept out of trouble with the law, and he accomplished so much that it’s hard to believe he regularly fuddled his brain with alcohol. But his plays certainly show that he could empathize whole-heartedly with those who enjoy the pleasures of drink. Indeed he causes his most celebrated comic character, Falstaff, to speak with unparalleled eloquence of the beneficial effects of drinking sack: ‘A good sherry-sack hath a twofold operation in it. It ascends me into the brain, dries me there all the foolish and dull and crudy 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 sherry 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 sherry warms it and makes it course from the inwards to the parts’ extremes; 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 his retinue, doth any deed of courage. And this valour comes of sherry […]. If I had a thousand sons, the first human principle I would teach them should be to forswear thin potations, and to addict themselves to sack.’ (Henry IV Part Two 4.2.93-121). And in Twelfth Night the toper Sir Toby Belch rebukes the puritanical Malvolio for his repressive attitude towards the pleasures of eating and drinking: ‘Dost think because thou art virtuous there shall be no more cakes and ale?’ (Twelfth Night 2.3.110-111). Here and elsewhere Shakespeare sees drinking as a symbol of good fellowship, of the ability to relax, to empathize with one’s fellow human beings in their frailty as well as their strength.
In other plays, though, the effects of drinking are less desirable. In Macbeth King Duncan’s guards fail in their duty because they are drunk, and Lady Macbeth is emboldened to do the deed of murder by, it would seem, a swig from her hip flask: ‘That which hath made them drunk hath made me bold.’ (Macbeth 2.2.1). In the same play the Porter speaks depressingly about the effect of drink on the appetite for sex: ‘it provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance. Therefore, much drink may be said to be an equivocator with lechery: it makes him, and it mars him; it sets him on, and it takes him off; it persuades him, and disheartens him; makes him stand to, and not stand to; in conclusion, equivocates him in a sleep, and, giving him the lie, leaves him.’ (Macbeth 2.3.28-35). And in The Tempest, Caliban foolishly worships the drunken butler Trinculo.
Perhaps the character who most powerfully embodies the ambiguities in Shakespeare’s attitude to drink is the drunken Barnardine in Measure for Measure, who is ‘drunk many times a day, if not many days entirely drunk’. Summoned to die, he declares ‘I have been drinking hard all night. I am not fitted for’t.’ (Measure for Measure 4.3. 40-1). And he escapes execution by sheer force of personality. He embodies the life force, and alcohol is the fuel that impels him. Maybe it had the same effect on Jonson.