On a June day in 1598, at about three o’clock in the afternoon, nearly three thousand patrons file into The Curtain, a London playhouse on the outskirts of the city, along the Shoreditch road. They wait for the actors of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men to take the stage for a hotly anticipated new play by William Shakespeare, the sequel to his enormously popular Henry IV. An instant hit in 1596 and one of the playwright’s most performed in the four hundred years following its premiere, the first part of Henry IV stages the history of England before the Wars of the Roses. King Henry IV struggles to hold on to his throne, in part because of political rebellion, but also because of concerns about his rogue son and heir, Prince Hal. While the play’s historical insights no doubt appealed to Shakespeare’s audience, the real reason for the play’s success lies with Sir John Falstaff, a “villainous, abominable misleader of youth” and Shakespeare’s best-loved comic creation. Falstaff, a portly, drunken knight, is corrupter of the young Prince Hal and hero of the play’s tavern underworld.
Known for his drunken antics, Falstaff eventually attracted as much scholarly attention as the solemn and tragic Hamlet. In the 1590s, though, his humor earned him royal, rather than scholarly, notice: Queen Elizabeth, captivated by the knight in Henry IV, Part 1, purportedly asked to see a play that showed Falstaff in love. Shakespeare spent the next year writing and producing The Merry Wives of Windsor to satisfy Her Majesty, delaying the appearance of a sequel to Henry IV. The wait has made this summer afternoon in 1598 all the sweeter. As the performance begins, the audience once again revels in Falstaff and the heir apparent avoiding the battlefield for the bar. In both plays, Hal initially shirks his princely duties to drink with Falstaff at his favorite haunt, the Boar’s Head Tavern. The audience relishes this cheeky rebellion, raising their pints in unison.
The character of Sir John Falstaff is the soul of wit, inspired by drink. As the long-awaited sequel draws to a close, rebels surround the king’s troops and Falstaff evades the fighting on a nearby battlefield, sucking on his flask instead. In one of the play’s last scenes, the abstemious and dutiful Prince John chides Falstaff for his drinking, and the knight responds with a famous soliloquy, his encomium to the dry (“sec”) white wine known as sack:
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 crudy vapors 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.
Wine, in short, produces wit, and as Falstaff goes on to argue, courage as well—sack lights up the face like a bright-red beacon, warning the drinker to arm himself to fight. Falstaff argues so strongly for the benefits of intoxication that he ends the speech declaring, “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.”
With tankards in hand, the audience members watch Falstaff. Packed into the open-air theater, they are simultaneously enrapt by Shakespeare’s wit and diverted by the drinks and snacks on offer. While Falstaff tucks into his tavern fare—his famous bar bill in Henry IV, Part 1 included bread, anchovies, capon (a castrated rooster dish popular with Elizabethans), and two gallons of sack—the audience enjoys a feast of oysters, crabs, mussels, periwinkles, and cockles; some nibble on walnuts, hazelnuts, plums, cherries, peaches, dried raisins, or figs.