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Where the Bard Went to Lift His Spirits
Whenever an ill humor or a bleak sky oppressed Shakespeare during his theater years in London, he could count on a tavern to revitalize his spirits.
There were hundreds of such establishments in the city in his day. A typical tavern had a stone floor, beamed ceilings, round or rectangular wooden tables, several rooms for drinking and dining, and a long counter behind which tavern keepers stored the alcoholic beverages. The walls of the better establishments often displayed tapestries or paintings. In winter, the blaze of a tavern’s fireplaces made coming in from the cold one of the great pleasures of the everyday routine.
While patrons ate, drank, and socialized, tapsters opened barrels or casks as needed, and drawers ran the beverages into mugs, tankards, or other containers and carried them to the tables.
Two taverns that Shakespeare seemed to have particularly favored were the Boar’s Head in Eastcheap and the Mermaid in Cheapside, both of which burned down in London’s Great Fire of 1666. When Shakespeare visited them, he had an opportunity to hear news, eavesdrop on gossip, join songfests, or exchange ideas and repartee with fellow poets and playwrights.
At many of the taverns he frequented, he could choose from a variety of drinks–including red and white wine, beer, stout, ale, and sometimes an herbal liquor known as bitters. Some of the fictional characters in plays he was writing often went with him to a tavern, along with a tabula rasa on which to record their conversations and their preferences for food and drink. One of these characters was Sir John Falstaff, the fat rapscallion and braggart in Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays and The Merry Wives of Windsor. Falstaff's favorite drink was sack, a dry white wine imported from Spain and the Canary Islands. However, he complains in Henry IV Part I—in a scene set at the Boar’s Head—that the tavern keeper had watered the wine. “Here’s lime in this sack . . . There is nothing but roguery to be found in villainous man” (Act II, Scene IV, Lines 137-138). Lime was a medium of dilution.
Falstaff also drinks Madeira, a strong white or amber wine, as one of his drinking companions, Poins, notes in Act I, Scene II, of the same play. In fact, Falstaff has an appetite for almost anything that he can drink or eat. In this respect, he was in luck. For London’s taverns—in the fictional and real worlds—served not only a variety of drinks but also a variety of hearty meals that featured such fare as steak, pork, mutton, veal, rabbit, oysters, white fish, mincemeat pie, kidney pie, and freshly baked manchet (white bread or rolls with an excellent taste and texture). To slow the spoilage of meat–or to enhance the flavor of tainted meat–many tavern owners salted, smoked, or sugared their beef, poultry, and pork.
Of course, one of the most popular entrees in all taverns was conviviality—good conversation, fellowship, laughter, song, and perhaps a game of cards or dice. The Mermaid was well known for its convivial atmosphere. At this famous tavern, Shakespeare was a member of the Friday Street Club (so called because it was located on Friday Street), an organization of playwrights, poets, and actors founded in 1603 by Sir Walter Raleigh (1554-1618). The meeting time was the First Friday of each month. Besides Raleigh, members included Ben Jonson, John Donne, Francis Beaumont, John Fletcher, Robert Herrick, John Selden, and possibly Sir Francis Bacon. It is said that Jonson and Shakespeare often clashed in a battle of wits. Even though Jonson had an enormous reservoir of knowledge, the story goes, Shakespeare bettered him time and again with clever rejoinders and stunning bon mots. In The History of the Worthies of England, scholar and historian Thomas Fuller (1608-1661) writes of these verbal jousts:
Many were the wit combats betwixt him [Shakespeare] and Ben Jonson, which two I behold like a Spanish great galleon and an English man-of-war. Master Jonson, like the former, was built far higher in learning-solid, but slow in his performances; Shakespeare, with the English man-of-war, lesser in bulk but lighter in sailing, could turn with all tides, tack about, and take advantage of all winds by the quickness of his wit and invention.Fuller, of course, could not have witnessed a Shakespeare-Jonson encounter, for he had not even been born until eight years before Shakespeare's death. However, he was reputed to be a meticulous researcher who used many primary sources in preparing his books. Consequently, his account of the exchanges between the dueling playwrights is likely accurate.
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