Falstaff’s Sack

Shakespeare’s Falstaff — suspicious of the “sober-blooded” — is veritably rhapsodic about the empowering virtues of Andalusian sherry

Food Literature Wine

In Act IV scene iii of Henry IV, Part 2, after the battle of Gaultree Forest when he has luckily (or, as he prefers to represent it to Prince John, as a result of his “pure and immaculate valour”) apprehended the runaway rebel Sir John Colevile of the Dale, Falstaff is temporarily left alone on stage.  Prince John is heading back to London to attend his sick father, leaving Falstaff with words poised between menace and reassurance: “Fare you well, Falstaff. I, in my condition, Shall better speak of you than you deserve.” Falstaff’s wonderfully prompt and bitter retort — “I would you had but the wit, ’twere better than your dukedom” — pursues the dispassionate, Machiavellian prince off-stage.

What follows is a glorious speech for the actor playing Falstaff, whom Shakespeare allows for a few minutes to have the audience entirely to himself. Falstaff begins by reflecting on why it is that Prince John is so wary of him: “Good faith, this same young sober-blooded boy doth not love me, nor a man cannot make him laugh.” The reason for this strikes him immediately — indeed, was already latent in his phrase “sober-blooded”: “but that’s no marvel, he drinks no wine.”  This leads naturally to some rueful wisdom about the terrible effects that abstinence has on both the body and the moral character:

There’s never none of these demure boys come to any proof; for thin drink doth so over-cool their blood, and making many fish meals, that they fall into a kind of male green-sickness; and then when they marry they get wenches. They are generally fools and cowards — which some of us should be too, but for inflammation.

That flash of honest insight into himself and the liquid sources of his own courage, such as it is (for Falstaff is rarely self-deceived, however much he may try to deceive others) leads him into the heart of his speech, which is an encomium on his own favourite drink, “sherris-sack”.

Then, as now, “sherris-sack” was a fortified white wine from Xeres (now Jerez) in the south of Spain, produced on the “solera” system in which older wines, still in cask, are topped up with younger wines so as to create a consistent blend of younger and older vintages. In the 1590s sack had become newly popular in England as a result of the thousands of barrels Sir Francis Drake had brought back from Cadiz as plunder in 1587 (“sack” comes from the Spanish word saca, referring to the extraction of wine from the solera).

Falstaff sees two virtues in sherry. The first is its inspirational intellectual effect:

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 science underlying this rhapsody will not bear much inspection, but it’s worth noting all the same the subtlety and attractiveness of the language that Falstaff uses to evoke that first stage of intoxication, when one is elevated without being befuddled.

The second benefit of sherry is the bodily reinforcement it supplies:

The second property of your excellent sherris 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 sherris warms it, and makes it course from the inwards to the parts’ extremes.

The moralised physiology of the sherry-drinker then gives out visible signs of the encouragement it has received. The devotee of sack is transformed by its action from a pusillanimous coward to a veritable Mars:

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 this retinue, doth any deed of courage; and this valour comes of sherris.

Finally, these thoughts lead Falstaff back to Prince Hal, who unlike his abstinent brother has wisely and prudently taken advantage of the health benefits of sherry:

Hereof comes it that Prince Harry is valiant; for the cold blood he did naturally inherit of his father he hath like lean, sterile, and bare land manured, husbanded, and tilled, with excellent endeavour of drinking good and good store of fertile sherris, that he is become very hot and valiant.

After this virtuoso redescription of dissipation as wise husbandry, Falstaff draws the conclusion: “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.” “Addict” here does not primarily carry its modern meaning of “become physically dependent on”.  In the 1590s its connotations were far less degrading, for it chiefly meant to sign up to something, or formally to associate yourself with something. It tended to be used of principled commitments (such as religion), rather than accidentally or viciously acquired cravings and dependencies. This choice of word, which modern ears may easily mishear as an unexpected moment of candour  by Falstaff concerning the abjection that drink can lead to, is in fact the final stroke in Falstaff’s brilliant dressing-up of habitual drunkenness in the garb of enlightened wisdom, careful prudence and sober principle.

Part of the great joke here, of course, is that this encomium on the bodily and psychological benefits of excessive drinking has been given to a man whose urine (as we know from the opening scenes of the play) shows traces of more diseases than his doctor is acquainted with, and whose girth announces him as (in Hal’s words) “that bolting-hutch of beastliness, that swollen parcel of dropsies, that huge bombard of sack, that stuffed cloakbag of guts, that roasted Manningtree ox with the pudding in his belly”.  

But the unlikeliness of the spokesman for this positive view of drinking should not lead us to the conclusion that, for Shakespeare’s audiences, what Falstaff was saying was self-evidently rubbish. If Falstaff’s view of drinking were merely incredible, the point of the joke would be entirely lost — the impudence lies in the speaker, not the doctrine.  In fact, Falstaff’s ideas on drink, and the models of the mind and the body which inform it, open a window on to early modern attitudes to those topics which were very durable. As late as 1795, John Wright in his Essay on Wines would praise the effects of port in terms clearly close to those used by Falstaff: “good wine now and then mends the mind, prevents peevishness, and gives a gentle fill up to sluggish circulation or nervous torpor.”

Modern medical science wishes increasingly to persuade us that wine, in common with other forms of alcohol, is nothing more than a powerful cell poison. But for many centuries men have thought about wine in more subtle and more positive ways than this, and it would be arrogance to say that they were simply mistaken. In fact, it would be even worse than arrogance — it would be to associate yourself with Prince John, rather than with Falstaff.