In Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, Sir Henry Guilford says, “Good company, good wine, good welcome can make good people.” That could be the motto of Winery Wednesdays, a performance series of The Bard’s work put on by the Theater at Monmouth (TAM) and Willows Awake Winery, in Leeds.
Having suspended its live performances in 2020 due to COVID, TAM sought an outdoor stage for some of its 2021 productions. Willows Awake Winery, located just four miles from TAM’s theater, offered an excellent venue. The program was so successful last year that both parties opted to continue it.
Jordyn Chelf, TAM’s marketing director, describes Winery Wednesdays as “a really beautiful partnership” that “grew out of necessity.” TAM encourages groundlings to book dinner at the winery before the performance and visit the bar during intermission. Even the wine list gets into the act, with selections such as Rustic Romance, The Princess, and King Red.
Shakespeare’s plays are drenched in booze, much of it irresponsibly consumed. The Mediterranean theme of this year’s series, It’s Greek (and Roman) To Me, puts wine, rather than beer, at center stage. The Bard’s attitude toward alcohol is ambivalent — some characters are jovial and clever in their cups, others are destroyed by drinking.
Antony and Cleopatra presents the single booziest scene on TAM’s stage this year. Rome’s elite power-brokers are trying to get each other drunk while simultaneously conspiring to cut each other’s throats. Octavius, a model of Roman rectitude, is reluctant to overindulge. “I had rather fast from all four days than drink so much in one.” Lepidus, the weak link in the triumvirate, suffers most from the wine but survives Act V’s carnage. Antony, the tragic hero whose debauchery ultimately ruins him, erroneously believes the drinking party has reconciled his rivals: “Come, let’s all take hands till that the conquering wine hath steeped our sense …”
Alcohol’s destructive power is most clearly rendered in the tragedies. Hamlet complains that his uncle drinks too much, noting that the Danes have an international reputation as drunkards. In Macbeth, the drunken porter expostulates: “Drink, sir, is a great provoker of three things … nose-painting, sleep, and urine. Lechery, sir, it provokes, and unprovokes; it provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance.” TAM’s actors have punctuated those lines with unforgettably hilarious gestures.
In Othello, the virtuous but unlucky Cassio laments, “I have very poor and unhappy brains for drinking. I could well wish courtesy would invent some other custom of entertainment.” At another point, he curses, “O thou invisible spirit of wine! If thou hast no name to be known by, let us call thee devil!”
Iago, the villain in Othello, counters, “Good wine is a good familiar creature, if it be well used.” He then proceeds to use wine to destroy Cassio’s reputation. Shakespeare chides his own countrymen for overindulgence, as Iago says, “I learned it in England, where indeed they are most potent in potting. Your Dane, your German, and your swag-bellied Hollander — Drink, ho! — are nothing to your English.”
The comedies and histories offer a merrier portrayal of tipsiness. Sir Toby Belch, Twelfth Night’s witty, loveable drunkard, schemes against a puritanical steward. The housemaid Maria warns Sir Toby “That quaffing and drinking will undo you.” But in the end, Sir Toby wins Maria’s heart as well as his struggle against temperance.
In Henry VI Part II, some stalwart anti-monarchists are plotting regime change in England. Dick the Butcher famously proposes, “First thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” Fellow conspirator Jack Cade is more concerned about the menace of session ales: “I shall make it felony to drink small beer.” The only thing Dick and Cade want to be imperial is their ale.
Of course, the epitome of Shakespearean inebriates is Sir John Falstaff, a booze hound so beloved that an American beer brand bore his name from 1903 to 2005. In Henry IV Part II, Falstaff complains about John of Lancaster, declaring, “A man cannot make him laugh — but that’s no marvel; he drinks no wine.” He then goes on to praise sack (sherry) for 30 lines, concluding, “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.”
Maybe TAM will choose a British theme for its next season and add Brewery Tuesdays to the schedule. Grateful Grain Brewing is also just down the road. A pint of their Fortitude Stout or Local Valor Porter would pair nicely with Henry V’s St. Crispin’s Eve speech. To paraphrase Falstaff’s page in Henry V, “Would I were in an alehouse in Monmouth! I would give all my fame for a pot of ale and safety.”
Feeling dramatic? Send Tom Major your soliloquy via email@example.com.