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Volume 72, Issue 3, Summer 2020

Sean Benson
Pages 147-162

“[D]runk with those that have the fear of God”
Shakespeare on Social Drunkenness

The standard view is that Shakespeare depicts alcoholic consumption as good in moderation, but bad when used to excess. Although he illustrates in Falstaff and others alcohol’s debilitating effects, Shakespeare also treats occasional drunkenness at festive events—christenings, wakes, church ales—as benign and even salutary. Such occasions are part and parcel of the pre-Reformation tolerance of social drunkenness (as opposed to moderate imbibing), what I call good Christian drinking. The REED documents attest to the church’s accommodation of drinking at parish festivities, particularly at ales. I argue that Shakespeare’s plays permit and even encourage social drunkenness as a lubricant for fellowship—especially if the drinking is done in the company of fellow believers. Engaging this serious Reformation controversy with comic levity, Shakespeare shows a taste that is remarkably latitudinarian concerning the religious tolerance of social drunkenness.

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