Amidst the titanic themes that dominate Shakespeare’s works, the consumption of alcohol may seem of small import. The subject, however, raises a number of intriguing questions, most immediately concerning the playwright’s own ambivalence. Throughout his plays, he presents figures who drink lustily, as well as others who demur from all liquor. In general, members of the former category resonate sympathetically, while those in the latter group are far less likeable. Yet this dichotomy is not always clear. Some drinkers are distinctly unpleasant folks, while those who abstain, even if not loveable, demonstrate redeeming qualities.
Consider, for instance, Cassio in Othello. He has been appointed by Othello to be his lieutenant, a rank above Iago, an ensign, who mocks the young man’s inexperience:
That never set a squadron in the field,
Nor the division of a battle knows
More than a spinster…
(I, i, 21–24)
Cassio also exudes courtliness, as when he describes Othello’s marriage to Desdemona:
That paragons description and wild fame;
One that excels the quirks of blazoning pens,
And in th’ essential vesture of creation
Does tire the [ingener].
(II, i, 61–65)