by Brooke Nguyen
April 2012

According to Buckner B. Trawick, each of Shakespeare’s plays has at least one reference or thematic element pertaining to alcohol (1). In general, Shakespeare’s characters drink for “good spirits, comfort, confidence, courage, hospitality, good fellowship, and the desire to forget” (35). But while the use of alcohol to promote the general feeling of happiness is apparent in several of his plays, Shakespeare occasionally takes the subject matter one step further and explores the effects of drunkenness and alcoholism. In Macbeth, Shakespeare incorporates references to alcohol to reflect Renaissance England’s religious views on alcoholism and shame; to highlight the connection between power, sex, and intoxication; and ultimately, to drive the plot.

To understand the significant role of alcohol in Shakespeare’s plays, one must take in to account its history in Renaissance England. In Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol, Iain Gately explains that alcohol, commonly found in the form of ale or wine, was a dietary staple in Shakespeare’s time (106). Due to the lack of clean water, alcohol was the primary form of liquid nourishment. Up until the Protestant Reformation, people remained relatively indifferent on the subject of alcohol. As religious tensions rose, however, Protestants and Catholics began insulting each other with accusations of drunkenness. Gately states, “Such accusations cause[d] both sects to scrutinize the place of drink in their version of a Christian society” (106). While some religious radicals spoke out against alcohol, wine was ultimately regarded as a religious symbol and alcoholic beverages themselves were not condemned by society or religious leaders. Excessive drinking or alcoholism, on the other hand, was viewed as “un-Christian,” and became increasingly frowned upon as society began to emphasize “moderation in drinking” (Gately 106, 109). This idea is reflected in Macbeth, a play in which alcohol is dangerous when abused. A swig of alcohol gives Lady Macbeth the “courage” to initiate the planned assassination—“That which hath made them drunk hath made me bold; what hath quenched them hath given me fire” (2.2.1-2)—and, at the same time, the guards and King Duncan’s choice to drink ultimately proves fatal to them.

Ironically, the stresses of religious and political turmoil in Elizabethan England generated a rise in alcohol establishments. An abundance of inns, taverns, breweries, and alehouses were erected to help citizens cope with national issues (110). Regardless of the issue, ale was still viewed as a national commodity. It was not the drink itself that made men fools, but their individual weaknesses. Thus, alcohol was closely associated with manhood and shame.

The connection between manhood and shame is an important theme in Macbeth, and, interestingly enough, it is during the scene in which Macbeth’s manhood is being discussed directly that alcohol is mentioned. According to Ewan Fernie, in the Renaissance, alcoholism (and drunkenness in general) shamed a man, as it marked an absence of strength and restraint against bodily temptations (83). An example of this idea manifesting itself in the play is when Lady Macbeth, in response to Macbeth’s hesitation to follow through with Duncan’s assassination, asks, “Was the hope drunk wherein you dressed yourself?  Hath it slept since? And wakes it now, to look so green and pale at what it did so freely?” (1.7.37-39). Lady Macbeth is referring to what Brad J. Bushman and Harris M. Cooper identify in their research as the marked increase of aggression followed by the debilitating hangover that accompanies intoxication (350), and she is connecting it to Macbeth’s sudden reluctance to kill Duncan. In short, she is bringing to light his failure as a man by alluding to intoxication.

Gender expectations are also a preoccupation in the case of Lady Macbeth. During the Renaissance, English society deemed it shameful for a woman to engage in violence regardless of the intention (83). For Lady Macbeth to plot Duncan’s murder is for her to cross into “manly” matters. In this and several other instances, Lady Macbeth resembles the witches, who take pleasure in tormenting people and constantly meddling in the affairs of men.

Significantly, the sinister female figures in Macbeth exhibit the exact qualities that Renaissance society ascribed to women brewers of alcohol. In Food in Shakespeare: Early Modern Dietaries and the Plays, Joan Fitzpatrick reports that while Elizabethan society allowed women to drink, it did not look favorably on women who made a living brewing alcohol. Women brewers had a reputation for contaminating the alcohol and possessing overall vulgar and menacing personalities (Fitzpatrick 50). Shakespeare’s portrayal of Lady Macbeth and the three witches, then, draws from the negative outlook on women who made and sold alcohol. It is no accident that the play opens with the witches “brewing” a hideous concoction.

During the Renaissance, people typically understood human health, personality, and temperament using the theory of humoralism. N. S. Gill explains that according to this theory, people are comprised of four substances: yellow bile, black bile, phlegm, and blood. These four “humors” are directly associated with earthly seasons and elements. The humors also represent behavioral tendencies in people. In “‘Fluster’d with Flowing Cups’: Alcoholism, Humoralism, and the Prosthetic Narrative in Othello,” David H. Wood tells us that Renaissance society commonly believed that individuals who manifested certain humors over others were more prone to acquire certain diseases, addictions, or tempers. Thus, any sickness of the mind or body was attributed to an imbalance of these humors. Given what we know about humoral theory, Wood surmises that it is reasonable to expect that an Elizabethan audience would be able to analyze and relate to the characters in plays based on their ailments, affinities, and addictions, including alcoholism.

Aside from psychological causes of intoxication, Elizabethans would have had an interest in the physical effects of alcohol. In Macbeth, the effects of alcohol of the human body are clearly stated in the conversation between the Porter and Macduff. The Porter jests, “drink sir, is a great provoker of three things … nose-painting, sleep, and urine” (2.3.24-27). The Porter also mentions that alcohol is an “equivocator” of lechery as it “provokes the desire but takes away the performance,” a reference to impotency (2.3.28). Modern-day science confirms the negative effects of alcohol on the brain and the body that the Porter relates in Macbeth. According to Matthews and McQuain, alcohol increases blood circulation, which accounts for the perceived warmth, and red face (nose-painting) “depresses the nervous system,” causes impotence, and delays motor functions (196-197).

The Porter’s scene is best known for its comedic value, but upon closer analysis, it serves another purpose: to bring audience attention to the frequency of alcohol abuse in the play. Significantly, the Porter’s memorable lines follow the murder of King Duncan and the scene in which Lady Macbeth chastises Macbeth as he begins to regret his deed. It is possible that Shakespeare was attempting to show a connection between the lust for power, the seductiveness of women, and the effects of alcohol. In Macbeth’s case, power, women and alcohol are all tempting, dangerous, and result in some form of failure.

The connections between power, women, and alcohol point back to sexuality, another important focus in Macbeth. Dennis Biggins suggests that the reason Lady Macbeth is so bitter towards her husband may be that he is impotent. Biggins argues that although the couple has a passionate, erotic connection, it seems to manifest itself between the two characters via violent acts rather than sexual ones. It is obvious that the Macbeth’s have no children. Seeing as how impotence is particularly related to manhood, it is possible that Lady Macbeth resents her husband for not providing her with children. Interestingly, the Porter talks about impotency as a side-effect of intoxication when he explains to Macduff that alcohol inspires and inhibits lechery at the same time. This may be a suggestion that the physical effects of alcohol often manifest themselves in the Macbeths’ relationship.

The scene between the Porter and Macduff also supports the notion that alcohol is a great equalizer. During the Renaissance, alcohol was readily available and consumed by citizens of every social rank, and of every “morality,” “temperament,” and “intelligence” (Trawick 27). Trawick points out that while the quality and type of drink varied between classes, the effects of alcohol on the human body did not. Therefore, it was equally embarrassing for an aristocrat to become intoxicated as it was for a peasant (28). The dialogue between the Porter and Macduff illustrates this concept. While the men are of different ranks, they share an understanding of the risks of alcohol.

At the same time that the references to alcohol are a reflection of the society that Shakespeare was writing for, alcohol also functions in Macbeth, on a basic level, simply to drive the plot forward. The characters in Macbeth seem to be drinking from the beginning of the play, and it is their inclination toward alcohol that aids Macbeth in initiating a string of murders. When Duncan arrives at the Macbeths’, a feast is held, and ale is undoubtedly served. Alcohol creates an atmosphere of community and celebration, but the sense of hospitality that results whenever the Macbeths are serving alcohol masks their true intentions. Soon after the dinner begins, Duncan is drunk and goes to bed. It is not a stretch to assume that most attendees of the party are in some sort of drunken sleep during Duncan’s assassination. This certainly helps Macbeth to avoid creating a commotion. Not only are the guards drugged and intoxicated, but Donalbain, in the room adjacent, does not stir.

The second time alcohol is directly involved in the play is during the banquet commemorating Banquo and Macbeth’s military achievements. Macbeth encourages his guests, “Be large in mirth; anon we’ll drink a measure the table round” (3.4.11). Again, alcohol is seen here as a sign of hospitality with the purpose of promoting good spirits, but it also masks the sinister events at hand. After the murderer gives Macbeth word of Banquo’s demise, Macbeth startles his guests and wife by reacting to an unseen entity, Banquo’s ghost. Macbeth is able to stave off any suspicious looks by blaming it on the alcohol. Macbeth reassures his guests:

Do not muse at me, my most worthy friends; I have a strange infirmity, which is nothing to those that know me. Come, love and health to all!  Then I’ll sit down. Give me some wine. Fill full. […]. I drink to th’general joy o’th’whole table, and to our dear friend Banquo, whom we miss. Would he were here!  To all, and him, we thirst. And all to all.


His guests, in turn, attribute his behavior to intoxication rather than suspecting him of a crime. It is probable that Macbeth is drunk or at least influenced by alcohol, in which case, alcohol serves to expose Macbeth’s true character and anxieties to the audience and amplifies the dramatic element of the scene as a whole.

The scenes in Macbeth that deal directly with alcohol play a large role in the advancement of the plot. Macbeth uses alcohol to simulate a secure environment for Duncan, eliminate the chance of interruption during the assassination, and evade his subjects’ suspicion at the banquet he and Lady Macbeth host. If Duncan’s guards, the Porter, and the banquet guests had not been drinking, Macbeth would not have been able to enact so many murders or to get away with his killing spree for as long as he does.

As Trawick argues, even those references to alcohol in Macbeth that are “unrelated” to the actual consumption of alcohol nevertheless produce a common imagery that underscores the importance of alcohol in the play. Trawick claims that the prevalence of alcoholic imagery in a character’s dialogue reveals his or her inner workings (44-45). For example, Lady Macbeth makes at least three references to alcohol in her speech.[1] In total, Macbeth contains eleven references to alcohol, eight of which are directly related to drinking, and three of which are metaphoric uses of alcoholic terms (Trawick 66).

As a playwright, Shakespeare incorporated references to alcohol both symbolically—to underscore the religious and social issues of his time—and directly, to advance the plot. While references to alcohol appear in all of Shakespeare’s works, the fact that alcohol can promote positive feelings while, simultaneously, enabling sinister acts to take place makes it particularly appropriate for the passionate, violent tragedy that is Macbeth.


[1] The significance of alcohol as a plot driver is even more obvious in Scotland, PA, the 2003 adaptation of Macbeth. The film takes place in Scotland, Pennsylvania, as the title suggests, during the 1970s, when drugs and alcohol were widely abused, and in the film, alcohol is directly responsible for the downfall of several characters. While the film itself is a parody of American culture and Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the role of alcohol in the plot of the movie is just as crucial as it is in the play. Like Macbeth, there is a strong connection between the movie plot and the role of alcohol.

Works Cited

Biggins, Dennis. “Sexuality, Witchcraft, and Violence in Macbeth.” Reprinted from Shakespeare Studies 8 (1976): 255-77. English Course Materials Database. Nanjing University. Web. 15 March 2011.

Bushman, Brad J., and Harris M. Cooper. “Effects of Alcohol on Human Aggression: An Integrative Research Review.” Psychological Bulletin 107.3 (1990): 341-54.

Fernie, Ewan. Shame in Shakespeare. London: Routledge, 2002. Print.

Fitzpatrick, Joan. Food in Shakespeare: Early Modern Dietaries and the Plays. Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2007. Print.

Gately, Iain. Drink: a Cultural History of Alcohol. New York: Gotham, 2008. Print.

Gill, N.S. “Four Humors—Hippocratic Method and the Four Humors in Medicine.” Ancient/Classical History: Ancient Greece & Rome & Classics Research Guide. Web. 15 Mar. 2011.

Matthews, Paul M. and Jeff McQuain. The Bard on the Brain: Understanding the Mind through the Art of Shakespeare and the Science of Brain Imaging. New York: Dana, 2003. Print.

Scotland, P.A. Dir. Billy Morrissette. Perf. James LeGros, Maura Tierney, and Christopher Walken. 2001. Film.

Shakespeare, William. Shakespeare’s Tragedies. Ed. David M. Bevington. New York: Longman, 2007. Print.

Trawick, Buckner B. Shakespeare and Alcohol. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1978. Print.

Wood, David H. “‘Fluster’d with Flowing Cups’: Alcoholism, Humoralism, and the Prosthetic Narrative in Othello.” Disability Studies Quarterly (2009). Web. 15 Mar. 2011.

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