By Diana Major Spencer
Queen Elizabeth may have asked to see Falstaff in love, but Shakespeare gave her Falstaff in lust–not for the merry wives, but for food and drink. His seduction letter begins with three “sympathies”: we’re similar in age; we both are merry; and “you love sack, and so do I” (2.1.9; all line references are from The Riverside Shakespeare [Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1974]). He ends the play with a posset, hot milk curdled with wine or ale and flavored with spices (true eggnog is a posset). Between, greeting the wives in the forest, he prays, “Let the sky rain potatoes; let it . . . hail kissing-comfits, and snow eringoes” (5.5.18–20), all aphrodisiac sweetmeats. Protestations of love come from Slender, Dr. Caius, and Fenton, only Fenton’s ringing true. But the abundance of references throughout the play to food and drink, meals and manners, and Falstaff’s bulk demonstrates where the focus lies.
Falstaff’s motive for wooing the women is not love, but his own penury–or scarcity of pounds, if we use the British monetary system—which threatens to lead to a physical loss of pounds and a pun: Just before bringing out the buck-basket, Mistress Ford avows, “I had rather than a thousand pounds he were out of the house” (3.3.123–24). These wives are attractive to Falstaff primarily because they control their husbands’ purses. They can solve his cash-flow problem.
In Act 1, Scene 3, Falstaff, complaining of his expenses of ten pounds per week, dismisses Bardolph and devises the plan to improve his means. Pistol agrees that “young ravens must have food” (1.3.35), a proverb about necessity which also underscores their role as scavengers. Falstaff then begins to tell Pistol and Nym “what [he is] about,” to which Pistol answers, “Two yards, and more.” Falstaff acknowledges that indeed he is “in the waist two yards about; but I am now about no waste; I am about thrift” (1.3.40-42).
His girth demands something to wash down his food or grease its way. When he isn’t courting, he is drinking, usually sack (dry [sec] sherry), though mine Host of the Garter hopes to drink canary (wine from the Canary Islands, similar to sherry) with him, while Ford thinks pipe wine (new wine from the cask) will “make him dance” (3.2.88–89) to the piper.
Liquor figures in puns, characterizations, and stereotypes. Ford, posing as Brook, introduces himself to Falstaff via a “morning’s draft of sack” (2.2.146-47). Falstaff slurps, “Such Brooks are welcome to me that o’erflows such liquor” (2.2.150-51). Bardolph was “gotten in drink” (1.3.22), which explains his red complexion, his propensity for drink, and his suitability for tapstering. Mistress Page calls Falstaff a “Flemish drunkard” (2.1.23), and Master Ford wouldn’t trust “an Irishman with [his] aqua-vitae bottle” (2.2.304).
While Falstaff drinks, the middle-class folks of Windsor gather for meals. Five separate meals occur during the play–none on stage. Master Page seals Anne’s betrothal to Slender over a meal at which venison pasty will be served and “we shall drink down all unkindness” (1.1.195-97). Slender’s triple lack—of intelligence, passion for Anne, and manners–is shown in his lengthy refusal of the invitation (1.1.261-313). Later, to cool Caius’s choler at his failed duel, the Host offers to take him where Anne is “at a farm-house a-feasting” (2.3.87).
In Act 3, Scene 2, two meals occur simultaneously: Ford invites the other men to share his “good cheer” (3.2.51); they decline because they “have appointed to dine with Mistress Anne” (3.2.54–55). Ford persuades Caius, Page, and Evans to accompany him, but dinner is postponed by the buck-basket episode. Ford also invites his friends to breakfast the next morning (3.2.230). Finally, Ford’s concern about his absurd jealousy is that he might become “table-sport” (4.2.62).
Named foods are plain fare rather than aristocratic: “bread and cheese” (2.1.36), now found as “Plowman’s Lunch” on pub menus; “a mess of porridge” (3.1.63), any thickened, boiled concoction from stew to mush; “fritters” (5.5.143), bits and pieces of anything, bound by a batter and fried; and “puddings” (2.1.31–32; 5.5.151), sausages or stuffings for whole animals.
Mistress Ford calls Falstaff a “gross wat’ry pompion [pumpkin]” (3.3.41). Anne Page “had rather be set quick i’ the earth/ And bowl’d to death with turnips” (3.4.87) than marry Slender. Evans, while waiting for his duel with Caius, threatens to “kno[ck] his urinals about his knave’s costard [country apple; i.e., Caius’s head]” (3.1.14). Evans mispronounces “words” as “worts,” meaning “vegetables,” which prompts Falstaff’s “good cabbage” (1.1.120-21), short for “cabbage head,” or fool. Finally, “the world is [Pistol’s] oyster” (2.2.3).
In the dairy case, Slender’s pale, phlegmatic complexion reminds the red-faced tinderbox Bardolph of a “Banbury cheese” (1.1.128), a particularly thin and pallid type of cream cheese from Banbury, where stands the Banbury Cross of nursery rhymes, only fifteen miles from Stratford. Simple describes Slender to Mistress Quickly as “whey-face” (1.4.22), the pale liquid drained from curds in cheese-making. More robust cheeses are associated with the Welsh: by Ford, who will not trust “Parson Hugh the Welshman with my cheese” (2.2.302–303), and by Falstaff twice in the forest: “Heavens defend me from that Welsh fairy, lest he transform me to a piece of cheese!” (5.5.82), and “Am I ridden with a Welsh goat too? . . . ’Tis time I were chok’d with a piece of toasted cheese” (5.5.139). Remember, Welsh rabbit (the original name for Welsh rarebit) is made of cheese, an English sneer at Welsh poverty.
The final food category–butter, grease and oil–mostly characterizes Falstaff, “this whale (with so many tuns of oil in his belly)” (2.1.64–65), “this greasy knight” (2.1.107-108), whose “wicked fire of lust [will] melt . . . him in his own grease” (2.1.67-68). He will be “ramm’d” in the buck-basket with “foul shirts and smocks, socks, foul stockings, greasy napkins” (3.5.91), “stinking clothes that fretted in their own grease” (3.5.113-14). “Think of that,” he laments, “that am as subject to heat as butter; . . . (when I was more than half stew’d in grease, like a Dutch dish) to be thrown into the Thames” (3.5.118-19).
Falstaff never quite falls in love, though he falls into a lot of other places. Perhaps Shakespeare showed him in the only love of which he was capable: food, drink, and the means to procure them. Elizabeth would not have been disappointed, however, for she loved the “potatoes,” “kissing-comfits,” and “eringoes” Falstaff wished for the wives (5.5.19–20). These candies, made from sweet potatoes, anise and caraway seeds, and roots of sea-holly, respectively, sweetened the breath and aroused sexual desire. They also blackened Liz’s teeth.