Alcoholism in Elizabethan England

by Kady Mccoy


In Shakespeare’s The Tempest, as well as the in- class play that my group performed, one of the main themes is alcoholism. This is an important theme with direct correlation to Caliban. In modern times, alcohol is far from rare and can be seen in movies, plays, and on every form of social media, but I wanted to research how it was viewed in Elizabethan times when this play was originally written and performed.

Binge- drinking is not only a problem that modern times face, but was actually a problem that Elizabethan England had to deal with (Gye). It has been said that people consumed beer much more than water because it was seen as being cleaner and free of disease and it was also seen as being a gift from God (Gye). Even today in church wine (a form of alcohol) is used as the blood of Christ and is consumed in a religious matter. Drinking beer for breakfast was not uncommon, nor was it uncommon for children to also consume alcohol (Gye). Due to this, the consumption rates of alcohol – particularly beer or ale- was considerably high (Hanson). This overconsumption became a problem and the alcohol abuse was so widespread that under the reign of Edward VI, alehouses were required to have licenses in 1552 (Gye). When people were caught being too drunk in public, they were forced to be publically humiliated. “Drunkards” were put into the stocks or forced to wear hallowed- out beer barrels as a couple of the possible punishments, and these people were usually members of the lower social class (Gye).

In the play, we see characters Stefano and Trinculo give alcohol to Caliban for the first time. Caliban, almost immediately, becomes this drunken fool and is made fun of by Trinculo. Mind you, Caliban is the native of the island and is slave to Prospero, meaning that he is of the lowest social class and is humiliated by Trinculo almost the whole time they are together. Earlier in the play, Caliban is introduced and as he enters, shows great resistance to Prospero and embodies a hate towards him for enslaving him on his own island. This is contrasted when Stefano and Trinculo arrive and give him alcohol because Caliban willingly verbally enslaves himself to Stefano. According to O’Toole’s analysis of Caliban’s character, he says that Caliban is “incapable of autonomy.” After Caliban receives some of Stefano’s “celestial liquor” he bows to Stefano and refers to him as “king,” “master,” and “god,” instead of begging for freedom. This sentiment allows the reader or audience of the play to see Caliban as a very low and pathetic character leading to their possible empathy for him.

Another theme that can be linked to Caliban is colonialism. As Sally Shader says in her scholarly article, “linking Caliban to Native Americans is nothing new… Caliban’s drunken actions… only highlight the negative role that alcohol has played in the Native American community” (24). While my other group member will be looking more closely at the colonialism aspect of the play, it is important to see the link between that theme and the way alcohol contributed to the negative light that Natives were seen in. It can be said that while Caliban and the Native Americans experienced fear and uncertainty due to the new inhabitants of their land, they used alcohol to cope with their feelings and the intruders (Shader, 28).

While alcohol and the use of it is sometimes underrated and not focused on, it is an important issue and theme to learn about and focus on in relation to The Tempest. Caliban’s character may be seen as minor, but that does not diminish his extreme importance within this play and his direct correlation to alcohol and the consumption of it.



Gye, Hugo. “Binge Drink (16th century) Britain! How the Tudors were worried by alcohol- related violence…” Daily Mail Online. Associated Newspapers, 30 April 2013, Accessed 13 November 2016.

Hanson, David J. Ph.D. “Alcohol During the Renaissance: 15th and 16th Centuries.” Alcohol Problems & Solutions, 18 October 2016, Accessed 13 November 2016.

O’Toole, Michael. “Shakespeare’s Natives: Ariel and Caliban in The Tempest.” Columbia University in the City of New York, Accessed 14 November 2016

Shader, Sally. “The liquor is not earthly”: The Tempest and the Downfall of Native Americans.” The Oswald Review: An International Journal of Undergraduate Research and Criticism in the Discipline of English, vol. 11, no. 1, 1 Jan 2009, Accessed 20 November 2016.