Monday, August 07, 2017

Falstaff's Sack

Not having a variorum edition at hand, the 1904 Arden Edition of The Merry Wives of Windsor, edited by H. C. Hart, is my go-to text for the play.  This for the exceptional footnotes.

I am one of those inexplicable souls who loves footnotes.  I even wrote an essay [see "The Internet and the Elegy"in praise of them:

Those medieval Internet sites -- those new-fangled printed books -- were essential even should they be filled with stories of two-headed men living in a new land called America. A book on navigation which warned of the terrible beasts lurking at the edge of the world still could be quite helpful in teaching celestial navigation between mainland and monster….

…it is only at about the time of Gray's "Elegy" that footnotes and bibliographies would become commonplace. The considerable good these texts did they did without such paraphernalia. It was the thousands of other texts (or sometimes portions of the same texts), that resulted in poisonings, maimings, malnourished children, ships run aground, poor writing, bogus history, etc., which led to the adoption of standards. The vast new population of acolytes in the realm of learning were unlikely to have the time to develop a substantial background from scratch. Those who sought to do so in earnest were faced with a deluge of titles before which they were overwhelmed. Few persevered. The rest remained a step behind, the validity of their knowledge assured by bibliographies and footnotes and their willingness to use them.

They are an historically important addition from the 18th century when scholarship and educated audience was rapidly growing.



While I expect no ships run to aground in respect of a poorly annotated version of a Shakespeare play, I do expect a third-rate reading.  At least until the plays have been read for a considerable time with navigational aid of the footnote at hand.

Take, for instance, Hart’s delightful footnote on the following lines, spoken by Mr. Ford who is disguised as Mr. Brook.  He is aware of Falstaff’s love of the wine called “sack”:

Ford. … I’ll give you a pottle of
burnt sack to give me recourse to him, and tell
him my name is Brook; only for a jest.

The question Mr. Hart addresses is “Just what is sack?”.  This is not the first time the question has been addressed but his is a particularly thorough attempt at an answer.

II. i. 219. burnt sack] See again III. i. 111, and Twelfth Night, II. iii. 206.  Burning (or boiling) sack, or any other wine, was a custom in vogue to mitigate new wine, and probably also to assist in melting the sugar so constantly used in these decoctions. It is an ancient custom, and we have probably added nothing to the knowledge of the ancients with regard to the juice of the grape. “They boile new wine sufficiently to the proportion of the strength, until the hardnesse do evaporate, and that it wax mild and sweet: but being thus ordered, it will not last (they say) above one yeere,” Holland’s Plinie, xiv. 19. And later: “But to returne againe to our burning and sophistication of wines,” ibid. ch. xx. (p. 425).

Right off the bat, we get the the good and the bad of footnotes.  We now know that boiled wine cannot be aged and that someone named Holland published a translation of Pliny.  The Internet at hand, we find numerous digital reproductions of Philemon Holland’s 700-plus page Plinie (1601).  Into the library, then, and, because we have been doing this for more years than we admit to being alive, we know that, regardless of Hart's claims to the contrary, Pliny’s information bears no particular relationship to sack.

But, for better or worse, we’re off to the races.  And, in the final analysis, on balance it will be for the better:

“Dead sack” is wine so treated, and left too long. It is sometimes mentioned. Burning wine is not often referred to in Shakespeare’s time, nevertheless it was a usual practice. Thus in Wilkins’ Miseries of Enforced Marriage Act III., 1607: “Nay, nay, nay, Will: prythee come away, we have a full gallon of sack stays in the fire for thee.” And S. Rowland’s Satire, 6, 1600, “To burne

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