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Shakespeare & Beyond

Not Shakespeare’s cup of tea: Consuming caffeine in early modern England

Pamphlet against coffee
Pamphlet against coffee

In Shakespeare’s plays, we find scenes that take place in taverns and alehouses – but no coffee shops – and characters who drink ale and wine – but not what we now think of as the quintessential English beverage: tea. While Falstaff spends much of Henry IV, Part 1 calling for another cup of sack (a popular Spanish white wine in the period), never does he call for a cup of coffee. That’s because alcohol was a daily component of early English diets, but caffeine was almost certainly not introduced to England until after Shakespeare’s death in 1616.

Coffee, tea, and chocolate were among the many new foodstuffs introduced to English diets over the seventeenth century thanks to expanding global commerce. The English approached these new victuals both with great interest and with great apprehension. There were many—sometimes conflicting—theories about food, but consumption of foreign products was generally discouraged, in part because it was thought that local foods were best suited to people’s constitutions, and in part because of a concern about contamination by foreign elements. Chocolate, coffee, and tea attracted particular attention not only because they tasted good but also because their stimulating qualities were unusual to those immersed in a food culture historically reliant on the consumption of alcohol.


Hi, great article. Where can I find you to ask some questions about print history? I am interested in learning about the inner workings of early print shops.

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