The Mermaid Tavern, London 1599
Souls of poets dead and gone,
What Elysium have ye known,
Happy field or mossy cavern,
Choicer than the Mermaid Tavern?
John Keats: Lines on the Mermaid Tavern, 1819
Big changes are afoot in old London Town. For starters, a new queen sits on the throne, Elizabeth I. Her economic policies have created a brand new strata of society—the middle class. Londoners have more expendable income than ever before, and they spend a lot of it on entertainment and booze. Drinks can be had for a pittance. Most people drink ale or mead, as wine is too costly to import and grapes don’t do well in the chilly English climate. Favored entertainments include wrestling matches, bear baiting and live professional theater, a fairly new invention that has reintroduced a kind of fame the world hasn’t seen for a thousand years—the celebrity writer. If you’re looking for a fine place in which to tip a few dozen pots of ale, you need only follow the scribes.
Young, famous, and increasingly wealthy, London’s professional playwrights and poets know how to have a good time. A later historian will separate six of them from the flock and name them the Roaring Boys—Thomas Kyd, Thomas Nash, John Webster, Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe and perhaps the greatest scribe of all time, William Shakespeare. Each has his favorite tavern, but most days they congregate at the Mermaid.
Day, night, and in between, if you are drinking, the Mermaid is serving. Find a table near the back of the common room so you can watch the entire scene. Ask any of the comely barmaids for a pot of the day’s best. Don’t try the sausages; they smell funny. Sit back, take a pull of that rich, warm ale and relax. If you grow restless, you can avail yourself of numerous entertainment options. You might gamble with cards or dice, play skittles, bowl, or wager among your friends as you see fit. On a good night, someone might bring in a wild beast (usually from “darkest Africa”) or a horribly disfigured person, and you can take a gander for a penny. If the mood takes you, the room is rife with entrepreneurial ladies, whose favors come in a range of prices. Many of them still have teeth.
Drink all you can afford, but be watchful who you talk to. Elizabethan London is a cesspool of political gamesmanship, and aswarm with spies and blabbermouths more than willing to rat you out for a few pennies. Duels are also commonplace at the Mermaid, as are run-of-the-mill disagreements that turn into ferocious blood-fests. If the Mermaid is your destination, bring your sword. A back-up dagger in your boot won’t hurt either. Bring enough coin to (quietly; just a whisper to the tavern keeper) buy a round for the house. Someone will return the favor. It’s the custom.
So the Modern Drunkard Magazine states. We could not have said it better.