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In Act IV scene iii of Henry IV, Part 2, after the battle of Gaultree Forest when he has luckily (or, as he prefers to represent it to Prince John, as a result of his "pure and immaculate valour") apprehended the runaway rebel Sir John Colevile of the Dale, Falstaff is temporarily left alone on stage.  Prince John is heading back to London to attend his sick father, leaving Falstaff with words poised between menace and reassurance: "Fare you well, Falstaff. I, in my condition, Shall better speak of you than you deserve." Falstaff's wonderfully prompt and bitter retort — "I would you had but the wit, 'twere better than your dukedom" — pursues the dispassionate, Machiavellian prince off-stage.

What follows is a glorious speech for the actor playing Falstaff, whom Shakespeare allows for a few minutes to have the audience entirely to himself. Falstaff begins by reflecting on why it is that Prince John is so wary of him: "Good faith, this same young sober-blooded boy doth not love me, nor a man cannot make him laugh." The reason for this strikes him immediately — indeed, was already latent in his phrase "sober-blooded": "but that's no marvel, he drinks no wine."  This leads naturally to some rueful wisdom about the terrible effects that abstinence has on both the body and the moral character:

There's never none of these demure boys come to any proof; for thin drink doth so over-cool their blood, and making many fish meals, that they fall into a kind of male green-sickness; and then when they marry they get wenches. They are generally fools and cowards — which some of us should be too, but for inflammation.

That flash of honest insight into himself and the liquid sources of his own courage, such as it is (for Falstaff is rarely self-deceived, however much he may try to deceive others) leads him into the heart of his speech, which is an encomium on his own favourite drink, "sherris-sack".

Then, as now, "sherris-sack" was a fortified white wine from Xeres (now Jerez) in the south of Spain, produced on the "solera" system in which older wines, still in cask, are topped up with younger wines so as to create a consistent blend of younger and older vintages. In the 1590s sack had become newly popular in England as a result of the thousands of barrels Sir Francis Drake had brought back from Cadiz as plunder in 1587 ("sack" comes from the Spanish word saca, referring to the extraction of wine from the solera).

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