The morning of Juliet's arranged marriage to Paris, her nurse walks into her chamber and discovers her charge "stiff and stark and cold," just as Friar Lawrence had promised young Miss Capulet she would be after drinking a vial of his magical sleeping potion. At first the nurse believes that Juliet is no more than a "slug-abed" or sleepyhead who can't wake up. She even vulgarly suggests that Juliet "sleep for a week; for the next night, I warrant, The County Paris hath set up his rest that you shall rest but little."
When she realizes that Juilet is in the same clothes that she went to bed in and has "no warmth, no breathe," the nurse screams out:
"Alas, alas! Help! Help! My lady's dead! O, well-a-day that ever I was born! Some aqua-vitae, ho! --my lord! my lady!
Aqua vitae (ah-kwa vee-tay) was alcohol, much like brandy. And although it seems a little insensitive to be asking for a cocktail in a moment of tragic loss, taking a nip of alcohol wasn't out of line. Getting your hands on some aqua vitae was probably a lot easier than finding a cool, clean glass of water. The nurse may have also hoped that by sipping something strong she'd snap out of the nightmare, come to her senses, and find her fair maiden alive.
Shakespeare also mentions the hard stuff once more in Romeo & Juliet, as well as in The Merry Wives of Windsor, Comedy of Errors, Twelfth Night, and Winter's Tale. We also suspect that aqua vitae may have been the driving force behind MacBeth's absolutely mad killing spree. Had he been sober at any point in the story, everyone would have lived happily ever after.
The next time you're sitting at a bar, order some aqua vitae. If the bartender or other patrons don't know what you mean, well...you've got a few stories to tell.
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