The Merry Wives of Windsor
By Dennis Abrams
Act Four: At Ford’s house, Falstaff’s renewed attempt to seduce Mistress Ford is stalled once again by the arrival of Mistress Page, warning that an angry Ford is on the prowl. The two women disguise Falstaff as an old woman before Ford enters; again, he is baffled to have once again missed his wife’s supposed lover. But Mistress Ford soon reveals the truth, and two reconciled couples plot Falstaff’s final humiliation – which will take place that night in Windsor Park. On top of this, Page has secretly arranged for Anna to elope with Slender, while his wife (not knowing her husband’s plan), plots the same, albeit with Caius.
As we read Act Four, there is a gratifying aptness in seeing Ford’s misogyny (is there any other way to describe it?), addressing itself to one of Shakespeare’s most resolutely masculine characters, and that pleasure is only multiplied by the irony that this is the only time in all of Shakespeare’s plays that a man appears on stage dressed as a woman (an irony not without force, given the completely transvestite theatre for which he wrote). Ford’s own response to the situation is unwittingly to ridicule himself. ‘Come hither, Mistress Ford!’ he yells,
Mistress Ford, the honest woman, the modest wife, the virtuous creature, that hath the jealous fool to her husband. I suspect without cause, mistress, do I?
God be my witness you do, if you suspect me in any dishonesty.
It is only following this incident that the wives decide that Ford has suffered enough and let him into their big secret.
From Maurice Charney’s All of Shakespeare:
“Not only is Falstaff reduced in stature (but not in girth) to accommodate him to The Merry Wives, but all the other characters are drawn to scale for the town of Windsor and its homely preoccupations. The insanely jealous Ford, in the guise of Master Brooke, is no Othello or even Leontes. He seems full of a cringing and masochistic pleasure in his own imagined cuckoldry. His tortured soliloquies are deliberately antiheroic, as Ford squirms in his own discomfiture. There are three soliloquies that are obviously related to the sentimental reflections about adultery in such domestic tragedies as Arden of Feversham (1591) and Heywood’s A Woman Killed with Kindness (1603), but of course Ford has no reason at all for his frenzy.
In the first soliloquy, after Ford has forced money on Falstaff and obsequiously flattered him and solicited his aid, he exclaims as Master Brooke: ‘See the hell of having a false woman! My bed shall be abused, my coffers ransacked, my reputation gnawn at.’ In typical fashion, Ford is most concerned about the ‘abominable terms’ that shall be heaped upon him: ‘Terms! Names! Amaimon sounds well; Lucifer, well; Barbason, well, yet they are devil’s additions, the names of fiends. But Cuckold! Wittol! – Cuckold! The devil himself hath not such a name.’ This is almost a parody by anticipation of what Othello is incapable of saying.
In his second soliloquy, Ford hints at larger metaphysical issues than he is capable of either expounding or understanding, and the fact that he is so concerned about Page’s foolish complacency is a sign that he feels a sense of triumph over his neighbor: ‘Good plots! They are laid, and our revolted wives share damnation together.’ Ford imagines juicy scene of judgment: ‘Well, I will take him, then torture my wife, pluck the borrowed veil of modesty from the so-seeming Mistress Page, divulge Page himself for a secure and willful Actaeon.’ He is acting a grandiloquent role like Justice Overdo in Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair (1614), and he revels in his own anticipated power.
The third soliloquy is more dire and psuedotragic than the other two, as Ford slips into a firm acknowledgment of his cuckoldry: ‘Hum! Ha! Is this a vision? Is this a dream? Do I sleep? Master Ford, awake; awake, Master Ford! There’s a hole in your best coat, Master Ford. ‘This ‘tis to be married; this ‘tis to have linen and buck baskets.’ The buck basket in which Falstaff was conveyed out of Mistress Ford’s house symbolizes the comic reduction of a seemingly tragic issue. Falstaff is specific about the unromantic contents of the buck basket: ‘Rammed me in with foul shirts and smocks, socks, foul stockings, greasy napkins, that, Master Brooke, there was the rankest compound of villainous smell that ever offended nostril.’ As if this is not enough, the buck basket scene is replayed in act 4, scene 2, when Falstaff exits disguised as the fat woman of Brainford. Shakespeare cannot resist confronting Ford with another buck basket and have him farcically empty the dirty clothes on stage piece by piece with a kind of mad ferocity. Ford achieves an apotheosis of cuckoldry here that is as close as Shakespeare ever comes to the French farce idea of fou rire, or mad laughter. It is a distinct disappointment for Ford to find out that all his overheated imaginings are false.
The merry wives of Windsor are not so merry as we expect them to be; in fact, they are distinctly smug, moralistic, and self-satisfied. Their animus against Falstaff is excessive and they are constantly asserting their virtue in a priggish fashion. They don’t really need all three tricks against Falstaff to prove their point, but they seem to take pleasure in the fat knight’s discomfiture. Incidentally, it is almost inconceivable to imagine these solid citizen wives as anything but substantial and buxom women, not at all waiflike romantic figures. Their very materiality allies them with Falstaff.
Mistress Page’s first thought when she receives Falstaff’s love letter and doggerel poem is to be revenged. She cannot understand why she has miraculously escaped ‘love letters in the holiday time of my beauty, and am I now a subject for them.’ Mistress Ford is equally inclined to revenge on ‘this whale, with so many tuns of oil in his belly’ who has washed ‘ashore at Windsor’ and she devises the scheme to ‘entertain him with hope till the wicked fire of lust have melted him in his own grease.’ It is a notably middle-class view of Falstaff’s wooing to see it as ‘the wicked fire of lust.’ There was plenty of lust (albeit little action) for Doll Tearsheet in the Henry IV plays, and even for Mistress Quickly, but little for either Mistress Ford or Page in this play. Mrs. Ford’s plan is inherently unattractive: ‘Nay, I will consent to act any villainy against him that may not sully the chariness of our honesty.’ This is ‘honesty’ in the technical sense of Dekker’s Honest Whore, Parts I and II (1604-1605)
The buck basket episode with Falstaff pleases Mrs. Ford because it has confounded a ‘dishonest rascal,’ Falstaff, and tried a jealous husband. Both of the Windsor wives are eager to play more tricks on Falstaff to entertain themselves in their domestic boredom and to cure Falstaff’s ‘dissolute disease.’ Notice how freely the wives throw around moral, ethical, and theological terms. In a remarkably didactic set of couplets, Mistress Page, affirms their exemplary behavior:
We’ll leave a proof by that which we will do,
Wives may be merry, and yet honest too.
We do not act that often jest and laugh;
To old but true, ‘Still swine eats all the draff.’
The attempted union of merriness and honesty lies at the hart of the play, which is essentially a middle-class tract like that parodied in Beaumont and Fletcher’s Knight of the Burning Pestle (1607). The final trick against Falstaff is played jointly by the wives and their husbands, and we feel sharply that the deck is stacked against all remaining Rabelaisian vestiges of Merry England. As Mrs. Page boasts smugly: ‘Against such lewdsters and their lechery,/Those that betray them do no treachery.’ Lewdsters seems to be a special comic word invented by Shakespeare for this play.
One of the most successful characters created for The Merry Wives of Windsor is Slender, the marriageable nephew of Justice Shallow, who doesn’t appear in Henry IV Part II, but bears a type resemblance to Justice Silence. Right from the beginning of the first scene, Slender is seen to be at a loss for words and direction. He is a comic simpleton and innocent, like Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night, described as having ‘a little wee [as in Folio] face, with a little yellow beard – a Cain-colored beard.’ (Cain-colored is red or reddish-yellow, like the beard traditionally assigned to Judas.) In the first scene, Slender has nothing of his own to say and he mercilessly parrots the shallow words of his uncle Shallow. The enormous quality of meaningless repetition is meant to define Shallow and especially Slender. His servant is significantly names Simple. From the episode of his pocket being picked by Pistol or Nym, Slender vows never to be drunk again ‘but in honest, civil, godly company…If I be drunk, I’ll be drunk with those that have the fear of God, and not with drunken knaves.’
Slender, thinking, like almost everyone else in the play, of wooing Anne Page, wishes he has his ‘Book of Songs and Sonnets here.’ This is Tottel’s famous Miscellany, published in 1557. Like Sir Andrew Aguecheek, slender is enamored of words for their own sake. In his wooing of Anne in this scene, Slender can think only in manly terms of Sackerson, the famous Elizabethan bear used for bear-bating in Shakespeare’s time, who may have appeared in The Winter’s Tale in a celebrated stage-direction: ‘Exit, pursued by a bear.’ Slender boasts that he has ‘seen Sackerson loose twenty times, and have taken him by the chain.’ This is an endearing detail. When Slender is actually put to wooing Anne in act 3, scene 4, he is exceedingly modest and unassuming. Anne asks him directly, ‘what would you with me?’ to which Slender makes no grandiose romantic claims: ‘Truly, for mine own part, I would little or nothing with you. Your father and my uncle have made motions.’ This is indeed not to put oneself forward.”
And from Garber:
“It is perhaps worth saying one more thing about the plot of language and languages in Merry Wives. At various times in the play, traditionally ‘English’ characters like the Host and Falstaff evince either scorn or anxiety, or a mixture of both, at the way in which their language, elsewhere in the play called the ‘King’s English,’ is being transformed by the pronunciations of foreigners and the miscues of ‘low’ speakers with high linguistic ambitions. Thus the Host, joking about the inept swordmanship of the Frenchman Caius, suggests that instead of fighting he should ‘hack our English.’ Page says of Nim, ‘Here’s a fellow frights English out of his wits.’ And Falstaff finds a double humiliation in being undone by the Welshman Evans, ‘one that makes fritters of English.’ This last comment is close enough to Pistols scorn of the Welshman Fluellen in Henry V to remind us that all the Henry plays are very much concerned with language-learning, with the different patois and dialects of ‘high’ and ‘low,’ and with the tensions that attend upon trying to unify a nation where Welsh and Scots, Irish and English all speak different varieties of the ‘same’ language. The English lessons of Catherine, the French princess, and the gentlewoman Alice in Henry V soon disclose, as does the comic Latin lesson in Merry Wives, that translation is itself a very tricky and dangerous business often producing inadvertent and risible obscenities. In act 4, scene 1, of this play, when schoolmaster Evans tries to drill young William Page on his Latin, we get jokes on lapis meaning ‘stone’ (pebble, but also testicle), the ‘focative’ (rather than vocative) case, and the relation of the word horum (whore’em) to the ‘genitive case,’ with an additional double meaning in ‘case.’ The Latin lesson in the play is taken fairly directly from the most popular Latin printer of the period, and the jokes, familiar schoolboy jokes in any era, would presumably have been amusing to a humanist audience itself newly interested in ancient as well as modern languages.
Not only was the economic and commercial nature of England undergoing changes (from aristocratic to mercantile, from country to town, from lauded estates to commerce and trade), but so, too, was the language (or languages) spoken and written in the court, the towns, the streets – and on the stage. We might say that ‘translation’ in the widest sense is at the hart of this play, whether it’s Falstaff’s translation from knight to buck and from man to ‘woman.’ Ford’s translation from jealous man to wiser husband, or Evans’s, Caius’s, and William Page’s earnest efforts to speak and be understood.”
So…what do you all think? It seems to me that Charney is getting close to something there, that with the play Shakespeare is showing us Falstaff’s inability to fit in (or, to be “himself”) in an increasingly middle-class and moralistic England. Agree? Disagree? Share your thought about this, the play, or anything else you’d like with the group!
Our next reading: The Merry Wives of Windsor, Act Five
My next post: Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning