The Merry Wives of Windsor
By Dennis Abrams
The only comedy of Shakespeare’s that is set in England from first to last, The Merry Wives of Windsor delights in its social and geographical setting, turning away from the verbal artistry of earlier comedies in exchange for a more earthy, prosy texture. In this subtly crafted and genuinely truly funny play (even if the Falstaff of Merry Wives bears little to no relation to the real John Falstaff of the Henry IV plays), Shakespeare removes Sir John Falstaff and several of his followers from the world of Henry IV and transplants them into the alien world of Elizabethan Windsor – perhaps, it could be said to allow Shakespeare to keep his word with his audience, who were promised at the end of Henry IV Part Two that the playwright would “continue the story with Sir John in it.” Further background for its genesis is provided by the (possibly apocryphal but too good not to believe) theory that it was performed first in front of Queen Elizabeth in March 1597 in order to celebrate the knightly Order of the Garter. But whatever the exact reasons behind its creation, though, its generic affinities are clear. The story of two wives who gain the upper hand over their husbands and the interloping Falstaff borrows elements from traditional folktales, and the play is, despite grumbles from some critics that it is “lackluster,” a sharp and pointed social comedy, one in which the good people of Windsor – in particular the “wives” emerge gloriously triumphant. (One way of looking at the play – I saw a performance a few years ago in which it was performed as a 50’s TV comedy, a la “I Love Lucy.” It worked brilliantly.)
From Harold Bloom, who, not surprisingly, isn’t exactly a fan:
“Though this competes, in my judgment, with The Two Gentlemen of Verona as Shakespeare’s slightest comedy, nobody can wholly dislike what became the basis for Verdi’s Falstaff. I begin, though, with the firm declaration that the hero-villain of The Merry Wives of Windsor is a nameless imposter masquerading as the great sir John Falstaff. Rather than yield to such usurpation, I shall call him pseudo-Falstaff throughout this brief discussion.
The tradition is that Shakespeare wrote the Merry Wives, perhaps between the two parts of Henry IV, in response to Queen Elizabeth’s request to show Sir John in love. Farce, natural to Shakespeare, dwindles into shallowness in Merry Wives, a tiresome exercise that I suspect the playwright revised from something older at hand, whether his own or another’s. Russell Fraser shrewdly puzzled out the autobiographical backgrounds of Merry Wives, in which Shakespeare may be paying back old slights and an injury or two. I would add that there is a touch of satire at Ben Jonson’s expense, though the target is more Jonson’s art than Jonson himself. One of the uses of Merry Wives is to show us just how good Shakespeare’s first farces, The Comedy of Errors and The Taming of the Shrew really are, compared with the false energy unleashed in this humiliation of pseudo-Falstaff. There are hints throughout that Shakespeare is uncomfortable with what he is doing and wishes to get it over with as rapidly as possible.”
Marjorie Garber, on the other hand, has a slightly different take:
“The Merry Wives of Windsor is a lively ‘citizen comedy’ that anticipates, in its spirit, both Restoration drama and the screwball comedy of early twentieth century film, combining as it does elements of farce, comic violence, and sophisticated and witty dialogue. The typical characters of citizen comedy are middle-class tradesmen and merchants rather than the kings, nobles, and aristocrats who dominate in most of Shakespeare’s more familiar plays, and thus at first glance Merry Wives may seem idiosyncratic, playful, and less than profound – not, in sort, really ‘Shakespearean.’
The fact that is that the butt of many of the jokes is Sir John Falstaff, the rotund and orotund friend of Prince Hal from the Henry IV plays, has disconcerted some of Falstaff’s most uncritical critical admirers, whose demurrals sound upon occasion like Troilus discovering the unhappy truth about Cressida: ‘This is and is not Cressid.’ Fans of the ‘fat knight’ have likewise wished to believe that the Sir John of Merry Wives is and is not Falstaff. For although he has the same name, the same boon companions (Bardolph, Nim, Pistol, even Mistress Quickly), the same propensity for theft, for eating and drinking, and for hiding behind an arras when threatened with exposure, those who find his antics and discomfitures in Merry Wives undignified tend to echo the Epilogue of 2 Henry IV in claiming ‘this is not the man.’
But a closer look at both the play and its version of Falstaff will disclose much that is appealingly and recognizably ‘Shakespearean,’ and, indeed, Falstaffian. As has been often observed, literary characters have only the reality that the author’s language imparts to them – and, in the case of drama, the reality given them by actor, director, staging, and theatrical effect. The Falstaff of The Merry Wives of Windsor fancies himself a more irresistible ladies’ man, and a better intriguer, than either the audience of the ‘wives’ can find him to be. Yet whatever pathos attaches to the rejected companion of Prince Hal’s youth at the end of 2 Henry IV is in this play replaced by broad comedy, as Falstaff’s three attempts of seduction (of the same woman!) have three humiliating outcomes…
And finally, from Tony Tanner:
What tempest, I trow, threw this whale, with so many tuns of oil in his belly, ashore at Windsor?
The whale is Falstaff; the speaker is merry wife Mrs Ford; and the question is a good one. What is Falstaff doing in Windsor? Ephesus, Padua, Verona, Navarre, Athens, Messina, Arden, Illyria, Rousillon – Shakespeare habitually set his romantic comedies in exotic-sounding placeless places, as often as not in somewhat timeless times as well. But in this play we are in a completely recognizable contemporary Windsor. This comedy, like T.S. Eliot’s history, is ‘now and England.’ There are identifiable inns, chapels, river and parks. The characters sup on good Elizabethan fare – hot venison pasty, possets, Banbury cheese, stewed prunes. They climb stiles, and keep dogs. The women ‘wash, wring, brew, bake, scour, dress meat and drink, make the bed.’ – though I supposed that they have been doing that for time out of mind. Still, it all contributes to the feeling that we are amid the familiar domestic routines of a small Elizabethan country town. Since we last encountered Falstaff – not to mention Bardolph, Pistol, Nym, Shallow, Mistress Quickly – in the reign of Henry IV, i.e., some two centuries earlier (though, if we had been Elizabethan playgoers, it would have been an extremely recent encounter), it is necessarily something of a surprise (though hardly an unwelcome one for us, whatever it might be for the good wives of the town) to see the debauched old rogue trying to wing it and make out in Elizabethan Windsor. The question is – is it the same Falstaff?”
And that’s one of the things we’ll be looking at as we begin our reading. This one is going to be fun.
Our next reading: The Merry Wives of Windsor, Act One
My next post: Sunday evening/Monday morning (Sorry this post went up late – power outage from thunderstorms)