The Merry Wives of Windsor
By Dennis Abrams
Townspeople of Windsor
Margaret Page (the first “wife”)
George Page, Margaret Page’s husband
Anne Page, their daughter
William Page, their son, a schoolboy
Alice Ford (the second “wife”)
Frank Ford, Alice Ford’s husband (later disguised as Brooke)
John and Robert, the Fords’ servants
Sir Hugh Evans, a Welsh parson
Doctor Caius, a French physician
Mistress Quickly, Dr. Caius’s housekeeper and Anne Page’s confidant
John Rugby, Dr. Caius’s servant
At the Garter Inn
Sir John Falstaff, lodging at the Garter Inn
Bardolph, Pistol, and Nim, Falstaff’s followers
Robin, Falstaff’s page
The Host of the Garter
Robert Shallow, a justice of the peace
Master Abraham Slender, Shallow’s nephew
Peter Simple, Slender’s servant
Master Fenton, a young gentleman.
It seems likely that an entertainment performed in front of Elizabeth I in April 1597 was The Merry Wives of Windsor, or at least part of it. The play was probably finished by 1598 (when the cycle of history plays starring Falstaff was completed).
This spin-off from the Henry IV-V cycle has no direct sources, and is the only play of Shakespeare’s to be wholly set in England – a fact that has encouraged critics to detect any number of Elizabethan in-jokes.
A quarto version, perhaps reconstructed from an actor’s memory of the play, appeared in 1602 (Q1), and was popular enough to be reprinted in 1619 (Q2). A more authoritative text was included in the 1623 Folio, but it was cleansed of “profanities” in response to legislation, the notorious “Act to Restrain the Abuses of Players” in 1602, passed as a sop to Puritan parliamentary leaders and popular campaigners.
Act One: Justice Shallow is complaining to Sir Hugh Evans about the presence in Windsor of the unruly Sir John Falstaff, who has been poaching his deer. Also present is the somewhat doltish Slender, who hopes to marry the Pages’ daughter Anne. When Falstaff appears, Shallow denounces him, but trouble is averted, and all dine together at Page’s house. Back at the Garter Inn, Falstaff, convinced that Mistress Ford and Mistress Page have taken a fancy to him, makes plans to seduce them both and get hold of their husband’s money. Pistol and Nim, however, reveal all to Ford and Page. At Dr. Caius’s house, meanwhile, Simple has arrived with a letter from Evans to Mistress Quickly, enlisting her support in Slender’s cause. When Caius unexpectedly returns, he is incensed (he also hopes to win Anne’s hand) and challenges Evans to a duel. Finally, another suitor, Fenton turns up seeking Mistress Quickly’s advice.
Written only a couple of years after The Merchant of Venice, another play with a somewhat middle-class credentials, The Merry Wives is set among the provincial milieu of Windsor – then, as now, a well-to-do satellite of London – and portrays a bustling, vivid tapestry of small-town life. Shakespeare throughout his career steered clear of so-called “city comedy” (a more hard-bitten, satirical genre pioneered and popularized by younger colleagues such as Thomas Dekker and Thomas Middleton), and The Merry Wives might best be described as suburban in tone. Among its population are a parson, a doctor, and an innkeeper – not to forget the “wives” of the title and the network of servants who surround and support them. Unusually for a Shakespearian comedy, the play also depicts family life in some detail; it even includes a scene set in a schoolroom, hardly a conventional setting for comedy (though via Mistress Quickly’s impromptu involvement, even though William Page’s Latin lesson quickly dissolves into a comic routine). No direct sources for the play appear to exist: it appears that Shakespeare assembled it from traditional English folklore traditions, as certain threads – the jealous husband, the game of suitors – imply.
All this, however, is to ignore the man who, in an early printed text, shares top billing with the “wives”: Sir John Falstaff. The roguish “fat knight”, who first appeared in 1 Henry IV seems to have been so popular that Shakespeare decided to write a spin-off featuring the comic characters from the history plays. (Not unlike, perhaps, Laverne and Shirley spinning off of Happy Days, with the Fonz making guest appearances…) Unruly, fractious, funny, and sublime, Falstaff and his cronies (the only apt word for them I think), always threatened to overwhelm (and therefore undermine) the epic kingly narrative being played out in the histories. Though caught up in its events, they were gleefully resistant to their historical role, preferring – if at all possible – to while away their lives in Eastcheap taverns, surrounded by cheap booze and women of somewhat questionable repute. And The Merry Wives, in which they get a play all to themselves, is a far cry from the courtly and military world of the Henry plays. At times this seems somewhat puzzling, although it imports characters from the histories, this comedy has an open-ended relationship with its predecessors. The action presumably takes place before Falstaff’s broken-hearted death in Henry V, but Shakespeare, as usual, has no intention of filling in the blanks for us. Mistress Quickly, for example, behaves exactly like her namesake in the Henry IV plays, but seems to not even know Falstaff, still less be desperate to marry him (as she is in Part II). Forcibly relocating his historical cast to the provinces, Shakespeare gives us characters who are – and are not – the same as those we know.
But we are not the only ones attempting to make sense of Falstaff’s arrival in town: the good people of Windsor – or at least some of them – are having trouble with the unexpected (and unwelcome) new arrivals. As the play gets underway, Shallow is heatedly threatening to “make a Star Chamber matter” of Falstaff’s not all together neighborly taste for poaching Shallow’s deer and attacking his men. Though the idea of a local magistrate such as Shallow attempting to seek justice in the highest court of the land is amusing enough (located at Westminster, the Star Chamber was responsible for dealing with the most high-profile of cases), it is Shallow’s horror that some big city upstart should be allowed to throw his weight around in Windsor that is most striking. “If he were twenty Sir John Falstaff’s, he shall not abuse Robert Shallow, Esquire.” Shallow fumes to his dimwit nephew Slender, his rage fueled by the unpalatable fact that, as a knight, Falstaff actually outranks him socially. But “abuse” is precisely what he gets, as becomes clear when Falstaff finally appears:
Now, Master Shallow, you’ll complain of me to the King?
Knight, you have beaten my men, killed my dear, and broke open my lodge.
But not kissed your keeper’s daughter?
Tut, a pin. This shall be answered.
I will answer it straight: I have done all this. That is now answered.
Punning on “answer” (“legal redress”/”reply”), one of Shakespeare’s most verbally dexterous characters demonstrates that he is more than a match for rural folk of this stripe. It has long been suspected that in allowing Falstaff to run rings around Shallow and Slender, with all their petty snobberies, the playwright is poking fun at minor gentry around Stratford – one somewhat hoary tale is that Shakespeare spent his youth poaching deer, just like Falstaff – but we don’t need to know that (or even believe it) to enjoy the put-down. The age-old tension between city and country is integral to this scene – and the play.
As with many of his real-life knightly counterparts, Falstaff’s claims to social superiority are more than offset by his permanent hunger for cold hard cash, and Windsor, he thinks, offers a solution. It isn’t long before he hits on a sure-fire money making scheme that involves seducing both Mistresses Page and Ford and thereby gaining access to their husband’s wealth. Dreaming up a plan to woo them via letter, he boasts to Nim and Pistol that it will be an easy job to bend Mistress Ford to his will. “I spy entertainment in her,” he smirks,
She discourse, she carves, she gives the leer of invitation. I can construe the action of her familiar style; and the hardest voice of her behaviour, to be Englished rightly, is ‘I am Sir John Falstaff’s.’
He hath studied her well, and translated her will; out of honesty, into English.
Falstaff clearly intends to let his skill with language earn him some money, banking on the certainty that the wives will be star-struck by his knighthood. After all, having an affair is as simple as a cheerful exchange of words – that’s the kind of relaxed attitude to infidelity (and the kind of plot for making a fast buck) that dominates contemporary city comedy.
But as Falstaff is to learn, Windsor is not the city.
I’d like to continue with Tony Tanner’s continuation from the question, ‘is it the same Falstaff?”
“When Falstaff says: ‘If it should come to the ear of the court how I have been transformed, and how my transformation hath been washed and cudgeled, they would melt me out of my fat drop by drop, and liquor fishermen’s boots with me,’ it suggests that he is the same man we saw bantering with the ‘wild Prince’ (also referred to in this play). On the other hand, he does not seem to know Mistress Quickly, who is herself recognizably the same, yet manifestly different. One school of thought holds that this Falstaff is ‘a new character with an old name.’ Another, exemplified by Ruth Nevo, confidently asserts that ‘the character of Falstaff has not changed – the craft, the shrewdness, the brass, the zest are all there.’ Against that, set H.B. Charlton: ‘His wits have lost all their nimbleness’ It has to be said that Charlton’s reading is strange to the point of derangement. He sees the play as a ‘cynical revenge, which Shakespeare took on the hitherto unsuspecting gaiety of his own creative exuberance.’ He maintains it was a sense of ‘bitter disillusionment’ that allowed Shakespeare ‘to call the contemptible caricature of The Merry Wives of Windsor by the name of Sir John Falstaff.’ He speaks of ‘malicious laceration,’ and ‘a crime worse than parricide.’ You rub your eyes in disbelief.
This is the sort of disagreement which can get literary criticism a bad name. Have these critics read the same play? An attempt to adjudicate between such extraordinary views is hardly called for. The point, surely, is that Shakespeare had taken a recently created and very successful character, retained a number of his most distinguishing characteristics (verbal inventiveness, resilience, and so on), but place him in an entirely different setting and situation. On his own turf, in the easy-going inns of London, Falstaff is more or less the boss; in the respectable bourgeois world of a quiet country town, he is a fish out of water – or better, a beached whale as the good lady [Ford] has it. So that in some ways he is bound to look rather different. It has been suggested that one reason for the reappearance of Falstaff in an unlikely setting was the request of the Queen. This tradition, or legend, was started in the eighteenth century by Dennis and Rowe. ‘She was so well pleas’d with that admirable Character of Falstaff in the two Parts of Henry IV, that she commanded him to continue it for one Play more, and to shew him in Love. This is said to be the Occasion of his Writing The Merry Wives of Windsor.’ The Arden editor, H.J. Oliver, pertinently comments that it is unlikely that the queen would have asked to see Falstaff ‘in love’ if she had seen him with Doll Tearsheet in 2 Henry IV – a consideration which adds to the evidence that the play was written in 1597, immediately after the first part of Henry IV. Dr. Johnson was skeptical about the legend, and in his comment offers a powerful account of what makes Falstaff Falstaff. ‘Shakespeare knew what the Queen, if the story be true, seems not to have known, that by any real passion of tenderness, the selfish craft, the careless jollity, and the lazy luxury, must have suffered so much abatement, that little of his former case would have remained. Falstaff could not love, but by ceasing to be Falstaff. He could only counterfeit love, and his professions could be prompted, not by the hope of pleasure, but of money.’ Dr. Johnson is, of course, absolutely right. Falstaff in Windsor does need money – but I will come back to him.
There is a love plot in the play, involving the sweet English maid, Anne Page, and the young gentleman, Fenton, who ‘dances,’ ‘has eyes of youth,’ ‘writes verses,’ ‘speaks holiday,’ and ‘smells April and May.’ A perfectly matched couple. Together, they conspire to circumvent her obstructive parents. There is no more basic plot to comedy than this, but as a whole the play is not a romantic comedy. Nor is it a satire, as, say, in the manner of Jonson. No one is savaged, no one is relentlessly ridiculed, no one is deflated beyond restoration. Falstaff has his discomforts, but as he dusts himself down at the end, he is effectively unscathed – and off to supper with everyone. Jealous Ford has to be made to look and feel ridiculous, if only for the easing of his good wife. But, on the whole, no grievances are laceratingly felt, no grudges are unforgivingly borne (with perhaps one tiny exception). People are mocked, but the mocking is merry: there is quarreling, but it dissolved in laughter and hospitality. Inviting everyone in for dinner near the beginning, Page says, ‘Come, gentlemen, I hope we shall drink down all unkindness.’ At the end, his wife repeats the invitation – ‘let us every one go home,/And laugh this sport o’er by a country fire. This is the prevailing benign atmosphere of the play.
If anything, it is almost a kind of farce, centering on the blustering mishaps of Fasltaff, and the foiled misprisions of Ford. It has been called a ‘citizen comedy,’ and compared to, among others, Dekker’s Shoemaker’s Holiday (1599). Bullough points out that a number of realistic comedies of town life (i.e. not the court or the palace or the manor) were written in the last years of the sixteenth century. It is extremely funny, sometimes in a slapstick, or Box-and-Cow sort of way, and it gives unfailing pleasure (though not to poor Professor Charlton); but it remains something of an anomaly among Shakespeare’s comedies. Written almost entirely in prose, it seems strange that it follows the iridescent magic of A Midsummer Night’s Dream; and with its elements of knock-about farce, it feels odd that it precedes the sophisticated courtly brilliance of Much Ado About Nothing. And why Windsor between Athens and Messina; why so unmistakably contemporary England? It is a play which unarguably shows signs of hurried composition. There are lots of loose ends; situations are set up but not resolved; incomplete episodes are left unintegrated into the play (whatever happened to the German horse-thieves?); several unemployed characters seen to have no real role, though we are happy to see them enter and speak their bits, however inconsequential they may seem. (Who would be without Slender, in whom, said F.S. Boas, ‘not only do we see intellect flickering with its last feeble glimmer, but the will attenuated almost to vanishing point. Palpitating on the brink of nonentity, he clings for support to the majestic figure of Shallow…’ With just a few strokes, Shakespeare has created an unforgettable figure. And, as H.J. Oliver says, Slender’s proposal to Anne – III, iv – is perhaps the funniest proposal in English literature, matching anything in Jane Austen.)
Our next reading: The Merry Wives of Windsor, Act Two
My next post: Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning
And a correction: Our next play after Merry Wives will be Much Ado About Nothing, which will be followed by Henry V.