The Merry Wives of Windsor
By Dennis Abrams
Act Two: Mistresses Page and Ford have been sent identical love letters by Falstaff. The two (not unlike, let’s say Lucy and Ethel), plot revenge: they will pretend to play along but bankrupt Falstaff in the process. Ford – aware of Falstaff’s scheme and consumed with jealousy – decides to disguise himself as Brooke, an invented suitor of Mistress Ford who wishes Falstaff to seduce her on his behalf. Falstaff willingly agrees, boasting that he’s already arranged to meet her.
Falstaff needs money. And he intends to let his skill with language earn him some money, banking on the fact that the wives will be star-struck by his knighthood. After all, having an affair isn’t exclusively a matter of sex (isn’t Falstaff too fat to have sex anyway?), but is really as simple as an exchange of words – the kind of relaxed attitude to infidelity that dominates the genre of contemporary city comedy.
But again…this is not the city. Though the town is more or less content to allow its visitor to poach deer, poaching housewives is another matter all together, as Mistress Ford insists, scandalized, when she reads her love letter from the “greasy knight”:
What tempest, I trow, threw this whale, with so many tuns of oil in his belly, ashore at Windsor?…Did you ever hear the like?
“Perceive how I might be knighted,” she exclaims, turning what Falstaff presumes is his key attraction back on him. When it turns out that the letters are duplicates, Mistress Page is even more shocked, and the pair immediately agree to be “revenged” on Falstaff by any means that “may not sully the chariness of our honesty,” as Mistress Ford so eloquently puts it.
The rest of the main plot tracks the progress of that richly deserved comeuppance, but Shakespeare (of course) introduces a twist. Where Sir John appears to believe that one woman can be treated much like another, Master Ford is obsessed with the idea that his wife is being unfaithful behind his back. The playwright, naturally, brings them together. Driven on by reports that Falstaff has his eye on her, Ford goes to the unlikely lengths of disguising himself as one “Master Brooke” and paying Sir John to attempt to seduce her. Once Falstaff assures him that it will be an easy task to lure Mistress Ford away, her husband thinks he has all the evidence against his wife he needs. “Who says this is improvident jealousy,” he seethes, alone on stage:
My wife hath sent to him, the hour is fixed, the match is made. Would any man have thought this? See the hell of having a false woman! My bed shall be abused, my coffers ransacked, my reputation gnawn at…I will rather trust a Fleming with my butter, Parson Hugh the Welshman with my cheese, an Irishman with my aqua-vitae bottle, or a thief to walk my ambling gelding, than my wife with herself.
Twisted by misogyny, the little-Englander Ford regards his “woman” as a commodity, like so much home-churned butter or cheese. (Although it is a very funny speech.) The extent to which his rage is directed at characters such as Sir Hugh Evans, the Welsh Parson, demonstrates his distance from a community that has taken outsiders such as Evans and the French Dr. Caius to its heart (for all that they play itself gives them what appears to be stereotypically “funny” accents.) And although Ford’s speech is comic precisely because we have the confidence that his wife’s good sense will win through, it hints at jealousy’s destructive force. While at one level he is undeniably the “poor cuckoldly knave” that Falstaff later describes, what appears comic in The Merry Wives will have somewhat darker ramifications in Othello, and later still, The Winter’s Tale.
Although Merry Wives differs greatly in tone from a play like Twelfth Night, one of Shakespeare’s most ‘aristocratic’ comedies, it has a number of significant similarities. The idiotic Slender, resembles Sir Andrew Aguecheek, the equally fatuous, though technically ‘noble,’ suitor for the hand of Countess Olivia, in a courtship encouraged by Sir Toby Belch. Both Slender and Aguecheek are rich and witless; neither has a clue as how to court, nor even speak to, a woman. Their names bespeak their natures, in a way that is not uncommon for Shakespearean ‘low’ characters in comedies (e.g. the clown called Costard, or ‘apple-head’ in Love’s Labour’s Lost, or the whore Doll Tearsheet in 2 Henry IV) but is more familiar in the works of a playwright like Ben Jonson, whose characters have names like Face, Subtle, and Epicene. This is a version of the comedy of ‘humors,’ based on the theory, prevalent among some thinkers in the early modern period, that personality traits were governed by predominant bodily substances: the ‘bilious’ person was angry because of too much bile, the ‘phlegmatic’ person dull because of an overabundance of phlegm, the ‘sanguine’ person well-balanced because of the appropriate amount of blood in the system, and so on. (Before we dismiss this as a charmingly antiquated view, we might recall the renewed prominence of genetic and other biological theories in the twentieth-first-century assessment of human nature.)
‘Slender’ in the period meant both slight of build and insignificant or trifling. The word applied, that is, both to the character’s appearance and to his (meager) capacities. Slender’s rival, equally unsuccessful in his quest for Anne Page’s hand is Doctor Caius, whose final consternation and humiliation (‘Be Gar, I’ll raise all Windsor’)…matches Malvolio’s poignant exit line, “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you.’ As always in Shakespearean comedy, the calm center of social reunion at the end is guaranteed, and guarded, by the escape of some anarchic energies beyond the bounds of the play.
Another device shared by Merry Wives and Twelfth Night, is the duplicitous and duplicate letter. In Twelfth Night the gulling of Malvolio is accomplished by Maria’s counterfeiting of Olivia’s handwriting. In Merry Wives the subterfuge is less subtle, as befits its engineer, Falstaff, who merely sends copies of the same letter to the two women he is trying to seduce, changing the salutation. As Mistress Page observes with amusement to her friend Mistress Ford:
Letter for letter, but that the name of Page and Ford differs!
(She gives Mistress Ford her letter)
To thy great comfort in this mystery of ill opinions, here’s the twin brother of thy letter. But let thine inherit it first, for I protest mine never shall. I warrant he hath a thousand of these letters, writ with blank space for different names – sure, more, and these are of the second edition. He will print them, out of doubt – for he cares not what he puts into the press when he would put us two…
Why this is the very same, the very hand, the very words.
The women’s further witty banter on Falstaff’s desire to ‘press’ and ‘board’ them is another incidental link with Twelfth Night, where Sir Toby urges that baffled Sir Andrew to ‘accost’ or ‘board’ Olivia if he can: the term is an indelicacy, as is evident to the wives, although not to Sir Andrew. The plot of ‘revenge’ against Falstaff is hatched at this moment, and the word recurs often as the two women plan their attack.
The main point to be made here is that, as we note many correspondences in language, character, and scenario between Merry Wives and other Shakespeare plays, the middle-class setting delightfully undercuts emotions and pretensions that run high and wild in other contexts. In other words, the dramatist is able to use, and reuse, phrases and occasions to quite different effect because Merry Wives is a ‘city,’ or citizen play. Consider the way the jealousy plot involving Ford and Falstaff anticipates a far more troubling scene in Othello. In Merry Wives Ford is constantly described, by his wife and others, as a jealous husband. Although he has no reason to suspect his wife, he determines to assume a false identity, that of Master Brooke, in order to pay Falstaff to test the virtue of Mistress Ford. The words ‘brook’ and ‘ford’ are related, and the stratagem is probably meant to be comically transparent. Part of the joke here is that Falstaff has already sent his ‘love letters’ to Mistress Ford and Mistress Page, and he therefore sees the opportunity to succeed in his seduction plans and get paid by the husband for taking his pleasure. Thus Ford as Brooke comes to Falstaff and makes his proposition (which sounds quite a lot like the kind of conversation that takes place between Iago and Roderigo in Shakespeare’s great jealous-husband play, Othello):
There is money. Spend it, spend it; spend more; spend all I have; only give me so much of your time in exchange of it as to lay an amiable siege to the honesty of this Ford’s wife. Use your art of wooing, win her to consent to you. If any man may, you may as soon as any.
The minute he succeeds in suborning Falstaff and is left alone on the stage, Ford addresses the audience in a long, passionate rant about cuckoldry:
Who says this is improvident jealousy? My wife hath sent to him, the hour is fixed, the match is made. Would any may have thought this? See the hell of having a false woman!…But ‘cuckold,’ ‘wittol!’ ‘Cuckold’ – the devil himself hath not such a name. Page is an ass, a secure ass. He will trust his wife, he will not be jealous…God be praised for my jealousy! Eleven o’clock the hour. I will prevent this, detect my wife, be revenged on Falstaff, and laugh at Page. I will about it. Better three hours now too soon than a minute too late. God’s my life: cuckold, cuckold, cuckold!
His speech anticipates similarly passionate – and erroneous – expostulations from a whole roster of ‘improvidently’ jealous husbands in Shakespeare, not only Othello, but Posthumus in Cymbeline, and, most closely, Leontes in The Winter’s Tale. But Ford is a tradesman, not a general or a king, and his speech – a ‘wittol’ is a complaisant cuckold, a husband who winks at his wife’s indiscretions – is received as comedy rather than as pathos and incipient tragedy.”
And if you’d like to see/hear what Verdi did with the play (one of my most favorite operas):
Our next reading: The Merry Wives of Windsor, Act Three
My next post: Thursday evening/Friday morning