The Merry Wives of Windsor
By Dennis Abrams
Act Three: the duel between Caius and Evans fails to occur when the Host of the Garter sends them to different places; reconciled, the two men agree to be revenged on him instead. In the meantime, Ford grows more jealous, unaware that the wives plan to humiliate Falstaff by hiding him in a laundry basket (on the pretext of Ford’s sudden arrival) and dumping him in the Thames. When Ford does finally arrive home, expecting to find Sir John, this is exactly what happens. Recovering at the Garter, Falstaff is persuaded by Mistress Quickly that the whole thing was a mistake and that Mistress Ford actually wants another meeting. Unfortunately, Ford (as Brooke) finds out about it. Meanwhile Fenton has been competing for Anne’s hand, and though she is tempted by his offer, her father still favors Slender.
So even though jealousy plays a prominent part in the play (and a preview of darkening jealousy in later plays), fortunately Mistresses Page and Ford never allow affairs to become all that serious: they are as well-equipped to deal with Ford’s jealousy as they are to neutralize the great Sir John Falstaff. The process of the two men’s re-education, by way of a mounting sequence of comic emasculations, takes up the rest of the play. While allowing Ford’s ludicrous suspicions to build, they first engineer a scene in which both men are shown up to be the fools they really are. Scheduling a romantic tête-à-tête between Mistress Ford and Falstaff, both wives arrange for Master Ford to make a surprise entrance, forcing Falstaff to hide in a conveniently placed laundry basket – which is then emptied into the nearby Thames (exposing him to household drudgery first-hand, as it were, as well as administering a well-deserved soaking). Satisfyingly, all goes to plan: Ford is duped, Falstaff dumped, and neither are any the wiser. But this is just the start of Falstaff’s sufferings, as he discovers to his dismay when he reschedules a meeting with Mistress Ford and Page.
Not surprisingly, Harold Bloom is not happy about the events taking place:
“This is about the best that the False Falstaff can manage:
O, she did so course o’er my exterior with such a greedy intention that the appetite of her eye did seem to scorch me up like a burning-glass! Here’s another letter to her, she bears the purse too: she is a region in Guiana, all gold and bounty. I will be cheaters to them both, and they shall be exchequers to me: they shall be my East and West Indies, and I will trade them both. Go bear this letter to Mistress Page, and thou this to Mistress Ford: we will thrive, lads, we will thrive.
Is this the Immortal Falstaff? Or is this:
Go fetch me a quart of sack; put a toast in’t. [Exit Bard.] Have I lived to be carried in a basket, like a barrow of butcher’s offal, and to be thrown in the Thames? Well, if I be served such another trick, I’ll have my brains ta’en out and buttered, and give them to a dog for a New Year’s gift. The rogues slighted me into the river with as little remorse as they would have drowned a blind bitch’s puppies, fifteen i’th’litter; and you may know by my size that I have a kind of alacrity in sinking: if the bottom were as deep as hell, I should down. I had been drowned but that the shore was shelvy and shallow – a death that I abhor: for the water swells a man; and what a thing should I have been when I had been swelled! I should have been a mountain of mummy!
No longer either witty in himself or the cause of wit in other men, this Falstaff would make me lament a lost glory if I did not know him to be a rank imposter. His fascination, indeed, is that Shakespeare wastes nothing upon him. The Merry Wives of Windsor is Shakespeare’s only play that he himself seems to hold in contempt, even as he indites it. Scorning the task, he tossed off a ‘Falstaff’ fit only to be carried in a basket and thrown into the Thames. Such a diminishing is akin to reducing Cleopatra to a fishwife (in a recent British production brought to New York City) or giving us Juliet as a gang girl (on screen). You can cram any fat man into a basket and get a laugh. He does not have to be Falstaff, nor need his creator be Shakespeare. By the time that Falstaff, disguised as a plump old woman, has absorbed a particularly nasty beating, one begins to conclude that Shakespeare loathes not only the occasion but himself for having yielded to it. The final indignity is a horned, chained pseudo-Falstaff, victim of sadomasochistic farce, and perhaps even a quick burst of Shakespearean self-hatred.”
“The love plot, centering on the desirable Anne Page (called Mistress, like all adult women of her era and social class, whether married or unmarried), pits two very unsuitable suitors against each other in time-honored and familiar Shakespearean fashion. The rattle-brained Slender, the nephew of the equally well-named Justice Shallow, is persuaded to offer himself as Anne’s partner in marriage, though he seems to think that he is doing her a favor rather than the other way around. (‘Will you, upon good dowry, marry her?’ asks Shallow, and Slender replies, ‘I will marry her, sir, at your request.’ Her other approved suitor is Doctor Caius, a French physician, whose mangling of the ‘King’s English’ is manifestly meant to be comical, and who fares as poorly, and as amusingly, as those other French manglers of the language, Alice and Catherine in Henry V. Slender is Anne’s father’s choice – as she laments in an aside to the audience, ‘O, what a world of vile ill-favour’d faults/Looks handsome in three hundred pounds a year!’ – and Caius is her mother’s:
Slender, though well landed, is an idiot;
And he my husband best of all affects.
The Doctor is well money’d, and his friends
Potent at court; he, done but he, shall have her.
Though twenty thousand worthier come to crave her.
Mistress Quickly sees the quandary (‘Nay,’ said I, ‘will you cast away your child on a fool and a physician?’), though she is in fact an even-handed abettor to all parties. Anne’s own choice is the Host’s candidate, ‘young Master Fenton,’ whom the Host describes in memorable, indeed irresistible terms:
He capers, he dances, he has eyes of youth; he writes verses, he speaks holiday, he smells April and May.
In a play in which smells, including the unsavory smell of the buck-basket full of dirty laundry, play a recurrent part, this account of the favored young man makes him seem, indeed, like a breath of fresh air. Page (the father) regards him as too highborn and as a fortune hunger, and vows that if Fenton marries Anne it will be without a dowry. Indeed all three suitors take aim at her fortune (as, in Merchant, a play with far more ‘romantic’ pretensions, the fortune-hunger Bassanio does with Portia, not to mention Petruchio and the other suitors in Taming). But Fenton’s love scene with Anne in act 3 makes it clear that he has changed in the course of his courtship. Allowing for differences of literary mode, he sounds, in fact, not unlike Bassanio:
Albeit I will confess thy father’s wealth
Was the first motive that I woo’d thee, Anne,
Yet, wooing thee, I found thee of more value
Than stamps in gold or sums in sealed bags;
And ‘tis the very riches of thyself
That now I aim at.
“The main incidents [in the play] are all to be found in earlier European and English stories and farces. The themes of the presumptuous suitor punished; and the jealous husband fooled; and, indeed, the forbidding parents foiled, are all old and familiar. Shakespeare, of course, infuses new life into them, and weaves them together brilliantly, even if there are some bits left hanging out. The play opens with some comical talk of coats of arms, old family lines, prerogatives and titles – suitable enough for a Garter entertainment, quickly moving on to talk of ‘pretty virginity’ and family inheritances , and soon settling into its central bourgeois concerns – marriage, money, and class. A speech by Fenton (a Gentleman, and thus out of his class with the Pages and Fords) brings these matters together. He is explaining to Anne Page why her father disapproves of him:
He doth object I am too great of birth,
And that my state being galled with my expense
I seek to heal it only by his wealth.
Besides these, other bars he lays before me:
My riots past, my wild societies;
And tells me ‘tis a thing impossible
I should love thee but as a property.
Here is a defining bourgeois wariness – suspicion of the upper classes as dissolute and wasteful; belief that they are after middle-class daughters to get at their money. The defining word is ‘property.’ Anne, refreshingly, replies by saying ‘May be he tells you true.’ Good for her! Though with a very small part, Anne is one of those independent young women who very definitely refuse to behave like property when men – or parents – try to treat them as such. (Anne’s reaction to the proposal that she marry Caius shows commendable spirit and that gay inventiveness which is the hallmark of the Shakespearean comic heroine: ‘I had rather be set quick i’th’earth,/And bowled to death with turnips.’ But the possession of property is what the bourgeois live by, and live for, and by this reckoning wives and daughters are a form of property. Being robbed, being cuckolded, and being duped are all forms of that great bourgeois dread – theft. And there is a great deal of stealing and cheating going on, or being attempted, in this play, both by the visitors and among the locals. Marilyn French pointed out that ‘everyone in the play cozens, is cozened, or both’ (except Page’s son, William – too young for it.) Certainly, the words ‘cozen,’ ‘cozened,’ ‘cozenage’ [MY NOTE: Cozened means to trick or deceive] are heard more frequently in this play than in any other. ‘I would all the world might be cozened, for I have been cozened and beaten too’ is a late cry from Falstaff. Shakespeare has found his integrating master-theme.
Once settled in his room at the Garter Inn, where he doubtless feels most at home, Falstaff is soon talking about ‘filching’ and theft with his ruffianly followers. As he later admits to Pistol (whom he nicely addresses as ‘thou unconfinable baseness’ – given his size, a perfect self-description) – ‘I, I, I myself sometimes leaving the fear of God on the left hand and hiding mine honor in my necessity, am fain to shuffle, to hedge, and to lurch’ – three words for cheating and pilfering. He soon makes clear his intentions concerning two local wives, candidly revealing his venal, commercial motives.
I am about thrift. Briefly, I do mean to make love to Ford’s wife. I spy entertainment in her; she discourses, she carves, she gives the leer of her invitation…the report goes she has all the rule of her husband’s purse…I have writ me here a letter to her; and another to Page’s wife, who even now gave me good eyes too…She bears the purse too. She is a region in Guiana, all gold and bounty. I will be cheater to them both, and they shall be exchequers to me. They shall be my East and West Indies, and I will trade to them both.
He has lot none of his expansive opulence of language, his gift for the fecund phrase (‘the leer of invitation’ is marvelous). The images of trading banking, and exotic foreign lands to be explored and exploited for their riches have, of course, a contemporary aptness. By one of those tricks whereby language has it both ways, ‘cheater’ demonstrates both an escheator, an official who looked after lapsed estates which were forfeit to the crown; and someone who defrauds. Momentarily, looking after becomes indistinguishable from taking away – and indeed, you can’t always tell guardianship from theft, or protection from subtraction. Falstaff aims to be every way a ‘cheater.’ For this, and for the shameless fatuity of his vain assumption that the two respectable wives are consumed with lust for his grotesque body, he must and will be punished.
The details of the plots or schemes whereby – out of fear of the madly jealous Ford – Falstaff is inveigled, first, into a laundry basket full of filthy clothes which is then emptied in a muddy ditch near the Thames, and secondly, into wearing the gown of the fat woman of Brainford, to be cudgeled from the house by an irate Ford (‘Out of my door, you witch, you rag, you baggage, you runnion!’, this is Punch and Judy stuff) – these details require no comment. They are part of the unambiguous, depthless fun of the play.”
And finally, for the weekend, from William Hazlitt:
THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR is no doubt a very amusing play, with a great deal of humour, character, and nature in it: but we should have liked it much better, if any one else had been the hero of it, instead of Falstaff. We could have been contented if Shakespear had not been “commanded to shew the knight in love.” Wits and philosophers, for the most part, do not shine in that character; and Sir John himself, by no means, comes off with flying colours. Many people complain of the degradation and insults to which Don Quixote is so frequently exposed in his various adventures. But what are the unconscious indignities which he suffers, compared with the sensible mortifications which Falstaff is made to bring upon himself? What are the blows and buffettings which the Don receives from the staves of the Yanguesian carriers or from Sancho Panza’s more hard-hearted hands, compared with the contamination of the buck-basket, the disguise of the fat woman of Brentford, and the horns of Herne the hunter, which are discovered on Sir John’s head? In reading the play, we indeed wish him well through all these discomfitures, but it would have been as well if he had not got into them. Falstaff in the MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR is not the man he was in the two parts of Henry IV. His wit and eloquence have left him. Instead of making a butt of others, he is made a butt of by them. Neither is there a single particle of love in him to excuse his follies: he is merely a designing, bare-faced knave, and an unsuccessful one. The scene with Ford as Master Brook, and that with Simple, Slender’s man, who comes to ask after the Wise Woman, are almost the only ones in which his old intellectual ascendancy appears. He is like a person recalled to the stage to perform an unaccustomed and ungracious part; and in which we perceive only “some faint sparks of those flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the hearers in a roar.” But the single scene with Doll Tearsheet, or Mrs. Quickly’s account of his desiring “to eat some of housewife Keach’s prawns,” and telling her “to be no more so familiarity with such people,” is worth the whole of the MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR put together. Ford’s jealousy, which is the main spring of the comic incidents, is certainly very well managed. Page, on the contrary, appears to be somewhat uxorious in his disposition; and we have pretty plain indications of the effect of the characters of the husbands on the different degrees of fidelity in their wives. Mrs. Quickly makes a very lively go-between, both between Falstaff and his Dulcineas, and Anne Page and her lovers, and seems in the latter case so intent on her own interest as totally to overlook the intentions of her employers. Her master, Doctor Caius, the Frenchman, and her fellow-servant Jack Bugby, are very completely described. This last-mentioned person is rather quaintly commended by Mrs. Quickly as “an honest, willing, kind fellow, as ever servant shall come in house withal, and I warrant you, no tell-tale, nor ho breed-bate; his worst fault is that he is given to prayer; he is something peevish that way; but no body but has his fault.” The Welch Parson, Sir Hugh Evans (a title which in those days was given to the clergy) is an excellent character in all respects. He is as respectable as he is laughable. He has “very good discretions, and very odd humours.” The duel-scene with Caius gives him an opportunity to shew his “cholera and his tremblings of mind,” his valour and his melancholy, in an irresistible manner. In the dialogue, which at his mother’s request he holds with his pupil, William Page, to shew his progress in learning, it is hard to say whether the simplicity of the master or the scholar is the greatest. Nym, Bardolph, and Pistol, are but the shadows of what they were; and Justice Shallow himself has little of his consequence left. But his cousin, Slender, makes up for the deficiency. He is a very potent piece of imbecility. In him the pretensions of the worthy Gloucestershire family are well kept up, and immortalized. He and his friend Sackerson and his book of songs and his love of Anne Page and his having nothing to say to her can never be forgotten. It is the only first-rate character in the play: but it is in that class. Shakespear is the only writer who was as great in describing weakness as strength.”
And since all Auden had to say about the play was this: “The Merry Wives of Windsor is a very dull play, indeed. We can be grateful for it having been written, because it provided the occasion of Verdi’s Falstaff, a very great operatic masterpiece. Mr. Page, Shallow, Slender, and the Host disappear. I have nothing to say about Shakespeare play, so let’s hear Verdi.” Now while I disagree strongly that it is “a very dull play, indeed,” I have no problem taking him up on his suggestion that we listen to Verdi:
So what do you all think of the play so far? Is it Falstaff, or isn’t it?
Our next reading: The Merry Wives of Windsor, Act Four
My next post: Sunday evening/Monday morning
Enjoy. And enjoy your weekend.