The Merry Wives of Windsor
By Dennis Abrams
Act Five: At midnight, Falstaff waits in the Park, disguised, as instructed, as Herne the Hunter – an ancient woodland spirit. Just as Mistresses Ford and Page arrive, the forest is filled with noise. To Falstaff’s stunned disbelief, a group of fairies suddenly materializes (local children in costume, shepherded by Evans and Anne Page). Falstaff panics, but they drag him from his hiding place and condemn his sinfulness. At a prearranged signal they are replaced by the Pages and the Fords, and Falstaff realizes that it has all been a hoax. Just as the entire party is about to leave for Windsor, however, Slender runs in, followed by Caius. Anne has evaded everyone and married Fenton instead.
Falstaff’s final humiliation. After the more physical and robust comedy of his earlier treatment, his final act of vengeance, in which he is persuaded into Windsor Great Park in the dead of night and attacked by malicious fairies (local children in disguise, obviously), can seem, I think, somewhat bewildering. But, it does make sense (as critics have emphasized repeatedly), when it’s looked at in relation to the folktale ancestry of The Merry Wives. Drawing attention to the ancient rituals that underlie the final scene, Jeanne Addison Roberts suggests that the townspeople of Windsor treat Falstaff as a scapegoat who must be slaughtered because his sexual aggression threatens the community of the play. The fairies’ chant, which intones, “Fie on sinful fantasy/Fie on lust and luxury!” draws this out. It’s probably also worth observing that Shakespeare’s comedies often in by isolating single characters as everyone else is paired up around them: in As You Like It, it’s Jaques, in Twelfth Night it’s Malvolio, in Much Ado About Nothing (as you’ll soon see – it’s our next play), it’s Don John. If the comic community of The Merry Wives need to heal its wounds, Shakespeare seems to suggest, Falstaff has to not only be thrown out but to be utterly humiliated, crowned with horns like a cuckolded husband. If the wives are to prove themselves “merry, and yet honest too,” the duper needs to be thoroughly duped.
So the play’s finale is about more than Falstaff: it’s about the wives’ reassertion of control over their community. But in the dying moments of the comedy, they, too, are taught a lesson. While the rest of the play has been satisfyingly working away, the Page’s daughter Anne has been pursued by a variety of suitors. The stultified Slender has ambitions, and despite his inability to string together a single cogent sentence is secretly supported by Anne’s father. Mistress Page, meanwhile, has her hopes on Dr. Caius, the town’s irascible and nearly nonsensical French physician. But Anne has other dreams, and in making them reality she outwits both her parents. While everyone else is busy humiliating Falstaff in the woods, Anne manages to get herself married to young Fenton instead. As Fenton tells it, the climax of The Merry Wives is nothing less than a victory for love. “Hear the truth of it,’ he addresses his new parents-in-law:
You would have married her, most shamefully,
Where there was no proposition to hold love.
The truth is, she and I, long since contracted,
Are now so sure that nothing can dissolve us.
Th’offence is holy that she hath committed,
And this deceit loses the name of craft,
Of disobedience, or unduteous title,
Since therein she doth evitate and shun
A thousand irreligious cursed hours
Which forced marriage would have brought upon her.
The wider movement of the play, then, seems to suggest that we – as well as the people of Windsor – would do well to take Fenton’s grave words quite seriously. It is a lesson Master Ford, recently reconciled with his wife, would do well to observe.
“…His third punishment, however, merits a little consideration. Mrs. Page draws on a folk figure called Herne the Hunter, said to roam at midnight in Windsor Forest with ‘great ragg’d horns’ upon his head, blasting trees and taking cattle. The plan is to persuade Falstaff to dress up in some horns and, disguised as Herne the Hunter, keep an assignation with the two wives in the forest at midnight. He will then be exposed and lightly tormented – pinches and little taper burns – by children dressed as fairies. Amazingly enough, fresh from a dousing and a beating, Falstaff agrees to keep the tryst in the recommended horn disguise. This is sometimes seen as showing his limitless gullibility, or the degrading unquenchability of his lust and desperation. But such responses quite miss the tone. If anything, you have to admire the old boy for returning yet again to a manifestly and disastrously lost cause.
But something more than that. This is his soliloquy as he stands in his preposterous disguise next to the oak tree at midnight, waiting for his women:
The Windsor bell hath struck twelve; the minute draws on. Now, that hot-blooded gods assist me! Remember, Jove, thou wast a bull for thy Europa; love set on thy horns. O powerful love, that in some respects makes a beast a man; in some other, a man a beast. You were also, Jupiter, a swan for the love of Leda. O omnipotent love, how near the god drew to the complexion of a goose! A fault done first in the form of a beast. O Jove, a beastly fault! And then another fault in the semblance of a fowl; think on’t, Jove; a foul fault! When gods have hot backs, what shall poor men do? For me, I am here a Windsor stag; and the fattest, I think, i’th’forest. Send me a cool rut-time, Jove, or who can blame me to piss my tallow? Who comes here? My doe?
This is the only time that this play reaches back to the great pagan world of Ovid. The speech has a depth of perspective, a richness of reference, a wealth of suggestion, not found elsewhere in the play. Of course, the figure of fat old Falstaff in his horns invoking the Greek gods is comic – mock-epic. But, as he stands there, opening up the myths of divine promiscuity, he becomes a reminder of more awesome things and figures. At a simple level, horned Falstaff evokes both a satyr waiting to couple with his nymphs, and a cuckold, the generically emasculated male. But he is also effectively a reincarnation of the figure of Actaeon, habitually represented as having a stag’s head, a human body, and wearing hunter’s clothes. Actaeon is the huntsman who accidentally caught sight of the goddess Diana naked while bathing. As punishment for this profane act, Diana turns him into a stag, in which form he is hunted down and torn to pieces by his own dogs. [Footnote: Thirty five of them: Shakespeare delighted in dogs’ names, and he must have relished in this list: Blackfoot, Tracker, Glance, Glutton, Ranger, Rover, Stalker, Storm, Hunter, Woodman, Dingle, Snatch, Catch, Shepherd, Spot, Gnasher, Tigress, Courser, Lightfoot, Strong, Sooty, Branch, Woolf, Cyprian, Spartan, Tempest, Clinch, Blackie, Shag, Furie, Whitetooth, Barker, Blackhair, Killer, Climber.] Shakespeare (along with other Renaissance writers) uses the myth as a figure of self-destructive sexual desire. As in Twelfth Night:
O when mine eyes did see Olivia first
Methought she purged the air of pestilence;
That instant was I turned into a hart,
And my desires, like fell and cruel hounds,
E’er since pursue me.
Pistol, telling Ford that Falstaff is in pursuit of his wife, describes him as ‘like Sir Actaeon he, with Ringwood at thy heels.’ (Because of his horns, Actaeon was an Elizabethan name for a cuckold, and Ford thinks, quite wrongly, that he will expose his trusting friend Page being ‘a secure and willful Actaeon.’ After this play, the name never appears again in Shakespeare.) Actaeon was punished for his sexual transgression or presumption, and so it will be with this contemporary version of Actaeon, preying in Windsor Forest. But instead of real dogs – pretend fairies.
Actaeon is very brutally torn to pieces by his own dogs:
Now they are all around him, tearing deep
Their master’s flesh, the stag that is no stag.
By contrast, Falstaff is pinched by children dressed as fairies. As the sound of real hunting approaches, he can discard his horns in a way unavailable to luckless Actaeon. Thus the stage direction: And a noise of hunting is made within, and all the Fairies run away. Falstaff pulls off his buck’s head and rises. Falstaff, we may note, always rises, rises again, after every fall. He always has done. This (characteristic) draining of the actual violence from Ovid’s story may be seen in different ways – a ‘demetaphorization’ of Ovid’s terrible image; as a domestication of the wilder pagan story; as a comic reminder, as Falstaff pulls off his stage-prop buck’s head off, that we no longer live in a mythic age – this is theatre within theatre. Francois Laroque adds a slightly more somber note:
In this final scene, Falstaff plays the role of a ‘scape-deer,’ abandoned to the mercies of the fairies and elves by whom he is cornered. Beneath the farce, there clearly lie primitive myths associated with the notions of sacrifice, courage, and metamorphosis. The dynamic of the images is intended to reveal the ‘accursed side of festivity’ in which what Jeanne Roberts calls the ‘innocent’ revenge of its night-wandering spirits’ in truth masks a scene of ritual sacrifice or sacred lynching.
Perhaps, though that sounds a shade heavy to me. Bearing in mind the fairies, we might do better to think of the only other visibly metamorphosed comic figure Bottom among his elves. He had his moment of visionary glory; and the figure of Falstaff as a Windsor stag, invoking as precedent the polymorphous amorous exploits of Jove, has a certain overreaching splendour which momentarily eclipses both past and imminent humiliations.
Despite these humiliations, Falstaff remains throughout a figure of real comic stature; not just because of the size of his body, but through his relationship to that body.
Sayest thou so, old Jack? Go thy ways; I’ll make more of thy old body than I have done. Will they yet look after thee? Wilt thou, after the expense of so much money, be now a gainer? Good body, I thank thee. (II, ii, 138-42)
The accounts he gives of his misadventures – ‘you may know by my size that I have a kind of alacrity in sinking,’ ‘Think of that, a man of my kidney – think of that – that am as subject to heat as butter; a man of continual dissolution and thaw’ – are not the words of a broken man. He can be funnier about his own body than anybody else. With his rich elaborations, he transforms what was pure knock-about farce into something of grander proportions and resonances – mock epic perhaps, but the epic note is there. Even when is discovers that the fairies were only children, his rhetoric lends a kind of dignity to the delusion:
And these are not fairies? I was three or four times in the thought they were not fairies; and yet the guiltness of my mind, the sudden surprise of my powers, drove the grossness of the foppery into a received belief, in despite of all the teeth of rhyme and reason, that they were fairies.
This is to make simple, scared error into a complex moral and psychological experience. Perhaps it always – again these are not the words of a terminally humiliated man. He says, soberly enough, ‘I do begin to perceive that I am made an ass.’ – an ass, rather than the bull and swan he was hoping to emulate. It is a clear enough piece of self-recognition. Thus it is that, after the assembled group submit him to a sustained bout of insults – ‘hodge-pudding,’ ‘bag of flax,’ ‘old, cold, withered, and of intolerable entrails,’ ‘slanderous as Satan,’ ‘given to fornications, and to taverns, and sack and wine and metheglins’ and so on, he seems notably unbruised by the onslaught. His reply is hardly a flinching one: ‘Well, I am your theme. You have the start of me; I am dejected…Use me as you will.’ ‘Well, I am your theme’…hardly a cry from the cross. They will ‘use’ him by inviting him to supper. And he has the next-to-last laugh, when it is disclosed that Anne and Fenton have foiled the Pages and are now married. ‘When night dogs run, all sorts of deer are chased,’ comments Falstaff with the wisdom of experience. He knows he is not the only ass in the forest. The man is intact.
The other figure who need punishing, or humiliating back into his senses, is the jealous husband, Ford. He is subject to what Evans calls ‘fiery fantastical humors and jealousies,’ and Evans warns him ‘you must…not follow the imaginations of your own heart.’ All of Windsor knows that he is off his head in this matter, and his wife clearly has some grim times with him. He has one monologue, after posing as Mr Brooke to persuade Falstaff to seduce his wife, only to gather that, as Falstaff thinks, the matter is already well in hand, which reveals him to be pathological. This is at II, ii, 286-312, the key part running from ‘See the hell of having a false woman! My bed shall be abused, my coffers ransacked, my reputation gnawn at’ – the bourgeois triple nightmare – to the deranged cry ‘God be praised for my jealousy.’ The Arden editor, along with others, thinks that in Ford, jealousy ‘is depicted ‘in the round.,’” and that Ford’s suffering is ‘acute.’ The alternative view sees Ford, with his obsessive, repetitive, knee-jerk suspicions, as a ‘humour’ figure (such figures, in whom, to simplify, a single characteristic or temperamental trait completely predominates, were becoming popular in drama towards the end of the sixteenth century). If his jealousy is ‘in the round,’ then he is anticipating Othello and we suffer with him and sympathize. If he is a ‘humour’ figure, he could easily appear in a Ben Jonson satire and we should laugh at him and condemn. I suppose you take your pick. It is very hard for Shakespeare not to humanize what he touches, and he does not offer the skeletally thinned-down humour-figures of a Ben Jonson. On the other hand, given the manifest virtue and probity of his wife, and the attitude of his fellow citizens – ‘the lunatic is at it again,’ – I think he is more of an amplified humour than an inchoate Othello. Still, jealousy is a phenomenon which can always generate tragedy, and in this comedy, it has to be very thoroughly defused. Shakespeare has just the verb for it; they have to ‘scrape the figures out of [his] brains.’ By the end, we are to take it that they have succeeded.
There are other characters who are something between humours and humans, types and individuals – Mistress Quickly, Welsh parson-schoolmaster Evans, the French doctor Caius, the jovial benign Host, Pistol, Bardolph, Nym, Slender, Shallow. Whatever they contribute to the movement of the main plots – and here and there they do – as a group they contribute hugely to the rippling laughter of the play as a whole. This is mainly a matter of language. When Henry James returned to America after a long absence, he was taken aback by the variety of accents, the weird immigrant manglings of English, he heard in the cafes on New York’s East Side – ‘torture-rooms of the living idiom’ he called them. The world of Shakespeare’s Windsor is more a funhouse than a torture-room, but English certainly gets put through the wringer. When Mistress Quickly accuses Caius of the ‘abusing of God’s patience and the King’s English,’ she hits the mood of the play; as does Page when he says of Nym ‘Here’s a fellow frights English out of his wits.’ When Evans hears Bardolph say ‘the gentleman had drunk himself out of his five sentences,’ he pedantically comments, ‘It is his “five senses.’’ Fie, what the ignorance is!’ He is hardly one to talk. More than the pinching and burning in the final scene, what causes Falstaff the most pain is the way Evans speaks to him, ‘Have I lived to stand at the taunt of one that makes fritters of English?’ We hardly need to know that ‘fritters’ were bits of fried batter: it is the perfect word. Mistress Quickly contributes her own inspired malapropisms – a ‘fartuous…civil modest wife;’ or, trying to cheer up the half-drowned Falstaff and reassure him of Mrs. Page’s honest intentions, ‘She does so take on with her man; they mistook their erection.’ ‘So did I mine,’ replied Falstaff somewhat grimly – what else could he possibly say? The admirable Host, tricking Evans and Caius out of their intended duel, says ‘Disarm them, and let them question. Let them keep their limbs whole and hack our English.’ That is the mood of the play. The only wounding is of the English language (it is possible that Caius storms off angrily at the end after he discovers he has ‘married’ a boy – ‘Begar, I’ll raise all Windsor,’ – but I think it is quite wrong to see him as a Malvolio figure.) The Host proves a perfect reconciler between the doctor and the priest. ‘Shall I lose my doctor? No; he gives me the potions and the motions. Shall I lose my parson, my priest, my Sir Hugh? No; he gives me the proverbs and the no-verbs. Give me thy hand, celestial; so. Boys of art, I have deceived you both; I have directed you to wrong places. Your hearts are mighty, your skins are whole, and let burnt sack be the issue. Come, lay their swords to pawn. Follow me, lad of peace…’ It is as amiable a little speech as you will find in Shakespeare. In general we can say that Shakespeare has not had so much fun with the English language – whether indulging it’s over-spilling plentitude with Falstaff (and triplets are everywhere – ‘accoutrement, complement, and ceremony,’ ‘a knot, a ging, a pack,’ ‘speak, breathe, discuss,’ etc.) or letting it run wildly off the leash with Mistress Quickly, Evans, Caius and others – since Love’s Labour’s Lost. Take the play as a whole, and Evans is right – ‘It is amiable pleasures and fery honest knavieries.’
But we must not forget the ‘merry wives’ of the title. Mrs. Page and Mrs. Ford are distinctly not ‘humours’ or types, and they admirably demonstrate that ‘Wives may be merry, and yet honest too.’ And they, after all, are the ones who initiate the plots – this is where the real, inventive power is in Windsor. Together, they are the master-minder. They have the comic initiative – not the men. So adroit in London, in Windsor Falstaff is nowhere (he is even humiliated in female clothes – the only time a man cross-dresses in Shakespeare.) Ruth Nevo sees this is part of a central development in the role of Shakespeare’s comic heroines. ‘The transmission to the women of a masculine comic energy, of racy wit and high spirits, of the prerogatives of maverick and adventurous males, was a gradual process’ – Beatrice, Rosalind, Viola to follow. Nevo suggests that the transfer of comic energies to the women required the emasculation of Falstaff. This may well be true, and in an important sense this play belongs to the women. But Falstaff has that one moment of commanding presence as he stands there like a stag (at bay, as it turns out), and proclaims – ‘When gods have hot backs, what shall poor men do?’
It is another good question.
And of course now I found it — all in one glorious piece, the BBC production of The Merry Wives of Windsor — I’ll be curious to see if changes anyone’s feelings about the play.
And, the glorious conclusion to Verdi’s masterpiece, Falstaff
And with that our reading of The Merry Wives of Windsor is at an end. Final thoughts? Question? Please don’t be shy…share with the group!
My next posts:
Thursday evening/Friday morning — Sonnet # 116
Sunday evening/Monday morning — An introduction to our next play, Much Ado About Nothing.