The Merry Wives of Windsor: Sharing the Queen's Holiday
The Merry Wives of Windsor is a spin-off: in it, Shakespeare resituates Falstaff in Windsor, where the wellknown scoundrel causes mischief by wooing the wives of two prominent townsmen, Master Ford and Master Page. Perhaps the play's identity as sequel or appendage contributes to its minor reputation; but Merry Wives has also suffered (in the annals of twentieth-century criticism) for being an "occasional" play, trivialized by its connection to a ceremonial occasion—much as Charles Dickens's Christmas Carol has become irreversibly connected to the Christmas theater season in the United States. By historically reconstituting the occasion and establishing its relationship to the play's composition, we can reclaim the interest of Merry Wives, not only as Shakespeare's memorialization of Falstaff within Queen Elizabeth's private theater, but, more generally, as Shakespeare's meditation on the afterlife of dramatic characters.1 The play reflects on how theatrical events, leaping the boundaries of court performance, penetrate an everyday network of conversation, recollection, and daydream: the "stuff of imaginative interchange on a local level. Merry Wives has much to show us about the interior archaeology of Shakespeare's dramatic canon: about how plays, as well as characters, can live in the minds of an audience, and how, inversely, as a result of that habitation, the audience can find itself situated back inside the...
(The entire section is 2109 words.)
Ask me no reason why I love you, for though Love use Reason for his precisian, he admits him not for his counsellor. You are not young, no more am I; go to then, there's sympathy. You are merry, so am I; ha, ha! then there's more sympathy. You love sack, and so do I; would you desire better sympathy? Let it suffice thee …—at least if the love of soldier can suffice—that I love thee.…
(Merry Wives, 2.1.4-19)
Mistress Page and Mistress Ford receive identical love letters from Falstaff. The adulterous ambition that the letters announce is menacing, not because it intrudes on an otherwise tranquil domestic order, but because it gives voice to a perverse desire festering already in the civic imagination, epitomized by Ford's desire to see his wife's reputation cheapened:
She dwells so securely on the excellency of her honour that the folly of my soul dares not present itself; she is too bright to be looked against. Now, could I come to her with any detection in my hand, my desires had instance and argument to commend themselves; I could drive her then from the ward of her purity, her reputation, her marriage-vow, and a thousand other her defences which now are too too strongly embattled against me.
(The entire section is 1597 words.)
A set of poetic associations travels via Falstaff between the world of Windsor and Shakespeare's history plays. Taken together, these associations imagine a fantastical relationship among kingship, theatricality, and lecherous desire. The relationship depends, in turn, on the doubleness that the history cycle invests, beginning with Richard II, in kingship and the crown. Commanding the onstage audience to watch as he uncrowns himself—"With mine own tongue deny my sacred state,/ With mine own breath release all duteous oaths" (4.1.209-10)—Richard strips his earthly body of the arcane mantle of the "body politic."25 This "pompous body," however, belongs to a fiction that Richard himself scarcely believes, having learned already that "a little pin" can collapse that body's claim to inviolability. To defend against this knowledge, the circlet of rule, like the Garter itself, admits neither mortality nor its consort, shame, as intrinsic properties, but, rather, refers them endlessly back into an arena of exchange.
The crown, as Richard composes the sign, contains a mute message of inner purgatory, which it is the wearer's burden to articulate for his audience.26 Thus when Hal is caught at his father's deathbed, in premature possession of the crown, his defense takes the form of a dialogue with the object:
(The entire section is 2611 words.)
The 1602 Quarto of Merry Wives states that the play was acted '"divers times,' both for the Queen 'and elsewhere.'"30 A public performance would have served as a metatheatrical realization of the relationship implied within the play, of courtiers arriving to attend a Garter ceremony (and by extension the production of Merry Wives embedded in that ceremony) as well as the citizens at the periphery, assembling, in their turn, to watch the arrival of the court, and later, the grand procession of the Queen and her Order. In other words, the popular audience received the play itself as a thing produced for the court and, accordingly, went to the theater to see what the court saw. This factor introduces another extradramatic dimension into the performance history of Merry Wives, in which a popular audience played at being in attendance at an official, court production. The production would have come "smelling so sweetly" from the private hall, carrying the scent of "musk" into the public playhouse. What the public audience shared was the material experience of a production, whose elements—actors, situations, routines—crossed palpably from one performance setting to another. The point was not to reenact the significance of embodied gestures to English history, but to facilitate the appropriation of these embodiments by a public audience.
I owe my thanks to Paul Alpers,...
(The entire section is 1779 words.)