The Merry Wives of Windsor (Vol. 38)
The Merry Wives of Windsor
For further information on the critical and stage history of The Merry Wives of Windsor, see SC, Volumes 5 and 18.
Most scholars believe that The Merry Wives of Windsor was written in 1597 and first performed as part of the entertainment at a Feast of the Order of the Garter on April 23 of that year. A well-known tradition, first recorded in 1702 by John Dennis, maintains that the play was written in two weeks at the command of Queen Elizabeth, who had so enjoyed the character of Falstaff in Henry IV that she requested that Shakespeare compose another play depicting Falstaff in love. No definitive source for The Merry Wives of Windsor has been discovered, but scholars have noted that many situations and incidents in the play can be found in earlier English and Italian works.
The Merry Wives of Windsor revolves around Falstaff s attempts to seduce the merry wives, Mistresses Ford and Page, and his subsequent humiliation at the hands of the women. The play has a variety of comic attractions, including broad physical humor, fast-paced action, and a host of eccentric minor characters. Despite the play's lasting popularity on the stage, The Merry Wives of Windsor received little critical attention for many decades. It has been regarded as a minor comedy by many critics, who maintain that the disjointed plot contains too many unrelated episodes and that the text, with its heavy use of prose, falls below the playwright's poetic standards.
Interestingly, many modern critics appear to be abandoning the view of The Merry Wives of Windsor as a flawed and minor play. H. J. Oliver (1971) has chastised commentators who neglect the play, praising the play's characters as "one of the most astonishing galleries of perpetrators of verbal fun that even Shakespeare ever put into a play," and its language as "superbly adapted to the purposes of the play." While the figure of Falstaff has been viewed as a disappointment by some scholars, who object to what they see as a trivialization of the great comic figure of the 1 and 2 Henry IV plays, Christiane Gallenca (1985) has argued that "his extraordinary verbal invention is less in evidence, but it still exists." Other issues addressed by recent criticism include the play's dramatic structure, characterization, and the role of women in the play.
Several critics have emphasized Falstaff s disguise as Herne the Hunter in the final scene of the play. John M. Steadman (1963) has compared Falstaff to the Renaissance Actaeon myth and questions whether Falstaff s transformation is a parody of the conventional symbols of "unchaste desire." Although Jeanne Addison Roberts (1979) has found fault with the identification of Falstaff with Actaeon, she agrees that both figures become sexually threatening to the social order, and contends that the final scene of The Merry Wives of Windsor represents the removal of the threat and the restoration of order. Anne Parten (1985) has asserted that cuckoldry, rather than lust or desire, is at the heart of the last scene. She contends that Falstaff s identification with the Actaeon myth is connected to cuckoldry, marking Falstaff as an example of masculine ineffectually.
The role of women in The Merry Wives of Windsor is another topic that has continued to interest critics. Sandra Clark (1987) examined the treatment of wit in women in the play and finds that women use wit "as a way of getting back at a world dominated by men." R. S. White (1991) has also explored Shakespeare's treatment of women's roles in The Merry Wives of Windsor, especially the role of Anne Page. He contends that "when men are not seeing Anne as a possession to be bought and sold, they are seeing her as a prize to be won." In addition, White questions whether Shakespeare challenges the politics of male supremacy in the play, noting that he provides his female characters with an unusual assertiveness and independence.
Many modern commentators object to the play's designation as a farce or slapstick comedy. Marvin Felheim and Philip Traci (1981) have examined how the setting, language, and characterization of the play mirror its realistic tone, asserting that the play "has its own center of gravity, a focus which makes it a particularly apt candidate for . . . realistic comedy." Scholars continue to debate the literary merits of The Merry Wives of Windsor, which has now begun to receive the critical attention common to Shakespeare's other plays.
Christiane Gallenca (essay date 1985)
SOURCE: "Ritual and Folk Custom in The Merry Wives of Windsor," in Cahiers Elisabethains, Vol. 27, April, 1985, pp. 27-41.
[Below, Gallenca details the role of folklore and ritual in The Merry Wives of Windsor, and asserts that the play "is based on those rituals which . . . celebrate the passage from Winter to Spring, from death to life. " ]
Ambiguity seems essential to The Merry Wives of Windsor [MW]1; it is an extension of the ambiguity of the previous play, Henry IV. Traditionally viewed as a comedy rapidly composed in response to Queen Elizabeth's desire to see Falstaff in love (the legend d ies hard), MW has been considered as a series of scenes with no real plot, or alternatively as the juxtaposition of three separate plots.2 The most indulgent critics have stressed the dominant position of the farcical elements3and the discomfiture of Falstaff, a figure of fun4 in which scarcely any trace remains of the truculent knight who played such an important part in Henry IV.
However, MW is not a farce, and Falstaff retains a certain brio which sets him apart from the other characters.5 His extraordinary verbal invention is less in evidence, but it still exists, offsetting in some degree the ridicule of certain...
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Falstaff And Desire
John M. Steadman (essay date 1963)
SOURCE: "Falstaff as Actaeon: A Dramatic Emblem," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. XIV, No. 3, Summer, 1963, pp. 231-44.
[Here, Steadman compares Falstaff to the Renaissance myth of Actaeon by examining each character's relationship with the themes of lust and corrupt desire.]
In the final act of The Merry Wives of Windsor, Shakespeare confronts his audience with an obvious burlesque of the Actaeon myth. In impersonating Herne the Hunter, Sir John becomes a comic counterpart of the legendary hunter from Thebes. As Professor Bullough has observed, there is a certain "poetic justice" in Shakespeare's exploitation of this parallel. "Actaeon had become a cant-name for a cuckold", and when Falstaff "dons the horns which he would have placed on Ford's brows he suffers the poetic justice of a failed Don Juan."
1 Professor Bullough has likewise emphasized the dramatist's indebtedness to Golding's translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses: "That Shakespeare had Ovid in mind when Falstaff assumed the disguise is proved by the latter's allusions at V.v. 2-17 to the amorous metamorphoses of Jove. . . . Actaeon was bitten by his own dogs, of whom Ovid names thirty-five and Golding calls one 'Ringwood' (a common name). Shakespeare substitutes the fairies who burn and pinch the fat knight; and for this part of the scene he...
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R. S. White (essay date 1991)
SOURCE: "Women," in Twayne's New Critical Introductions to Shakespeare: The Merry Wives of Windsor, Twayne Publishers, 1991, pp. 17-34.
[In the following essay, White examines the males ' attitudes toward women in The Merry Wives of Windsor, and contends that Shakespeare gives his female characters more autonomy than other dramatists of his time.]
Just as there is a confrontation between insiders and outsiders in Windsor, so there is a more underground battle waged between women and men. As the men try to organise even affairs of the heart in a commerciallyminded way, so the women work hard to subvert such practices. Various revenges are carried out in the play, as the critic Linda Anderson has stressed, and at the most general level these may be interpreted as revenges of women against men. Just as disruptive outsiders must first be punished and then accommodated, so must men be punished by women before reconciliation may occur. The obvious vehicle for this strand of the play is the narrative concerning Falstaff s wooing of the 'merry wives' and Ford's jealousy, but it is equally observable in the parallel plot concerning the wooing of Anne Page.
The range of attitudes held by men of Windsor towards the women can be surveyed by following through the story of the young Anne Page. Her name is introduced very early in...
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Marvin Felheim and Philip Traci (essay date 1981)
SOURCE: "Realism in The Merry Wives of Windsor," in Ball State University Forum, Vol. XXII, No. 1, Winter, 1981, pp. 52-9.
[Below, Felheim and Traci argue that The Merry Wives of Windsor is a realistic comedy by examining the credibility of the play's characterization and language; and concluding that it cannot be considered a farce.]
Ford: In love the heavens themselves do guide the state; Money buys lands, and wives are sold by fate.
(V. v. 229-30)1
At the conclusion of 2 Henry IV, the epilogue promises the audience: "If you be not too much cloyed with fat meat, our humble author will continue the story, with Sir John in it, and make you merry with fair Katharine of France" (ll. 26-29). In saving Fair Katharine for Henry V,2 where, if only in report, Falstaff does "die of a sweat" (1. 30), Shakespeare neatly provides another vehicle in which the fat knight and some wives and other residents of Windsor do "make" us "merry."
A story, first promulgated in 1702 by playwright John Dennis, persists that Queen Elizabeth, charmed by the character of Falstaff, commanded Shakespeare to write another play featuring the rascally knight.3 Surely The Merry Wives fills that bill....
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Beiner, G. "The Merry Wives of Windsor." In Shakespeare's Agnostic Comedy: Poetics, Analysis, Criticism, pp. 143-67. Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1993.
Examines the comic structure of The Merry Wives of Windsor.
Carroll, William C. "Falstaff and Ford: Forming and Reforming." In The Metamorphoses of Shakespearean Comedy, pp. 178-202. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985.
Studies Falstaff s transformation into a "comic monster."
Clark, Sandra. "'Wives May Be Merry and Yet Honest Too': Women and Wit in The Merry Wives of Windsor and Some Other Plays." In "'Fanned and Winnowed Opinions": Shakespearean Essays Presented to Harold Jenkins, edited by John W. Mahon and Thomas A. Pendleton, pp. 249-67. London: Methuen, 1987.
Examines the wives use of wit in the play, which she contends "operates as a means of obtaining revenge for women against the insults offered. . . by the male vices of lust and jealousy."
Erickson, Peter. "The Order of the Garter, the Cult of Elizabeth, and Class-Gender Tension in The Merry Wives of Windsor." In Shakespeare Reproduced: The Text in History and Ideology, edited by Jean E. Howard and Marion F. O'Connor, pp. 116-42. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1987.
Focuses on the themes of class and gender, asserting that they form "an...
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