The Merry Wives of Windsor (Vol. 47)
The Merry Wives of Windsor
For further information on the critical and stage history of The Merry Wives of Windsor, see .
Until fairly recently, much of the criticism directed toward The Merry Wives of Windsor was unfavorable. Critics were apt to note that the Falstaff in this early comedy of Shakespeare's was greatly diminished from the charismatic and comical tour de force that appeared in 1 Henry IV. One explanation is found in the traditional anecdote which claims that Falstaff had been brought back to life after 2 Henry IV at the command of Queen Elizabeth I, who wanted to see the roguish, fat knight in love. Later criticism, however, has focused on the play's sources as well as its individual merits. Specifically, emphasis has been placed on the play's setting and connection to Elizabethan society, Falstaff's role as scapegoat, and on the issues of disguise and deception.
Leslie S. Katz (1995) looks back at the play's early performances. Drawing a connection between its first showing before the Queen in honor of her knights of the Garter and subsequent performances held for the general populace, Katz suggests that The Merry Wives of Windsor was intended to inspire patriotism in a citizenry who "went to the theater to see what the court saw." Rosemary Kegl (1994), on the other hand, underscores the play's link with its Elizabethan audience by studying the characters' insults and the manner in which they help to identify the vague and fluctuating middle class of the Elizabethan era.
Other critics have discussed the ways in which Falstaff acts as the play's scapegoat. G. Beiner (1988) uses the "social/anthropological term 'pharmakos'" to pinpoint Falstaff as "a threat and an aberration" that the wives must neutralize to restore morality and order to their community. Frederick B. Jonassen (1991) sees Falstaff somewhat differently. He argues that the knight's role as "Jack-a-Lent," or scapegoat, works both against and for the character, who must be "set apart from the rest of humanity" for his lewdness but who also exposes the overweening power and moral hypocrisy of his tormentors—thereby restoring balance to the community. Jeanne Addison Roberts (1975) concludes that Falstaff's role is "ambiguous," arguing that while he deserves his punishment, the wives go too far, so that in the end, the audience can't help but feel sympathy for the fat knight.
Ultimately, what ties each of the play's elements together is the frequent use of disguise in the play as well as the theme of deception. Picking up on the notion that domestic harmony must be restored in Windsor, Leo Salingar (1974) argues that the wives trick Falstaff to teach him a lesson and to cure Ford of his jealousy. Salingar also remarks that the play is a classic example of "the duper duped," for almost everyone in the play is deceived—including "Mr. and Mrs. Page, who are impregnable against Falstaff," but who "blunder over their daughter's marriage because they attempt to use trickery against her and against each other." William C. Carroll (1985) points to the play's theme of self-deception. Falstaff, Carroll observes, allows himself to be deceived by his own vain lust and Ford by his unwarranted jealousy. Nancy Cotton (1987) provides another variation on the theme of deception when she argues that the wives use deceit that borders on witchcraft when their "trick on the would-be cuckolder [Falstaff] restores potency to the husband, Ford." The Merry Wives of Windsor is, in fact, full of disguises meant to deceive someone, whether it be hopeful suitors to Anne Page, a jealous husband, ambitious parents; or a lascivious knight. But as Roger Moss (1995) asserts in his discussion of the scene in which Falstaff escapes from the Ford household disguised as a woman, all of this "dressing-up" also amounts to a form of adult "play," or "of wish-fulfillment stories, that belong to drama."
Deception And Disguise
Leo Salingar (essay date 1974)
SOURCE: "Double Plots in Shakespeare," in Shakespeare and the Traditions of Comedy, Cambridge University Press, 1974, pp. 228-38.
[In the following excerpt, Salingar discusses possible influences on and sources for Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor. The author contends that the play is a classic example of "the duper duped," as almost everyone in the play is deceived.]
A Midsummer Night's Dream marks the end of the first phase in Shakespeare's writing of comedies, when one of his main interests is to devise an intricate plot. In most of his later comedies mere intricacy of plot is less important, though of course it is still present, and Shakespeare still applies the Italian principle of the double plot, as for instance in Much Ado, where he carefully interweaves his borrowed intrigue, the slander of Hero, with his invented intrigue, the deception of Beatrice. But The Merry Wives of Windsor shows how thoroughly he had absorbed the methods of classical and Italian comedy, and how readily he could fall back on them as his principal standby when—as seems very likely in this case—he was more than usually pressed for time. It has less psychological or poetic substance and is more simply a lively stage entertainment than any other of his mature comedies, so that there is no strong reason to doubt the...
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Rosemary Kegl (essay date 1994)
SOURCE: "'The Adoption of Abominable Terms': The Insults That Shape Windsor's Middle Class," in ELH, Vol. 61, No. 2, Summer, 1994, pp. 253-78.
[In the essay that follows, Kegl notes that the specific insults traded by the characters within the play serve to define various social groups and hierarchies within Elizabethan society.]
I take the title of this essay from Francis Ford's first soliloquy in The Merry Wives of Windsor.1 Misconstruing his wife's merriment as unfaithfulness, the distracted Ford laments:
See the hell of having a false woman! My bed shall be abus'd, my coffers ransack'd, my reputation gnawn at, and I shall not only receive this villainous wrong, but stand under the adoption of abominable terms, and by him that does me this wrong. Terms! names! Amaimon sounds well; Lucifer, well; Barbason, well; yet they are devils' additions, the names of fiends; but Cuckold! Wittol!—Cuckold! the devil himself hath not such a name.
I will prevent this, detect my wife, be reveng'd on Falstaff, and laugh at Page. I will about it; better three hours too soon than a minute too late. Fie, fie, fie! cuckold, cuckold, cuckold!
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Satire And Scapegoating
Marjorie Dunlavy Lewis (essay date 1971)
SOURCE: "The Ingenious Compliment: A Consideration of Some Devices and Episodes in The Merry Wives of Windsor" in Studies in Medieval, Renaissance, American Literature; a Festschrift, Texas Christian University Press, 1971, pp. 64-72.
[In the following essay, Lewis argues that The Merry Wives of Windsor was meant to pay tribute to the Queen's noblemen and their chivalric code of love and honor by satirizing those who falsely claim to be chivalrous.]
When an Elizabethan playwright had the task of providing a script to be presented before an audience of noblemen who were being celebrated for their chivalric virtues, tradition and occasion dictated the conventional themes of love and honor. The Merry Wives of Windsor was William Shakespeare's unconventional solution—a play satirizing not love and honor but ridiculous pretenders to love and honor.
Attempting to assign a definite date to the play, scholars have tried to attach the first production to a particular celebration of the Order of the Garter.1 The date itself is not important for the argument of this essay, but the fact that The Merry Wives had a connection with a Garter ceremony is significant. Almost any meeting of members of the order would provide an audience for which many of the events of the play would be particularly...
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Jeanne Addison Roberts (essay date 1972)
SOURCE: "'The Merry Wives of Windsor' as a Hallowe'en Play," in Shakespeare Survey: An Annual Survey of Shakespearian Study and Production, Vol. 25, 1972, pp. 107-112.
[In the following essay, Roberts suggests that The Merry Wives of Windsor is set during the festival of Hallowe'en and thus acts as a transition from the spring-like Falstaff of 1 Henry IV to the wintry, aging Falstaff of 2 Henry IV]
In trying to define the mood and the artistic movement of Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor, it is provocative to imagine what the season of the setting ought to be. Since much of the action takes place out of doors, the season is important to the realist; and if any symbolic or ritual progress is to be discerned, the season is significant in establishing the tone and in possibly indicating the occasion.
The text of the play itself is not very helpful. 'Birding' is a sport which can be indulged in at any season; and laundry might conceivably be sent to the Thames any time, though certainly spring, summer, and fall are more likely than winter. The reference by Simple (I, i, 211)1 to the use of a Book of Riddles on 'Allhallowmas last' is interesting but inconclusive. And Mistress Page's reference to the fact that Herne the hunter wanders in the winter forest (I, iv, 30) does not...
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Beiner, G. "The Libido as Pharmakos, or The Triumph of Love: The Merry Wives of Windsor in the Context of Comedy," in Orbis Litterarum, Vol. 43, No. 3, 1988, pp. 195-216.
Observes that the aging, lascivious Falstaff is treated as a "pharmakos" or scapegoat who must be punished and symbolically cast out so that jealousy might be dispersed and order restored through young love and marital fidelity.
Ericksoii, 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. 116-40. New York: Methuen, Inc., 1987.
Contends that class and gender are in conflict in The Merry Wives of Windsor due to the reinforcement of class hierarchy and the reversal of traditional gender hierarchy by the affirmation of female authority, thus creating an "unresolvable tension."
Fleissner, Robert F. "The Malleable Knight and the Unfettered Friar: The Merry Wives of Windsor and Boccaccio." Shakespeare Studies XI (1978): 77-93.
Demonstrates how the story of Friar Alberto in Boccaccio's Decameron may have been Shakespeare's source for The Merry Wives of Windsor....
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