The Merry Wives of Windsor Essay - The Merry Wives of Windsor (Vol. 59)

The Merry Wives of Windsor (Vol. 59)

Introduction

The Merry Wives of Windsor

For further information on the critical and stage history of The Merry Wives of Windsor, see SC, Volumes 5, 18, 38, and 47.

While The Merry Wives of Windsor has generally remained popular in performance, this comedy of the ne'er-do-well knight Falstaff and his disastrous efforts to romance two clever city housewives has not always been well received by literary critics. According to T.W. Craik (1989), the play fell into disregard early in the nineteenth century when critics dismissed it in favor of thematically complicated Shakespearean comedies such as Twelfth Night. Critics have since charged that the Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor is a pathetic caricature of the crafty Falstaff in the Henry IV plays. This objection was reinforced by those who believed that the play was written not out of inspiration but in answer to Queen Elizabeth's command that Shakespeare write a play showing the fat knight in love. More recently, however, literary critics have begun to reexamine the play's sources and overall structure and now place a higher value on its comic variety and its portrayal of Elizabethan society.

Both Giorgio Melchiori (1994) and Barbara Freedman (1994) cast doubt on the argument that The Merry Wives of Windsor is a so-called “occasional” play that had been ordered by the Queen for a courtly celebration. Indeed, Freedman suggests that the comedy is too rich in topical references to have been written for any single occasion, and that what is in fact more interesting about the play is the manner in which it reveals Shakespeare's virtuosity in applying the current events of his time in an engaging way to traditional comedic forms. The precise nature of these comedic forms is examined by G. Beiner (1988) and Robert S. Miola (1993). Beiner describes Falstaff as a “pharmakos” or potential threat to the community of the play—one that has to be united against and routed so that the final act can resolve itself into a “festive celebration” of marriage between Fenton and Anne Page. Further, Beiner asserts that Falstaff's role as pharmakos is important to Shakespeare's works overall because it firmly connects The Merry Wives of Windsor with other plays such as Twelfth Night, where the “malcontent” Malvolio likewise serves to draw the play to a festive close. While literary critic Miola remains unimpressed with the comedic resolution to The Merry Wives of Windsor, describing it as “flawed” and at times “badly garbled,” he nevertheless credits Shakespeare for incorporating a variety of European comedic forms into the play which are then used to greater advantage in his comedy All's Well That Ends Well.

Finally, several critics have focused on The Merry Wives of Windsor as representative of Elizabethan urban life. For example, while R.S. White (1991) acknowledges that the characters make very conscious references to themselves as participants in the artificial world of a play, he adds that the setting of this play is a very realistic portrayal of sixteenth-century London life and examines how it differed from the rural life beyond the town. Camille Wells Slights (1985) also looks at the play's juxtaposition of urban and rural, arguing that in the cynical London setting of the play, idealized “pastoral values” are achieved when Fenton and Anne Page ultimately ask her parents to bless their marriage. Alternatively, Charles Stanley Ross (1994) sees the play’s setting in a more ambiguous light. He argues that fraud is the focus of The Merry Wives of Windsor, and the fraudulent practices reflect the ambiguous morals of Renaissance society. The critic also notes that in his attempt to cheat the wives, Falstaff is the most flagrant practitioner of fraud in the play.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

SOURCE: Introduction to The Merry Wives of Windsor, by William Shakespeare, edited by T.W. Craik, Clarendon Press, 1989, pp. 13-25.

[In the following excerpt, Craik provides an overview of The Merry Wives of Windsor, focusing in particular on the plot structure and comparing it to several other works of the Renaissance.]

SHAKESPEARE'S ENGLISH COMEDY: THE SUBSTANCE AND THE DRAMATIC STRUCTURE OF THE PLAY

The Merry Wives of Windsor is unique among Shakespeare's comedies in being set in England, rather than in Ephesus, Athens, France, Italy, Illyria, or ancient Britain. This English setting—a very local one, with its allusions to Windsor, Eton, Frogmore, and Datchet—goes to confirm the play's connection both with the Garter Feast and with the English history plays. Its social world is that of the Gloucestershire scenes of 2 Henry IV, where there are no kings or dukes, and none of the characters is above the rank of a knight. The incidents in which its central character, Falstaff, is discomfited recall the spirit of the Gadshill robbery episode in 1 Henry IV. Everything points to Shakespeare's having intended to write a comedy of which the material should be his English histories with the history left out. Falstaff, already a more important figure in the histories than his subsidiary role required him to be, was now to have a whole play to himself.

For this new Falstaff play Shakespeare needed a plot, a plot involving a succession of comic discomfitures from which Falstaff would emerge defeated but irrepressible, as he had done from the Gadshill robbery. On the face of it, it is not likely that any ready-made plot would serve his purpose, and so it is not surprising that no source for the play as a whole has been found. (That a lost play called The Jealous Comedy, performed by the Lord Chamberlain's Men in 1593, was the source is the merest conjecture.)1 Shakespeare, then, may be assumed to have invented his own plot, drawing upon his memory for suitable incidental material, as he remembered Chaucer's Knight's Tale when inventing the plot of A Midsummer Night's Dream. The most substantial piece of material of this sort is a story from a collection of novelle, Ser Giovanni Fiorentino's Il pecorone.2 In this story a student asks a professor to teach him the art of love (that is, of seduction), and duly applies the teaching and reports his progress to the professor; suspecting that the woman is his own wife (as she is), the professor follows the student to the house, but does not find him because the wife has hidden him under a heap of damp washing; next day the student reports his adventure to the professor, who consequently stabs the heap of washing the next time he follows the student to the house; the student, of course, has escaped in a different way, and the professor is treated as a madman by his wife's brothers, whom he has caused to witness his search. Though there are major differences (chiefly that in the novella adultery takes place), there are striking resemblances. The lover's confiding in the husband, the concealment under the washing, and the husband's assault on the washing upon the second occasion, all suggest that Shakespeare knew this story, particularly because another story in Il pecorone is agreed to be the source of the main plot (the bond, the wife disguised as a lawyer, and the business of the ring) of The Merchant of Venice, which he probably wrote in 1596 or 1597. No other proposed source for elements of the play comes anywhere near so close as this, which may be taken to be the point from which Shakespeare's plot grew.3

Ser Giovanni's novella is a simple comedy of ironic situation, satisfying enough within its conventional limits but strictly limited in characters and in incidents.4 It would not in itself make a play. Shakespeare seizes on its situational irony and develops round this a humorous comedy of character. He also substitutes for the amoral sexual opportunism of the original a quite different moral spirit, in which ‘wives may be merry and yet honest too’, and in which not only is Falstaff's lechery frustrated but also Ford's jealousy is cured—yet all this without sententious moralizing or undue seriousness. One method by which the mood of the whole play is kept light and cheerful is the multiplying of the dramatic interest. Though Falstaff's first two discomfitures take place at Ford's house and turn upon his attempts to seduce Mistress Ford, the facts that he has also written a love-letter to Mistress Page, that the two women have compared their letters, that Ford and Page have both been told of his intentions by his discarded hangers-on, that Falstaff has been (as he thinks) independently engaged by the supposed Brook to seduce Mistress Ford, and that Ford has Page and two or three eccentrics in tow when he searches his house for Falstaff, all go to confirm that there are to be no unpleasantly lifelike treatments of sexual misconduct or of marital jealousy.

Along with this filling-out of his main plot Shakespeare introduces two subsidiary actions. In the first of these, Page's daughter is courted by three suitors, two of them ridiculous, and is won by Fenton, the young gentleman whom she favours, while her two unwelcome suitors (the respective choices of her father and mother) are ludicrously disappointed, in the final scene. The second subsidiary action centres upon one of Anne Page's two ridiculous suitors, Dr Caius the French physician, and the Welsh parson of the town, Sir Hugh Evans; the former challenges the latter to a duel for intervening to forward Slender's courtship of Anne, the Host of the Garter Inn frustrates the duel by appointing them contrary places, and they combine to revenge themselves on him by arranging for some pretended Germans to run away with his horses. Their revengeful trick is so lightly sketched in that several critics have supposed one or more scenes to have been lost, but there is no necessity for more than a sketch of this very minor element in the plot. Its usefulness, apart from further filling out the play with the humours of Caius, Evans, and the Host, is that it adds the Host to the number of those who suffer reverses in the latter part of it—Page and Slender, Mistress Page and Caius. It is important that Falstaff should not be the only loser.

Shakespeare gives most of the principal characters more than one function in the play's multiple action. Mistress Page, for instance, is both Mistress Ford's confidante and an intriguer on behalf of Caius in his suit to her daughter Anne; Page intrigues on behalf of Slender and is also a foil to the jealous Ford; Mistress Quickly, besides being Caius's housekeeper, acts as go-between in Mistress Ford's dealings with Falstaff; Caius and Evans, besides being absurd would-be duellists, are reasonable spectators of Ford's searches of his house, and Caius is also a suitor and Evans a pedant who conducts a Latin lesson; the Host, in addition to his involvement in the duel and in the duellists' revenge, is an assistant in Fenton's elopement with Anne Page.

It is typical of Shakespeare's method, which the following discussion will explore, to have more than one action afoot in a comedy. The opening scene proclaims the breadth of interest, in event and character, that we are to be offered. The first three persons on stage—Justice Shallow, his nephew Slender, and Sir Hugh Evans—are a trio of notable eccentrics, and presently they are confronted with an equally eccentric quartet in Falstaff and his hangers-on, Bardolph, Pistol, and Nim. The only normal people—Page and his wife, their daughter, and Mistress Ford—are outnumbered, and provide a scale by which the abnormality of the others can be measured. Shallow's complaint against Falstaff, which gives the scene and the play their kick-start, is never heard of again, and the chief business set going is the wooing of Anne Page by (or rather, on behalf of) Slender, which is carried on in the second scene when Sir Hugh sends Slender's servant Simple with a letter to Mistress Quickly asking her to use her influence with Anne. Only then, in Scene 3, do we reach the beginning of the main action, with Falstaff proposing to make Mistress Ford and Mistress Page his East and West Indies, cashiering Pistol and Nim for refusing to deliver his love-letters, and thereby motivating their betrayal of his scheme to Ford and Page. Among Shakespeare's artful touches in these first three scenes Falstaff's one speech to Mistress Ford is to be noted:

Mistress Ford, by my troth, you are very well met. By your leave, good mistress.

Even if general kissing breaks out after the next line, when Page says, ‘Wife, bid these gentlemen welcome’, Falstaff's speech and kiss have made their dramatic point, with their conscious gallantry; consequently his announcement of his scheme in Scene 3, though it has all the impact of novelty, has continuity too. We may also notice that Falstaff has already parted with his third follower, Bardolph, to the Host—in whose employment he will be dramatically useful later—before he breaks with the other two and gives both letters to his page Robin (another minor character who will have his uses: ‘And Falstaff's boy with her!’).5

Ford, who grinds out the line just quoted, does not appear until well into the first scene of Act 2. In the mean time, true to Shakespeare's usual method of alternating action, Sir Hugh's letter is delivered to Mistress Quickly, and her employer Dr Caius discovers the messenger, becomes incensed at Sir Hugh's meddling on behalf of a rival suitor, and sends him a challenge. The French doctor is obviously the Welsh parson's equivalent in the play's gallery of eccentrics, though not so obviously as if they were themselves rival suitors, which would be too obvious a device for Shakespeare. Before the scene is over, Fenton—Anne's third suitor, and so evidently the successful one that there is no need, here or later, to spend more than the minimal time in establishing the fact—also appears. Then, in the first scene of Act 2, the main plot is greatly developed: Mistress Page and Mistress Ford compare their letters, Ford and Page are informed of Falstaff's scheme by Pistol and Nim, Mistress Quickly is engaged by the wives as a messenger to Falstaff, and Ford arranges with the Host that he shall be introduced to Falstaff under the assumed name of Brook.

Shakespeare's skill in dramatic construction is so easy that it is the easiest thing in the world to ignore it. In this scene the arrival of the Host, whom Caius has appointed umpire in his duel with Sir Hugh, with Shallow at his heels, allows Ford to come to his arrangement with the former while the latter talks to Page about the duel. And this dialogue with Page allows Shallow to vent his opinions on modern swordsmen and to reflect with satisfaction on his own feats of former days:

'Tis the heart, Master Page; 'tis here, 'tis here. I have seen the time, with my long sword, I would have made you four tall fellows skip like rats.

This is a good instance of how, in this play as in others, Shakespeare gives his scenes room to breathe. Then, with the exits of the Host, Shallow, and Page, Ford is left on stage to reinforce our knowledge of his intention to visit Falstaff in disguise in a very short soliloquy.

Of course, we are eager to see him put his plan in practice, and the sight of Falstaff browbeating a crestfallen Pistol is our assurance that Ford is even now on his way. But first Mistress Quickly must arrive and appoint Falstaff's assignation for next morning. The result is that Ford's arrival finds Falstaff in a hubristic mood of self-gratulation:

Sayst 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. Let them say 'tis grossly done, so it be fairly done, no matter.6

Master Brook offers Falstaff money for seducing Ford's...

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Criticism: Comic Structures

G. Beiner (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: “The Libido as Pharmakos, or The Triumph of Love: The Merry Wives of Windsor in the Context of Comedy,” in Orbis Litterarum, Vol. 43, 1988, pp. 195-216.

[In the following essay, Beiner takes a close look at the comedic structure of The Merry Wives of Windsorin order to show that this play is not an anomaly but is instead related in style and theme to the rest of Shakespeare's comedies as well as to other comedies of the era.]

I

The history of the criticism of The Merry Wives of Windsor shows a radical evaluative disparity between a high critical regard and popularity on the stage until the eighteenth century...

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Robert S. Miola (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “The Merry Wives of Windsor: Classical and Italian Intertexts,” in Comparative Drama, Vol. 27, No. 3, Fall, 1993, pp. 364-76.

[In the following essay, Miola asserts that despite its weaknesses in plot, The Merry Wives of Windsor reveals Shakespeare's skill at adapting comedic forms outside of English dramaturgy.]

Current theory has distinguished between two opposite intertextual perspectives, synchronic and diachronic. Dismissing all notion of temporality and hence of sources, the synchronic perspective views all texts as existing simultaneously with each other. “An endless ars combinatoria takes place in what has been variously...

(The entire section is 5214 words.)