The Merry Wives of Windsor (Vol. 59)
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....
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Criticism: Comic Structures
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.]
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 and, on the other hand, romantic hostility and modern neglect.1 The modern neglect, at least until recently,2 is particularly noticeable in the context of the increasing critical interest in Shakespeare's comedies, manifested especially in a number of book-length studies which have greatly contributed to our understanding of the plays, and have rescued some (for instance, Love's Labour's Lost) from previous neglect. From these studies The Merry Wives is usually excluded for varying reasons, and sometimes without a stated reason.3 Since conceptual tools for dealing with the genre of comedy and the corpus of Shakespeare's comedies (tools of which there used to be a great dearth) have been developed,...
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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 termed ‘musée imaginaire’ (Malraux), ‘chambre d'échos’ (Barthes), or ‘Bibliothèque générale’ (Grivel).” Contrarily, the diachronic perspective recognizes temporality and thus constructs well-ordered “archives” (Foucault) of intertextuality that meticulously chronicle “every code and register its continuities and discontinuities.”1 The latter perspective opposes the former's endless Derridean deferral and dispersion, that kind of detheologized hermeticism in which all signifiers ultimately signify nothing. It enables criticism by affording more spacious perspectives—perspectives which stretch beyond the familiar landscapes and delusory comforts of verbal echo and the parallel passage to newer vistas...
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Criticism: Date, Text, And Sources
SOURCE: “Shakespearean Chronology, Ideological Complicity, and Floating Texts: Something Is Rotten in Windsor,” in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 45, No. 2, Summer, 1994, pp. 190-210.
[In the following essay, Freedman suggests that The Merry Wives of Windsor's confusing mixture of dramatic genres, topical references, and historical allusions cast doubt on the argument that the play was written for a single occasion.]
I warrant he hath a thousand of these letters, writ with blank space for different names (sure, more!); and these are of the second edition.
(The Merry Wives of Windsor, 2.1.74-77)
If at one time the literary scholar's double bind could be summed up by the conflicting imperatives “always deconstruct” and “always historicize,” at present a third command triangulates the critic's desire—always localize.1 In the context of theory's latest turn of the screw to local history and thick description, a return to Shakespeare's last remaining so-called occasionalist play should prove both timely and unsettling. Widely accepted as Shakespeare's most topical play, The Merry Wives of Windsor boasts the stunning fact of being the only play in the corpus still generally believed to have been composed for a specific court occasion and, even more specifically, as a...
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SOURCE: “Reconstructing the Garter Entertainment at Westminster on St. George's Day 23 April 1597,” in Shakespeare's Garter Plays: Edward III to Merry Wives of Windsor, University of Delaware Press, 1994, pp. 92-112.
[In the following essay, Melchiori examines the textual and historical clues in and surrounding The Merry Wives of Windsor in his attempt to discover the exact date, location, and occasion on which the play was first performed.]
Most recent editions of The Merry Wives of Windsor (with the notable exception of George Hibbard's New Penguin of 1973) accept the date of 23 April 1597 for the first performance of the play, as part of the Garter feast celebrated at Westminster, when George Carey, second Baron Hunsdon, the patron of the company of which Shakespeare was a sharer, was one of the five newly elected knights solemnly invested by Queen Elizabeth with the Order of the Garter. This view was first put forward by Leslie Hotson in his Shakespeare versus Shallow (1931), but the most cogent arguments in favor of it were those advanced in 1962 by William Green, in a painstaking study1 minutely reconstructing on the basis of contemporary historical documents the ceremonies held on that occasion, to show that the performance of a play containing a celebration of the Order of the Garter would have been most appropriate after the supper held at Westminster in honor...
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SOURCE: “Pastoral and Parody in The Merry Wives of Windsor,” in English Studies in Canada, Vol. XI, No. 1, March, 1985, pp. 12-25.
[In the following essay, Slights examines the community of The Merry Wives of Windsor and contends that the humiliation of Falstaff “forces him to bow to social pressures and prepares him to understand and accept his place within the society.”]
Sir Hugh Evans, the Welsh parson in The Merry Wives of Windsor, tries to arrange Master Slender's marriage to Anne Page and in the process offends another of Anne's suitors, Doctor Caius, who challenges him to a duel. Act three finds Parson Evans waiting, with considerable trepidation, to answer the challenge:
Pless my soul, how full of chollors I am, and trempling of mind: I shall be glad if he have deceived me. How melancholies I am! I will knog his urinals about his knave's costard when I have good opportunities for the 'ork. Pless my soul!
Suddenly, in the course of expressing his malevolence and apprehension, he breaks into song:
To shallow rivers, to whose falls Melodious birds sings madrigals; There will we make our peds of roses, And a thousand fragrant posies. To shallow—
The delivery of a familiar text in Evans's comic...
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SOURCE: “The Town of Windsor,” in Twayne's New Critical Introductions to Shakespeare: The Merry Wives of Windsor, Twayne Publishers, 1991, pp. 1-16.
[In the following essay, White asserts that The Merry Wives of Windsor provides a realistic portrayal of sixteenth-century life due to its contemporary English setting.]
It is dangerous, and perhaps impossible, to claim that any work of literature or art is ‘realistic’. All that art can give us is a model of a possible world, and we as spectators locate ourselves either close to or distant from that world. The work of Ernst Gombrich and John Berger in the field of pictorial art, and the developing ideas of semioticians, prove that art works through conventions and codes which we as viewers and readers feel either comfortable with or uneasy in decoding. Moreover, as ‘metatheatrical’ critics (J.L. Calderwood is the main exponent) have insistently shown, Shakespeare in particular rarely allows us to forget that we are watching (or reading) a stage play rather than observing what pretends to be unmediated ‘reality’. Such theatrical consciousness is at work in this play. On several occasions characters use theatrical terms when speaking of their own activities:
Mistress Ford. Mistress Page, remember you your cue. Mistress Page. I warrant thee; if I do not act it, hiss me.
(iii. iii. 34-5)
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SOURCE: “Shakespeare's Merry Wives and the Law of Fraudulent Conveyance,” in Renaissance Drama, n.s., XXV, 1994, pp. 145-69.
[In the following essay, originally presented in 1992, Ross examines the fraudulent practices that occur in The Merry Wives of Windsor, which center principally but not exclusively around Falstaff, and argues that the ambivalent outcomes of these practices reflect the ambiguous morals of Renaissance society.]
Several forms of fraudulent conveyance characterize Shakespeare's Merry Wives of Windsor:1 Fraudulent conveyance may be defined as putting realizable assets beyond [a] creditor's process, whatever form that process might take” (Glenn 2). Laws against such transfers of assets occur in every society that recognizes the obligation to pay debts. The flip side is that civil societies have a certain tolerance for people who devise means to avoid the clutches of creditors.
The concept of fraudulent conveyance was found in Roman law;2 it arose in canon law, where the pauper status of clerics complicated the collection of debts;3 and it had a noble history in England, where complex legal mechanisms were constantly devised to frustrate judicial processes that sought to take property for the benefit of creditors. From the time of the Magna Carta, the Parliament of England regularly protected royal interests...
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Battenhouse, Roy. “Falstaff as Parodist and Perhaps Holy Fool.” PMLA 90, No. 1 (January 1975): 32-52.
Explores Falstaff's role as a jester in The Merry Wives of Windsor and the Henry IV plays.
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.
Uses The Merry Wives of Windsorto demonstrate that women's wit in the Renaissance was based on action, in contrast to men's wit which was based on speech.
Foley, Stephen. “Falstaff in Love and Other Stories from Tudor England.” Exemplaria 1, No. 2 (Fall 1989): 227-46.
Looks at The Merry Wives of Windsorin relation to contemporary stories of courtship, deceit, and marriage.
Marcus, Leah S. “Purity and Danger in the Modern Edition: The Merry Wives of Windsor.” In Unediting the Renaissance: Shakespeare, Marlowe, Milton, pp. 68-100. London: Routledge, 1996.
Examines the folio and quarto versions of The Merry Wives of Windsor and argues that rather than trying to find a definitive version of the play,...
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