The Merry Wives of Windsor
Long dismissed as one of Shakespeare's lesser accomplishments, The Merry Wives of Windsor has been reassessed by modern critics who have found the play to be a more interesting work than earlier commentators. The plot centers on the attempts of Falstaff to seduce the two “merry wives,” the Mistresses Ford and Page. When Falstaff's efforts are discovered, the wives form an elaborate scheme designed to humiliate him. Falstaff is the focus of much critical attention; his relationship to the Falstaff character of the Henry IV plays, as well as his role as an outsider and element of disorder within the Windsor community are of particular interest to modern scholars. Because the play focuses on English middle-class society, critics are often drawn to analysis of the social hierarchies, domesticity, and gender roles in the play, which are explored and assessed within the context of Elizabethan social order and concerns. The Merry Wives of Windsor has been a continued success on the stage, and modern productions aim to exploit the play's various comic attractions.
The Merry Wives of Windsor has often been dismissed as farce. Jeanne Addison Roberts (1979) concedes that while the play does contain elements of farce, it transcends this genre in its many complexities. Roberts finds the plot artfully contrived and that the play's structure reflects a simplified, ordered life, not the randomness of farce. The critic also notes that while the characters may be types, this does not make them farcical. The character at the center of much of the critical discussion and debate concerning the play is Falstaff. Roberts (1973) assesses the critical treatment of Falstaff and the concern with the Windsor Falstaff's relation to the Falstaff of the Henry IV plays. Roberts explains that while neoclassicists were more concerned with morality than with character analyses, Romantic critics either adopted a sympathetic attitude toward Falstaff, or rejected the notion that he was the same man depicted in Henry IV, Parts One and Two. Later Romantics, or Romantic Victorians as Roberts refers to them, likewise found the Windsor Falstaff to be inferior to the Henry IV Falstaff, but observed that he was not different enough to be viewed as a separate character. Roberts's own view reflects that of many modern critics and concurs with the assessment of many Romantic Victorians: the character in all three plays is essentially the same person. Edward Berry (2001) maintains that the Falstaff of the Henry IV plays is linked to the Falstaff of Merry Wives of Windsor through the issues of poaching and social rebellion. Berry explores Falstaff's role within The Merry Wives of Windsor, demonstrating the ways in which Falstaff, as a poacher and a fallen knight, poses a threat to society and emphasizes the conflict between the court and the Windsor bourgeois society. Berry also comments on the anti-patriarchal nature of the comic revenge Falstaff suffers at the hands of the wives.
Like Berry, Jeffrey Theis (2001) seizes upon the significance of the play's treatment of poaching. Theis contends that poaching serves as a trope through which the issues of class hierarchies, gender roles, and conflict between generations may be explored, and demonstrates the ways in which poaching is used as a metaphor within the play for the usurpation of control over property. This includes, according to Elizabethan notions of property, a husband's control over his wife and parental control over children. Theis maintains that the play's treatment of poaching as a dramatic illustration of an act of transgression reveals the arbitrary nature of society's conception of property. Similarly interested in the play's examination of social and gender issues, Wendy Wall (2001) uses the play's treatment of fairylore to explore its attitudes toward domesticity and class conflict. Citizens disguised as fairies appear at the end of The Merry Wives of Windsor under the direction of the Mistresses Ford and Page, who have orchestrated an elaborate revenge designed to humiliate Falstaff. Wall contends that the disciplining of Falstaff by the fairies reveals a concern with the protection of property and social authority from violation by the upper classes. Additionally, Wall maintains, the fact that the play is so heavily concerned with commerce, industry, and work underscores the importance of the fairies' regard for housework. Wall further argues that the play presents housewifery as essential to community structure and suggests that the men in the play have distorted a genuine middle-class belief in the connection between work and social life.
While social order and gender roles are the focus of many critical analyses of the play, modern stage productions often center instead on The Merry Wives of Windsor's lightheartedness and comic value. John Bemrose (1995) reviews a Stratford Festival production of the play directed by Richard Monette and Antoni Cimolino, and finds that too much of the comic subtlety in the play was overstated. Rod Dungate (1997), reviewing the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of the play, directed by Ian Judge, comments that the pace was appropriately swift and that the cast was greatly energetic. Dungate finds Judge's take on the play fresh and interesting. Aline Waites (1998) assesses the same production, directed by Judge, noting that the production ran a bit long but was considerably “jolly.” Anita Gates (2000) describes the proper approach to staging The Merry Wives of Windsor as “adorably silly,” and praises the Pearl Theater Company's production for achieving this effect under the direction of James Alexander Bond.
SOURCE: Roberts, Jeanne Addison. “The Play: Suitably Shallow but Neither Simple nor Slender.” In Shakespeare's English Comedy: The Merry Wives of Windsor in Context, pp. 61-83. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1979.
[In the essay below, Roberts reviews the plot, themes, and characters of The Merry Wives of Windsor, challenging the fact that the play is often classified, and subsequently dismissed, as farce.]
Most modern critics who discuss Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor at all, sooner or later describe it as farcical, or a farce.1 At best the terms are used with a note of condescension or apology, and at worst they are scathing. The farcical label seems to date back to Hartley Coleridge, who sets the tone for the more favorable category of comments by saying in 1851 that though the “plot is rather farcical … it is exceedingly diverting.”2 The negative attitude is best represented by A. C. Bradley, who speaks bitterly of the “hasty farce” in which Falstaff is “baffled, duped, and treated like dirty linen, beaten, burnt, pricked, mocked, insulted, and worst of all, repentant and didactic,” concluding, “it is horrible.”3
On the surface there is nothing surprising about considering The Merry Wives a farce. Its most memorable, most referred to, most illustrated scenes—Falstaff in the buck basket, Falstaff horned as Herne the Hunter—involve visual, physical humor; its characters are recognizable types; the plot is rapid and artifically repetitious; the tone is joyously lighthearted. All this sounds to the modern ear like farce. And yet, the more we study the critical history of the play, the more uneasy we become about dismissing it as a farce. The modern attitude has by now become a habit which blinds us to much of the play's skillful design, genuine comic impact—even subtlety. Both in content and dramatic technique, if not in depth of characterization or poetry, The Merry Wives deserves, I believe, to be considered with such other plays of its probable period of composition as The Merchant of Venice and Much Ado about Nothing rather than with the more farcical Comedy of Errors and The Taming of the Shrew, with which it is frequently associated. The play has a structural coherence and a social orientation which are fundamentally opposed to the spirit of farce. Early critics, from the late seventeenth century to the mid-nineteenth, saw these qualities clearly. They saw The Merry Wives as a comedy of great merit, and the word farce is never used. We would do well to let the early critics reopen our eyes.
John Dryden, not to be lightly disregarded as a critic, is on record as detesting “those farces which are now the most frequent entertainments of the stage.” He goes on to generalize that farce consists of “forced humours and unnatural events,” and pleases only those who can judge neither manners nor men.4 But The Merry Wives is the only play of Shakespeare that Dryden mentions by name in his Essay of Dramatick Poesy, and he singles it out for praise as being “almost exactly formed” (p. 46). Could such a play be a farce? Certainly Dryden thought not.
Performance records indicate that in the first half of the eighteenth century The Merry Wives was produced more than any other Shakespearean comedy,5 and Charles Gildon called it Shakespeare's only “true comedy.”6 Other early criticism stresses the comic power of the play and accords it a very high place in the Shakespeare canon. The modern tone of tolerance for an inferior genre is totally absent. Joseph Warton, in 1778, speaks absolutely of the play as “the most complete specimen of Shakespeare's comic powers.”7 Many of the nineteenth-century editors are similarly laudatory. William Oxberry gives extreme praise in 1820, declaring that “this delightful comedy is perfect,” and describes it as a composition in which “light and shadow are blended with matchless skill.” He commends especially the subtle interaction of the characters, which he finds as natural and pleasing as the blended parts in a landscape.8 Samuel Weller Singer adds in 1826 that the incidents, characters, and “plot of this delightful comedy are unrivalled in any drama, ancient or modern.”9 H. N. Hudson in 1851 comes to an arresting conclusion: “Queen Elizabeth was indeed a great woman, and did some great things: but if it were certain she was … the occasion of this play, there are many who would not scruple to set it down as the best thing she had any agency in bringing to pass.”10 And the editor of the Arden edition, H. C. Hart, as late as 1904, calls the play “a treasured possession, for which he could better afford to part with, perhaps, half of the author's works, admittedly superior though several of those may be.”11
It is hard to believe that the two critical attitudes refer to the same play. The discrepancy in the accounts forces us to consider why the play has slipped in critical opinion from the rank of comedy to the level of farce. Has there been some shift in the definition of farce? Or is it possible that early critics somehow saw different values and emphases as they studied the play? And finally, of course, there follows the perennial effort at a “just” description. Is the play indeed a comedy or a farce, or some combination of the two?
Part of the problem of classifying is surely the result of definitions. The eighteenth century saw farce as “loose and disengaged” and “not cramped by Method, or measure of Time or other Unity.”12The Merry Wives, on the other hand seemed to Nicholas Rowe so unified that the plots are “much better join'd, connected and incorporated, than in any Play, that I remember, either in Latin or English.”13 The fact that it came closer than almost any other play of Shakespeare to observing the unities of time, place, and action was highly in its favor. It is true that John Dennis in adapting the play in his Comical Gallant in 1702 seems to have felt the need of tightening the plot. He eliminates the first scene and Falstaff's disguise as Mother Prat, and he contrives to introduce family relationships between Fenton, Mistress Ford, and the Host. But he is careful to announce that he found the play already “by no means a despicable comedy.”14 Certainly from the point of view of structure it was not a farce.
Structure is, of course, closely related to the importance of action, and here again The Merry Wives benefited by Neoclassical theory. For Dennis, at least, action is in drama “the chief thing of all.” It is precisely because he talks less and acts more than the Falstaff of 2 Henry IV, that Dennis prefers the Falstaff of The Merry Wives. He concludes that “action at last is the business of the Stage. The Drama is action itself, and it is action alone that is able to excite in any extraordinary manner the curiosity of mankind.”15 That The Merry Wives is a play above all in which something is constantly happening would have recommended it highly as a successful comedy.
Most critics of the early eighteenth century took for granted the fact that the characters of a play would be types. How could they be successful otherwise in the abbreviated and limited representation available to the stage? As late a critic as Samuel T. Coleridge praises Shakespeare because “no character in his plays (unless indeed Pistol be an exception) … can be called the mere portrait of an individual.”16 The fact, therefore, that The Merry Wives makes use of recognizable stock characters derived from Roman and Italian comedy (senex, adulescens, servus, virgo, matrona, miles gloriosus, ancilla, nutrex, medicus, pedante, priest)17 would never have relegated it to the realm of farce. Characters become farcical, says Dennis (Critical Works, 2:385), only when they are too extravagant and too singular to involve the sympathies of the audience, and the recurring praise of the “manners” of The Merry Wives shows that this was not the case. Again Dennis may have had a few misgivings, since he concedes that some of the characters may seem out of date, but he attributes this to the incapacity of the general audience to judge “the boldness and the delicacy of the strokes” (Gallant, p. v).
Farce was associated in the early eighteenth-century mind with “low” characters, characters both low in social status and low in moral capacity. It is true that The Merry Wives is Shakespeare's only “middle-class comedy”; however, this did not make it farce. Characters below the highest social level were for the neoclassical critic the proper subject-matter for comedy. Only, says Laurence Echard, in his preface to Plautus's Comedies, when drama presents men “more Vicious, more Covetous, [and] more Foolish” than they really are does it degenerate into farce.18 On this score, The Merry Wives was safe. Dennis is right in saying that “tho the Characters are low they are true and good” (Gallant, p. iii).
“Lowness” in character continues to be thought a sign of farce. Eric Bentley says in The Life of the Drama that farce shows men as knaves and fools—only a little above the apes.19 There are plenty of dupes in The Merry Wives and some attempted knavery, and no one is spectacularly bright. But the impression now as in the eighteenth century is that morally the characters are not the subnormal creatures of farce, but precisely on the level of their audience—somewhere in the midregion between apes and angels.
Modern critics frequently seem to be looking at the same play that the Neoclassicists saw and simply describing it in different terms. Their terms are less complimentary, and one often suspects that the injured feelings of Falstaff-lovers are at the root of their evaluation. The nineteenth- and twentieth-century Falstaff-apotheosis has put up serious barriers to any objective view of this play. Nonetheless, both early and modern critics have seen in The Merry Wives a play where plot and action are important. But for modern critics, this quality, far from eliciting praise, has demoted the play to farce or evoked the epithet “non-Shakespearean.” Nevill Coghill, in his essay on Shakespeare's comedy, mentions the play only in a footnote as “hurried and exceptional.”20 R. G. Hunter, in Shakespeare and the Comedy of Forgiveness, and C. L. Barber, in Shakespeare's Festive Comedy, make only two brief references each to The Merry Wives.21 In other books on Shakespearean comedy, H. B. Charlton mentions the play only, and J. D. Wilson chiefly to agonize over Falstaff.22 S. C. Sen Gupta in Shakespearian Comedy, remarking on the fact that characterization is “subordinated to intrigue,” concludes: “The Merry Wives is not necessarily Shakespeare's worst play, but it is the one least characteristic of him,” and Larry Champion devotes one paragraph to it, dwelling on its aberrant qualities.23
F. T. Bowers sees the emphasis on plot and the use of type characters as clearly identifying the play as farce.24 R. B. Heilman, speaking generally, lists the “surface manifestations” of farce as being “hurly-burly theater, with much slapstick, roughhouse … pratfalls, general confusion, trickery, uproars, gags, practical jokes.”25 Such description brings to mind immediately the dumping, beating, and pinching of Falstaff, the choleric rantings of Dr. Caius, the duel that is never fought, the post-horse plot, the multiplicity and rapid movement of characters—all of which seems to point toward farce. About one characteristic of farce, in fact, it seems to me that there can be no quarrel. From its earliest appearance as the interpolation of gags in religious drama, through its manifestation in the mute Harlequin in the commedia dell'arte, farce has always involved bodily and nonverbal humor. And insomuch as physical and nonverbal action are an important element in the continuous stage success of The Merry Wives, there can be no doubt that in this respect the play is farcical. Farcical, but not necessarily a farce.
It is important to distinguish here between stage business—admittedly often farcical—and plot. The Merry Wives has at least two plots, and their structures are of great interest. The main plot is farcical in subject matter, though not, I think, in treatment. The Oxford Companion to the Theatre defines a farce as a “full-length play dealing with some absurd situation hingeing generally on extramarital relations,”26 and this does describe the action involving the title characters. The second plot, however is typically comic, if we accept the view that comedy is the celebration of the triumph of young love, the overthrow of the authority of the older generation, and the acceptance by society of the new. There is the suggestion of a third plot in the affairs of the Host, Caius, Sir Hugh, Nym, and Pistol. The various threads of the three plots are loosely interwoven until they come together in the last act.
What the Neoclassical critics really admired in The Merry Wives was the plotting. Although Dr. Johnson early pointed out some shortcomings and loose ends in the play, he remarked especially how beautifully the two main plots merge in the final scene. The nineteenth century continued to admire the complexity and inevitability of the structure. H. N. Hudson found it typical of Shakespeare's “general order and method,” with “the surrounding parts falling in with the central, and the subordinate plots drawing as by a hidden impulse, into harmony with the leading one.”27 The best analysis of the great sophistication of Shakespeare's manipulation of the discrepant awarenesses of his characters in carrying forward plot and producing humorous situations is to be found in Bertrand Evans's chapter in Shakespeare's Comedies—one of the few full and detailed discussions of the play in modern criticism. Evans's book classifies The Merry Wives, properly, I think, with Much Ado and As You Like It.28
Here at last, in the complex and artfully contrived plot, is the proof, one might suppose, that The Merry Wives is a comedy rather than a farce. But even on this there is no necessary agreement. We have seen that emphasis on plot is taken as a sign of farce by modern critics. Heilman says that neatness of plot and mechanical action leading to symmetrical effects are typical of farce (pp. 153, 160). Neatness and symmetry there certainly are in The Merry Wives. There are three suitors for the hand of Anne Page, and Mistress Quickly systematically encourages all three. Falstaff decides to send identical letters to Mistress Ford and Mistress Page, and their identical responses lead to his being trapped three times in the situation of a would-be adulterer. The body-curer is balanced by the soul-curer. Both Master and Mistress Page decide at the same time on a secret marriage for their daughter, and both are disappointed. Both would-be suitors carry off boys instead of girls. It is like an elaborate ritual dance, and, as in any good dance, there is a little incidental variety. Master Ford is jealous and Master Page is not; Slender is shown wooing and Caius is not; however, the variations only emphasize the patterns, and it is obvious that symmetry is an important part of the method and meaning of the play. But then, is not symmetry important to the method and meaning of all drama? Indeed of all art?
Symmetry is especially crucial to certain kinds of comedy, where effects depend on the arousal and manipulation of audience expectation, and where absurd repetition is frequently a vehicle of satire. But it is a mistake, I think, to identify symmetrical effect as a special characteristic and not simply an instrument of farce. Typically the symmetry of farce is saying that the world is absurd and that man is a ridiculous animal compulsively repeating meaningless configurations. The structure of The Merry Wives is saying rather that the world is patterned and the patterns have meaning. And the effect is not limited to this one play. Elaborate symmetry is a regular characteristic of Shakespearean comedy, at least through Twelfth Night. On the other hand, mechanical action, coincidence, effects produced without developed motivation of character, and behavior persistent in the face of all probability are more properly associated with farce. Here the judging of The Merry Wives becomes a delicate matter.
The greatest improbability in the play is that Falstaff should be fooled three times by essentially the same device. If one can accept this—and Shakespeare makes it easier, as Bertrand Evans points out, by manipulating suspense and discrepant awarenesses in the second occurrence, and by focusing our attention on Anne Page in the third—the rest of the play becomes consistent and credible. There is nothing remarkable about Falstaff's being willing to exploit sex for money, in three men wanting to marry a rich beautiful girl, or in a perversely jealous husband wanting to discover what he believes to be the truth.
And the action which grows out of these situations is not mechanical. Only Falstaff blindly repeats his folly. Sir Hugh and Dr. Caius discover that they have been tricked by the Host and conspire together for “revenge.” Ford discovers his error and reforms. Further, Shakespeare seems to have been at some pains to eliminate coincidences. In both Il Pecorone and Tarlton's Newes Out of Purgatorie, an analogue and a possible source of the Falstaff-Ford plot, coincidence is central to the farcical effect. In the former, the young lover happens to choose the wife of his teacher on whom to practice his lessons in love; in the latter, the lover happens to choose his lady's elderly husband as his confidant. But Shakespeare carefully motivates Pistol to tell Ford of Falstaff's advances to his wife, and Ford to disguise himself and seek out Falstaff in order to trap her.
Everything in the play is believably arranged by someone in it. Comic effects are achieved by the fact that all of the arrangers, except Anne Page, are ignorant of some essential fact. Bertrand Evans is wrong, I think, in assigning Mistress Quickly the role of an all-knowing Portia or Rosalind. She knows no more than the wives in the Ford-Falstaff plot, and she is in fact ignorant of Anne Page's true affections, as we see when she says after her first interview with Fenton, “But Anne loves him not” (1.4. 157 ). It is not Mistress Quickly but the Host who is Fenton's confidant on the night of the elopement. And it seems likely that Quickly only takes the role of the Fairy Queene at the end because the part must be taken by an actor who has established a “female” identity in the play, and no other such actor is available.
Bentley says that in the world of farce coincidence is taken for granted and mischief becomes fate (p. 245). Thus the jealous husband arrives home by accident when the lover is being entertained by his wife. But in The Merry Wives the jealous husband arrives home because he has helped to plan the assignation. As Bertrand Evans points out, nearly everyone in the play is both deceiving and deceived. The Host aborts a duel by deceiving Caius and Evans but is in turn victimized by their plot. Falstaff is deceived by Ford but still gains a kind of superiority over him as he relates his “adventures” with his wife. The wives deceive Falstaff but are genuinely surprised at the actual arrival of Ford at the assignation when they had expected only to pretend he was coming. Fenton is deceived by Mistress Quickly, who takes his money while apparently doing nothing to advance his suit, but at the end he deceives everyone and triumphantly bears off Anne Page. Master and Mistress Page, Slender, and Caius plan to deceive each other but are deceived by Fenton and Anne.
Complex as it is, the structure of the play is obviously a simplification and ordering of life. It is not the random world of farce. It is a world of cause and effect, human interaction, and rational principle. One might note in passing that, though everyone in the play but the lovers is notably imperfect, the women are superior to the men in knowledge and capability. And, although no one person is in control, some beneficent force, perhaps even Queen Elizabeth herself presiding from the audience, is ordering this universe. If farce is absurd and ruled by whim, one is forced to conclude that the eighteenth century was right: The Merry Wives is not farce but comedy.
There remains to be considered the question of characterization. Everyone has seen the the characters of this play as varied and vivid, but it would be hard to deny that they are shallowly developed and superficially presented to the audience. The movement of the action is very rapid. Although there are a number of soliloquies, none of them is memorable as a subtle exploration of character. Their purpose is clearly either to advance the plot—as in the case of Mistress Page's reading of the letter from Falstaff—or to supply incidental humor or develop mood—as in the soliloquies of Falstaff. Most of the play is written in prose, and where there is poetry, it is usually flat and “unpoetic” in tone. There are no long, leisurely scenes which reveal the nuances of human interrelations. The main plot demands a husband, wife, and lover, and they are supplied, the two former in duplicate. The Anne Page plot demands parents, daughter, and suitor, and they are supplied, the latter in triplicate. Several characterizations—Nym and probably Caius and the Host—are determined by the vogue for humours in comedy. (Whether they helped to set the vogue, which is likely, or merely exploit it, they belong to the fashion.) The chief comic features of Caius and Sir Hugh are the result simply of their national origins.
Certainly these characters are types, but I would deny that this makes them farcical. The minimally developed young lovers are a standard feature of comedy, and, as Northop Frye shrewdly suggests, too much detail may make it impossible for the audience properly to identify with their innocence. Shakespeare gives Anne Page a total of thirty-three lines. Dennis in The Comical Gallant greatly expands her role and ruins the play. If Frye is right about the forces at work in comedy, the characters must be types. Eugène Ionesco says much the same thing: “Take a tragedy, speed up the movement, and … empty the characters of psychological content … and you will have a comedy.”29
The remarkable thing about the characters of The Merry Wives is not that they are types, but that they have been so much commented on as if they were not. When the marchioness of Newcastle wants to demonstrate that Shakespeare's powers of drawing women are such that one feels “he had been metamorphosed from a man to a woman,” she lists eight examples: Mistress Page, Mistress Ford, Mistress Quickly, and Nan Page (of the thirty-three lines) appear in the company of Cleopatra and Beatrice.30 Rowe finds the characters “perfectly distinguish'd,” and Dr. Johnson says there are “more characters appropriated and discriminated, than perhaps can be found in any other play.”31 William Mark Clark points to their “great originality and whim,” and Arthur Quiller-Couch says the play is “overcharged with eccentrics.”32 Slender has been widely praised for the special wistful quality of his foolishness, the Host for his robust idiosyncrasies, and even John Rugby, whose only really distinguishing quality is that he is “given to prayer” (1.4.12 ), comes in for special mention. M. R. Ridley, the editor of the 1935 Dent edition of the play, concludes, “There is not a character who is not a human being with the blood of life flowing in his veins.”33 Shakespeare seems to have been in as much danger of falling into the sin...
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SOURCE: Roberts, Jeanne Addison. “The Windsor Falstaff.” Papers on Language and Literature 9, no. 2 (spring 1973): 202-30.
[In the following essay, Roberts surveys the critical assessment of the character of Falstaff, focusing on the treatment of the character by neoclassicists, Romantics, and Romantic Victorians. In particular, Roberts discusses critical concern over the discrepancies between the character of Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor and the Falstaff character from the Henry IV plays.]
The history of critical reactions to the Falstaff of Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor recapitulates the history of Shakespeare criticism...
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SOURCE: Berry, Edward. “The ‘Rascal’ Falstaff in Windsor.” In Shakespeare and the Hunt: A Cultural and Social Study, pp. 133-58. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
[In the essay below, Berry maintains that the Falstaff of the Henry IV plays is linked to the Falstaff of Merry Wives of Windsor through the issues of poaching and social rebellion. Berry explores Falstaff's role within The Merry Wives of Windsor, demonstrating the ways in which Falstaff, as a poacher and a fallen knight, poses a threat to society and emphasizes the conflict between the court and the Windsor bourgeois society.]
In act 5 scene 4 of 1 Henry IV...
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