The Merry Wives of Windsor (Vol. 71)
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, 47, and 59.
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.
Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
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...
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Criticism: Character Studies
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 as a whole. The development has been complicated by the idiosyncrasies of individual critics and by uncertainty as to the date, occasion, and textual peculiarities of the play; but as in other Shakespeare criticism, one may clearly perceive the shaping patterns of Neoclassical, Romantic, Victorian, and Modern critical premises and attitudes of mind behind individual judgments of the Windsor Falstaff.1 The various critical theories have typically evolved in response to one problem, a problem that has been considered by nearly all critics: how should the Windsor Falstaff be related to the man of Eastcheap?2
Curiously enough, this “problem” was of very little concern to Neoclassical critics, but from the...
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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 Prince Hal kills Hotspur in single combat on the field at Shrewsbury. While doing what he calls “fair rites of tenderness” (98) to honor Hotspur's corpse, Hal spies Falstaff on the ground, dead. He responds with a speech filled with wordplay. He calls Falstaff an “old” acquaintance. He muses on the incongruity of Falstaff's bulk: “Could not all this flesh / Keep in a little life?” He salutes Falstaff as “poor Jack,” the name both a familiar and affectionate substitute for “John” and a synonym for “knave.” He weighs his loss both morally and emotionally: “I could have better spar'd a better man” (102-4). The wit of the lines brings together affection and moral judgment, playfulness and regret, crystallizing Hal's...
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Criticism: Production Reviews
SOURCE: Bemrose, John. “Darkness and Light.” Maclean's 108, no. 25 (19 June 1995): 60.
[In the excerpted review below, Bemrose assesses the Stratford Festival production of The Merry Wives of Windsor, directed by Richard Monette and Antoni Cimolino and starring William Hutt as Falstaff. Bemrose finds that too much of the comic subtlety in the play was overstated.]
The opening playbill also includes Shakespeare's comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor, directed by Richard Monette and Antoni Cimolino, and starring William Hutt as Falstaff—in the first of three major roles he is undertaking this season. The directors have set this tale of seduction and revenge in the Victorian period—while making Hutt's Falstaff, with his rakishly set top hat and red waistcoat, seem like a holdover from the earlier, more libertine days of the Georgians. This allows the great-bellied buffoon to appear as even more of an outsider than he usually does, and provides Hutt with several opportunities for pathos. And though the actor occasionally indulges in showing off his golden voice a little too much, the scene in which he totters back to his lodgings after having been dumped in the river is a marvel of understated comedy.
Too much in the production, however, is overstated: it tries so hard to convey gusto and excitement that it frequently spins right out of focus. There is too much...
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SOURCE: Dungate, Rod. “The Merry Wives of Windsor.” Plays and Players no. 511 (February 1997): 15.
[In the following review of The Merry Wives of Windsor directed by Ian Judge, Dungate finds that the production's pace was swift and the cast energetic, and that Judge offered a fresh take on the play.]
I've usually found Merry Wives slightly worthy, but this new production by Ian Judge leaves you with a warmer glow than the best mince pies and mulled wine (it opened just before Christmas). Its success would seem to lie in the fact that each actor has been given his or her own head to create comic business and characterisation and that this rich mêlée has been transformed into a single delicious pudding by Master-Chef Judge. And there, lest the epicurean metaphors get out of hand, I'd best drop them. Ian Judge has shown us before how, with his acute sensitivity to the tone of a play and his meticulous attention to detail, he can reveal texts afresh. He's done it again: however outrageous the comedy or characterisation it always stems from the play, it never feels stuck on.
The production moves with a cracking pace and is sustained by great energy from the whole cast, the play is presented in all it's frivolous, witty, and zany glory. It has a bright modern feel too: the sprightly designs of Tim Goodchild complement this tone completely. The production finishes in...
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SOURCE: Waites, Aline. “The Merry Wives of Windsor.” Plays and Players no. 519 (February 1998): 9.
[In the following review, Waites discusses Ian Judge's production of The Merry Wives of Windsor and offers high praise for Edward Petherbridge's portrayal of Ford. The critic finds that the production as a whole ran rather long, but was nonetheless “very jolly.”]
Written by Shakespeare on the behest of Queen Elizabeth, this play is set in the environs of Windsor Castle, utilizing local place names. The dramatis personae include strong-minded independent women, their flawed spouses, a shrill young man of dubious sexuality, a ludicrous Welsh priest and a comedy French doctor both of whom inflict grave damage on the English language, persistently mangling it at times into incomprehension, and of course, her favourite character of all, Sir John Falstaff. It seems that the Queen was so entranced by his character that she ordered the playwright to write her another play about the fat knight.
Will, being a dutiful kind of hack, penned a piece almost entirely in prose, with lots of entendres which are hardly deserving of the term double. Nevertheless, he could hardly disguise the fact that the character of Mr Ford engaged him far more than that of Falstaff. Ford is an archetypal jealous husband and a truly comic creation, a truth fully realised by the ever wonderful Edward...
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SOURCE: Gates, Anita. “Where Women Are Merry and Men Hide in Closets.” The New York Times CXLIX, no. 51274 (21 January 2000): E26.
[In the following review, Gates maintains that when The Merry Wives of Windsor is staged properly, it can be “adorably silly,” and that the Pearl Theater Company's production of the play as directed by James Alexander Bond accomplished this. Gates additionally comments that the production was briskly paced and energetic.]
The plot of The Merry Wives of Windsor is simple. An aging, seriously overweight man gets it into his head that two attractive married women in town have eyes for him, and he decides to make their lives complete by sleeping with them. Separately. The women's husbands hear about this plan, and one of them puts on a disguise in order to find out just how interested the wives are. When the women themselves hear about it, they decide to have a little fun with the old guy. Meanwhile, almost every other man in town wants to marry young Anne Page, who is apparently the Liv Tyler of 14th-century Windsor.
Shakespeare is said to have written this comedy in two weeks as a sort of spinoff from Henry IV (Elizabeth I had liked Falstaff so much in Part I and Part II that she wanted to see him again), and it's never been considered his finest work. At times the “let's play a trick on the boys” plot seems almost sitcomish....
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SOURCE: Wall, Wendy. “Why Does Puck Sweep?: Fairylore, Merry Wives, and Social Struggle.” Shakespeare Quarterly 52, no. 1 (spring 2001): 67-106.
[In the following excerpt, Wall studies the relationship between the play's treatment of fairylore and Elizabethan conceptions of social order. ]
Why does puck sweep? At the end of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Oberon and his troupe of fairies enter the Athenian palace to bless the aristocratic newlyweds as they set out to consummate their marriages. After waxing lyrical about screeching predators and demonic spirits, Puck describes his nocturnal mission as an oddly mundane hallowing: “I am sent with broom before, / To sweep the dust behind the door” (5.1.389-90).1 When the fairies saunter casually into the ducal palace, the magic that had been located specifically within the forest is unleashed onto Theseus's domestic, if hyperrational, human sphere. In this moment, class tensions and marital disputes are also overshadowed by the play's culminating interest in aristocratic reproduction. But why in helping to achieve this closure does the mischievous Puck play the role of housewife? Why does the reproduction of the social world, a goal at the very heart of romantic comedy, rest on a task usually too banal for representation—disposing of dirt left in domestic corners? Why introduce a homey image in a play concerned with the grand affairs...
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SOURCE: Theis, Jeffrey. “The ‘ill kill'd’ Deer: Poaching and Social Order in The Merry Wives of Windsor.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 43, no. 1 (2001): 46-73.
[In the following essay, Theis examines The Merry Wives of Windsor's treatment of poaching, contending that poaching serves as a trope that allows for the analysis and criticism of social hierarchy, gender roles, and conflicts between generations.]
Nicholas Rowe once asserted that the young Shakespeare was caught stealing a deer from Sir Thomas Lucy's park at Charlecote. The anecdote's truth-value is clearly false, yet the narrative's plausibility resonates from the local social customs in Shakespeare's Warwickshire region. As the social historian Roger Manning convincingly argues, hunting and its illegitimate kin poaching thoroughly pervaded all social strata of early modern English culture. Close proximity to the Forest of Arden and numerous aristocratic deer parks and rabbit warrens would have steeped Shakespeare's early life in the practices of hunting and poaching whether he engaged in them or only heard stories about them.1
While some Shakespeare criticism attends directly or indirectly to the importance of hunting in the comedies, remarkably, there has been no sustained analysis of poaching's importance in these plays.2 In part, the reason for the oversight might be...
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Green, William. Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1962, 239 p.
Book-length study of the play and its relationship to Shakespeare's England and to the Henry IV and Henry V plays.
Korda, Natasha. “‘Judicious oeillades’: Supervising Marital Property in The Merry Wives of Windsor.” In Marxist Shakespeares, edited by Jean E. Howard and Scott Cutler Shershow, pp. 82-103. London: Routledge, 2001.
Offers a feminist-Marxist reading of The Merry Wives of Windsor, viewing it as a domestic comedy which examines housewifery and the management of household property.
Mace, Nancy A. “Falstaff, Quin, and the Popularity of The Merry Wives of Windsor in the Eighteenth Century.” Theatre Survey 31, no. 1 (May 1990): 55-66.
Argues that The Merry Wives of Windsor was not as popular during the eighteenth century as many critics have maintained, and that its appeal during this time period was due largely to the actor James Quin's portrayal of Falstaff.
Parker, Patricia. “The Merry Wives of Windsor and Shakespearean Translation.” Modern Language Quarterly 52, no. 3 (September 1991): 225-62.
Examines the subtleties of the wordplay in The Merry Wives...
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