Study Guide

The Merry Wives of Windsor

by William Shakespeare

The Merry Wives of Windsor Essay - The Merry Wives of Windsor (Vol. 83)

The Merry Wives of Windsor (Vol. 83)

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, 47, 59, and 71.

Long dismissed as one of Shakespeare's lesser accomplishments, The Merry Wives of Windsor (c. 1597-98) has been reassessed by modern critics who have found the play to be one the most exuberant and entertaining of Shakespeare's comedies. The plot centers on the attempts of Sir John 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. A well-known anecdote claims that the play was written in two weeks at the request of Queen Elizabeth, who had so enjoyed the character of Falstaff in the Henry IV plays that she requested Shakespeare compose another play depicting the fat knight in love. Critics have remained keenly interested in the character of Falstaff, particularly his relationship to the Falstaff of the Henry IV plays. Many scholars have expressed disappointment with the comedy's characterization of Sir John, maintaining that the play trivializes the complex character presented in the Henry IV plays. Commentators are also interested in the play's unique representation of the everyday life of the English middle-class, and appreciate the glimpse into Elizabethan society that the play offers. Although not well received by literary critics, The Merry Wives of Windsor has proven irresistible on the stage; the play was popular with its original audiences and remains a favorite with modern audiences as well.

Falstaff's characterization in The Merry Wives of Windsor is a major area of critical concern. In his 1959 essay, Allan Gilbert traces connections between the character of Falstaff as it was presented in the Henry IV plays with his portrayal in Merry Wives, noting that although Falstaff's character changed, there is a consistency of character across all three plays that cannot be dismissed. Gilbert also argues that the Falstaff of Merry Wives should not be compared to the Falstaff of Henry IV, primarily because the latter is a history, while the former is a comedy. Taking a similar view, A. L. Bennett (1970) argues that the shift to comedy necessitated Shakespeare's radical change in the character of Falstaff, from the “ready and resourceful, the irrepressible” Sir John of Henry IV to the “amorous buffoon” of Merry Wives. Roy Battenhouse (see Further Reading) analyzes Falstaff's character across all three plays, concluding that the character is a complex combination of court fool and charitable honesty and that the knight ultimately represents a covertly Christian spirit. Paul N. Siegel (1976) studies Falstaff's character from a Marxist literary perspective and explores his place in Elizabethan society. According to Siegel, Falstaff is a “representative of the enduring spirit of ordinary humanity coping through the ages with the knocks of a rough world.”

The Merry Wives of Windsor's popularity throughout its stage history rests on its fast-paced action, broad physical humor, situational irony, and eccentric characters. In his review of Lillian Groag's 2001 Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of the play, Michael W. Shurgot (2001) remarks that the production was a “three-hour marathon of sight gags, pratfalls, and petty stuff.” William Green reviews the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's 2002 staging of the play, also directed by Lillian Groag, and contends that the production fulfilled Shakespeare's aim of “writing a play to entertain” and praises the colorful costumes, happy mood, and setting. Many directors have taken a less traditional approach to the play, often staging it as a musical or in unique settings. Russell Jackson (2003) reviews Rachel Kavanaugh's 2002 Royal Shakespeare Company production of The Merry Wives of Windsor and notes its post-World War II setting. According to the critic, the setting conveyed the “confident rhetoric of the period.” Robert L. Daniels (2003) praises director Victoria Liberatori's 2003 production of The Merry Wives of Windsor, particularly her contemporary Princeton setting and hip curtain call, which “very nearly had the audience dancing on the amphitheater steps.” Reviewing the 2001 Ohio Theater musical adaptation of the play titled Lone Star Love, Chris Jones (2001) lauds director Michael Bogdanov's adaptation of the play as “funny, melodic, and crowd-pleasing.”

Recent criticism of The Merry Wives of Windsor has also addressed such issues as the play's sources, genre, and the role of women. Bennett, after a careful consideration of the theme, characters, and general structure of The Merry Wives of Windsor, contends that the old English comedy Ralph Roister Doister was the primary source for the main plot of Merry Wives. Philip D. Collington (2000) argues that The Merry Wives of Windsor is a parody of the genre of domestic tragedy, a genre popular in Shakespeare's day in which the protagonists are ordinary middle class or lower class citizens. Collington compares The Merry Wives with a lesser-known domestic tragedy, the anonymous A Warning for Fair Women, and claims that although the play was not a source, it represents “cultural and generic phenomena that Shakespeare incorporates and parodies in his comedy.” Discussing the role of women in the play, Sandra Clark (1987) contends that the women of Merry Wives work to destroy stereotypical conceptions of women with their wit, which “operates as a means of obtaining revenge for women against the insults offered to their honesty by the male vices of lust and jealousy, and also as a way of restoring to the community the values of order and domestic stability.”

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

SOURCE: Gilbert, Allan. “The Merry Wives of Windsor.” In The Principles and Practice of Criticism: Othello, The Merry Wives, Hamlet, pp. 67-93. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1959.

[In the following excerpt, Gilbert provides an overview of The Merry Wives of Windsor, reviewing its plot, structure, date, sources, and characters.]

I. THE “REJECTION” OF THE FALSTAFF OF THE MERRY WIVES

What has happened to Falstaff is a tribute to Shakespeare's power to make his personages real. Falstaff has become a man who lived in the flesh, a friend to various literary men so close and dear that they are indignant at any slur on his conduct or character. The chain began in 1777, when Maurice Morgann, Esquire, published his Essay on the Dramatic Character of Sir John Falstaff. He tells us that he declared in conversation that Falstaff was not a coward, was challenged to write out his reasons, and did so. The essay is worth looking at, if only to make one wonder whether Morgann was not amusing himself in his own way. At least he does not hold the rejection of Falstaff against the king,—quite the reverse; he justifies it. But the followers of Morgann have lacked some of his saving qualities—especially humor. One of the most striking, among those still in some sense contemporary—or who seem so to men of my age—is A. C. Bradley, once professor of poetry at Oxford, author of Shakespearean Tragedy and of an essay called “The Rejection of Falstaff.” I quote what he says on the rejection scene at the end of Henry IV:

What are our feelings during this scene? They will depend on our feelings about Falstaff. If we have not keenly enjoyed the Falstaff scenes of the two plays, if we regard Sir John chiefly as an old reprobate, not only a sensualist, a liar, and a coward, but a cruel and dangerous ruffian, I suppose we enjoy his discomfiture and consider that the King has behaved magnificiently. But if we have keenly enjoyed the Falstaff scenes, if we have enjoyed them as Shakespeare surely meant them to be enjoyed, and if, accordingly, Falstaff is not to us solely or even chiefly a reprobate and ruffian, we feel, I think, during the King's speech, a good deal of pain and some resentment; and when, without any further offence on Sir John's part, the Chief Justice returns and sends him to prison, we stare in astonishment. These I believe, are in greater or less degree the feelings of most of those who really enjoy the Falstaff scenes (as many readers do not). Nor are these feelings diminished when we remember the end of the whole story, as we find it in Henry V, where we learn that Falstaff quickly died, and, according to the testimony of persons not very sentimental, died of a broken heart.

(p. 251)

However, if Shakespeare had had Professor Bradley to school him, he might have avoided writing a scene that causes readers such resentment. “If,” says Bradley,

as the Second Part of Henry IV advanced, he had clouded over Falstaff's humour so heavily that the man of genius turned into the Falstaff of the Merry Wives, we should have witnessed his rejection without a pang.

(p. 272)

The meaning of this reference to the Merry Wives is made plain elsewhere in the essay:

Falstaff was degraded by Shakespeare himself. The original character is to be found alive in the two parts of Henry IV, dead in Henry V, and nowhere else. But not very long after these plays were composed, Shakespeare wrote, and he afterwards revised, the very entertaining piece called The Merry Wives of Windsor. … And among the characters he could introduce a disreputable fat old knight with attendants, and could call them Falstaff, Bardolph, Pistol, and Nym. And he could represent this knight assailing, for financial purposes, the virtue of two matrons, and in the event baffled, duped, treated like dirty linen, beaten, burnt, pricked, mocked, insulted, and, worst of all, repentant and didactic. It is horrible. … To picture the real Falstaff befooled like the Falstaff of the Merry Wives is like imagining Iago the gull of Roderigo, or Becky Sharp the dupe of Amelia Osborne. Before he had been served the least of these tricks, he would have had his brains taken out and buttered, and have given them to a dog for a New Year's gift. I quote the words of the impostor, for after all Shakespeare made him, and gave to him a few sentences worthy of Falstaff himself.

(pp. 247-248)

If such opinion is taken seriously, The Merry Wives has little chance for proper reading.

That an author is not to do more than one sort of thing is one of the most extraordinary of critical assumptions. William de Morgan—a now forgotten novelist early in the present century—wrote four novels of contemporary life; then he chose a historical subject—to be rated by the critics. He defends himself thus:

To fulfil the conditions which literary usage appears to dictate and to signalize his conformity with public opinion, there is no doubt that the writer of An Affair of Dishonour—… myself—should have made that work not only Early Victorian but Suburban. For, as I understand, I am expected to be Suburban. … Outside opinion, though a little vague about Early Victorianism, has not been inconsistent about Suburbanity. It has shrewdly identified, in my first four novels, the Suburban character of Tooting, Balham, Hampstead, Putney, Shepherd's Bush, and Wimbledon; and now I perceive that my reader was entitled to expect Clapham Junction or Peckham Rye, at least. Nothing could have pleased me better, when writing my last book, than to supply the nearest practicable Carolean equivalent, had I seen more clearly how the land lay. However, it's done now and can't he helped.

(A Likely Story, “An Apology,” p. 336)

The critics, however, have been indignant because Shakespeare did not repeat the Falstaff of Henry IV, part one. The rejection that closes the second part, as we have seen, is for them intolerable.

Another external matter charged against the play is that the author wrote it on the order of Queen Elizabeth. Critical wisdom has declared that to follow another's ideas is cramping to genius. It has indeed added that the Falstaff of the Merry Wives is not properly in love, that Shakespeare modified the royal command to suit himself. Yet critical authority does this without releasing the dramatist from the charge of allowing himself to be hampered by vexatious commands.

The Merry Wives stands alone among Shakespearean comedies in that it deals with life in an English village. Schlegel, whose comments are often worth looking at, writes (in the English translation):

Of all Shakespeare's pieces, this approaches the nearest to the species of pure Comedy: it is exclusively confined to the English manners of the day, and to the domestic relations; the characters are almost all comic, and the dialogue, with slight exceptions, is written in prose.

(Lectures on Dramatic Art, XXVI)

In proportion as they emphasize this distinction, critics are the better pleased with the play, though they tend to deal with the minor characters and the setting to the exclusion of Falstaff.

That the play is a comedy of manners appears in the contrast between the folio text, of 3018 lines, and the quarto text, of 1618 lines. The difference is largely in material not necessary to the story—sketches of character and manners, such as the lesson in Latin conducted by Sir Hugh, with Quickly's comments.

II. THE TRADITION OF QUEEN ELIZABETH'S REQUEST

The relation of the play to Henry IV is considered as fixed by the tradition that Queen Elizabeth ordered the playwright to present Falstaff in love, because of her pleasure in seeing him in the other plays.

Let us observe this tradition. John Dennis first tells it in 1702, more than a century after the composition of the play; he writes:

This comedy was written at the command [of Queen Elizabeth], and by her direction, and she was so eager to see it acted that she commanded it to be finished in fourteen days; and was afterwards, as tradition tells us, very well pleased at the representation.

(Epistle to The Comical Gallant)

In a prologue he again mentions the fourteen days, which in a letter he reduces to ten. Seven years later, Rowe has more about it: Queen Elizabeth, he says,

was so well pleased with the admirable character of Falstaff in the Two Parts of Henry the Fourth that she commanded him to continue it for one play more, and to show him in love. This is said to be the occasion of his writing The Merry Wives of Windsor.

(Life of Shakespeare)

A year later Gildon says that the Queen

obliged Shakespeare to write a play of Sir John Falstaff in love, and which I am very well assured he performed in a fortnight.

(Remarks on the Plays of Shakespeare)1

This is all we know about the story. Dennis says only that “tradition tells us she was pleased at the representation.” What about tradition for the command itself? And if Dennis knew anything definite, why did he not tell from whom he derived it? Rowe says only, “This is said.” If he knew more, why was he silent? Gildon is “very well assured” that Shakespeare wrote the play in a fortnight. On what does he ground his assurance? It is strange that none of the three men indicates any basis for his belief. Yet it has been taken seriously. A recent scholarly biographer of Shakespeare calls it “well-founded,” without specifying on what. He adds to the story that Elizabeth “called for the author and requested him to write especially for her a play in which Falstaff should be made to fall in love.” Moreover, he says that the three men “record the story as an old and trustworthy tradition.” None of them, we have seen, says that it is either old or trustworthy. Rowe's version, the only one that represents the Queen as pleased with Henry IV, has been used as evidence for the acting of the two plays at court in 1597; there seems to be no other indication of it.

The question of the value of traditions is one that historians often have occasion to deal with. Can they be accepted without some sort of basis? If Dennis had said: “I have heard my grandfather say,” that would carry the story back toward the date a hundred years before. But none of the writers gives any foundation whatever. The account grows and changes from Dennis to Rowe; did Rowe have access to another version? Did he, unintentionally, add to the story to please himself? If the story was not preserved by word of mouth for a century, how did it start? Could it have come up about 1700 as the result of jest or speculation? In 1700 Shakespeare was an important man in whom a queen might take a lively concern; was he so in 1600? We see that our recent scholar improves the story by having the queen send for the playwright. Altogether, the tradition is so ill-founded that it cannot be considered evidence. So let us throw it aside.

III. THE DATE

Turning to the play itself, we find other difficulties. The quarto (F4v) contains one word, not in the folio, always interpreted as dealing with an event in 1592. This is garmombles, supposed to be a perversion of the word Mümplegart, the name of a German count who visited Windsor in 1592 and made disturbance enough to be mentioned in the form of the play from which the quarto was drawn. Evidently the local allusion was abandoned by the time the folio text was made. How long after 1592 would it have remained current enough to use on the stage? Some scholars find ways for keeping the joke alive, mostly that of asserting that the count would be remembered. Possibly Shakespeare also needed to make sure that he would not offend authority. The Count Mümplegart soon became a Duke; in 1597 he was chosen to the Order of the Garter, so he was considered of some consequence at the English court. Whether a jest at his expense would have been safe then, only better knowledge than we are likely to get could make sure. Is it not likely that the nearer we are to the Count's visit, the better the joke? When once the tradition of Queen Elizabeth's request is treated as the lack of evidence for it suggests, there is little reason why 1592 should not be taken as the date of the Merry Wives as first written by Shakespeare.

The masque at the end of the quarto is thought to burlesque three plays by Lyly and the anonymous Maid's Metamorphosis.2 Of these plays, Endimion was performed in 1586 and printed in 1591. The production of Mother Bombie is dated in 1590. Love's Metamorphosis is put “before 1591.” The Maid's Metamorphosis may have been performed before 1591. If there is any burlesque of Lyly in The Merry Wives, the Lylian dates point to 1592 as the proper time for it.

As was suggested in Verplank's edition more than a century ago, The Merry Wives seems to deal with an earlier period in Falstaff's life than does Henry IV, if we are to try to fit the events Shakespeare gives us into a series. There is in The Merry Wives no hint that Falstaff has ever been an intimate of Prince Henry, much less that he has been rejected by him as king; yet Falstaff at Windsor has some connection with the court. Henry is still the “wild prince” (3.2.74). This enquiry cannot be pressed too far. Especially for the minor characters it brings confusion. For example, Falstaff dismisses some of his followers in The Merry Wives; he has them in Henry IV. On the other hand, Quickly becomes acquainted with him in The Merry Wives; in Henry IV she has known him for “twenty-nine years come peascod time.” Yet in The Merry Wives his age is insisted on, most strikingly by Mistress Page, who says: “One that is well-nigh worn to pieces with age to show himself a young gallant (2.1.19)!” Altogether there are half a dozen references. There is also a difficulty about Shallow, who in Henry IV does not mention Falstaff's deer stealing, as at Windsor he does not mention the loan of a thousand pounds. But it is vain to attempt a solution.

Indeed I feel that I should apologize for giving so much time to these peripheral matters, even though I hope that incidentally they may do a little in explication of the play. At least, if it is possible that The Merry Wives was written earlier than Henry IV, so that Shakespeare's process has been not degradation of the hero of Eastcheap, but exaltation of the “hodge-pudding” of Windsor, even a Falstaffian of Bradley's school can look upon the immature Falstaff of the earlier play without indignation. There have, however, been souls so hardy as not to need two Falstaffs. Professor Hardin Craig dares to assert: “Falstaff is the same Falstaff.”3 And also: “No one who understands Shakespeare's attitude toward Falstaff, particularly in the second part of Henry IV, need feel that the attribution of attempted seduction and swindling is in any way a derogation of that worthy.”4 You recall that the real Falstaff, for his most zealous partisans, is the Falstaff of the first part of Henry IV, rather than of the second part, where he is also a swindler. But these matters of date, of Queen Elizabeth's interest, of Shakespeare's success in presenting a Falstaff consistent in both comedy and historical plays, are of little import. Here stands the comedy, The Merry Wives of Windsor. In isolation, whatever its origin, without relation to any other drama, is it something to be enjoyed? Let us look at the play for an answer; comparison with both parts of Henry IV gives us aid.

IV. FALSTAFF IN THE MERRY WIVES AND IN HENRY IV

In The Merry Wives, Falstaff first appears, with his followers, when Shallow threatens to complain of him to the king, because, “You have beaten my men, killed my deer, broke open my lodge.” In the spirit with which he met the chief justice in Henry IV, Falstaff answers the angry Shallow with a bit from a ballad, properly chanted we must suppose:

But not kissed your keeper's daughter.

(1.1.118)

To threats of the council, the knight answers with a pun:

Twere better for you if it were known in counsel; you'll be laughed at.

That is, you had better keep it secret, if you don't want to be laughed at. Sir Hugh Evans interferes with advice: “Sir John, goot worts.” Falstaff ridicules his pronunciation: “Good worts! good cabbage.” When he addresses Bardolph, he uses the words of a ballad sung by Silence in Henry IV: “What say you, Scarlet and John?” In 1 Henry IV, Falstaff makes merry at length over Bardolph's complexion, with many comparisons (3.3.27 ff.). One of these is “the Knight of the Burning Lamp.” This and the others seem slightly labored in comparison with the brief and lively use of the two names.

When Falstaff turns Bardolph over to the host as a tapster, he varies a proverb: “An old cloak makes a new jerkin.” In 2 Henry IV he shows similar skill: “To wake a wolf is as bad as to smell a fox” (1.2.175). Falstaff is glad to be rid of Bardolph: “His thefts were too open; his filching was like an unskilful singer; he kept not time.” In 1 Henry IV he exclaims: “Where shall I find one that can steal well? O for a fine thief of the age of two and twenty or thereabouts! I am heinously unprovided” (3.3.215 f.). To Pistol's remark that Falstaff is two yards about and more, the knight answers: “Indeed I am in the waist two yards about; but I am now about no waste; I am about thrift.” That is, he hopes to get hold of Ford's money. In 2 Henry IV when the chief justice says: “Your means are very slender and your waste is great,” the answer is: “I would it were otherwise; I would my means were greater and my waist slenderer” (1.2.159 ff.).

Explaining why he has written to the Merry Wives, Falstaff speaks with satisfaction of his own person: She “examined my parts with most judicious oeillades; sometimes the beam of her view gilded my foot, sometimes my portly belly” (1.3.68). When playing the part of Henry IV, he describes himself as “a goodly portly man, i'faith and a corpulent; of a cheerful look, a pleasing eye, and a most noble carriage” (1 Henry IV 2.4.462 f.). As he continues to think on his coming good fortune with Mistress Ford and her neighbor, he turns to poetry: “She is a region in Guiana, all gold and bounty … they shall be my East and West Indies, and I will trade to them both. …

Sail like my pinnace to these golden shores.”

Compare the following:

Let not us that are squires of the night's body be called thieves of the day's beauty; let us be Diana's foresters, gentlemen of the shade, minions of the moon,...

(The entire section is 8125 words.)

Criticism: Character Studies

SOURCE: Siegel, Paul N. “Falstaff and His Social Milieu.” In Weapons of Criticism: Marxism in America and the Literary Tradition, edited by Norman Rudich, pp. 163-72. Palo Alto, Calif.: Ramparts Press, 1976.

[In the following essay, Siegel studies Falstaff's character in The Merry Wives of Windsor from a Marxist literary perspective.]

The theoretical groundwork of Marxist literary criticism may be said to be most succinctly expressed in this statement of Engels: “Political, juridical, philosophical, religious, literary, artistic, etc., development is based on economic development. But all these react upon one another and also upon the economic base. It is...

(The entire section is 4099 words.)

Criticism: Production Reviews

Michael W. Shurgot (review date 2001)

SOURCE: Shurgot, Michael W. “2001 Ashland Season.” Upstart Crow 21 (2001): 93-4.

[In the following review, Shurgot discusses Lillian Groag's 2001 Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of The Merry Wives of Windsor, remarking that the production was a “three-hour marathon of sight gags, pratfalls, and petty stuff.”]

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival's 2001 season was unusual in that the four Shakespeare plays presented were all types of “comedy”: The Merry Wives of Windsor, The Merchant of Venice, and the rarely seen Troilus and Cressida were staged in the outdoor Elizabethan Theatre. Shakespeare's final “comedy of...

(The entire section is 767 words.)

Chris Jones (review date 12 November 2001)

SOURCE: Jones, Chris. “Lone Star Love.” Variety 384, no. 13 (12 November 2001): 36.

[In the following review of the 2001 Ohio Theater production of Lone Star Love, a musical adaptation of Shakespeare's Merry Wives of Windsor, Jones lauds director Michael Bogdanov's adaptation of the play as “funny, melodic, and crowd-pleasing.”]

About 10 years ago, an unwieldy theatrical fusion of William Shakespeare, cowpoke humor and the Red Clay Ramblers toured the Midwest under the moniker The Merry Wives of Windsor, Texas. It was a dumb bust. But conceiver-producer John Haber kept tinkering away, and thanks to the creative energy provided by new...

(The entire section is 578 words.)

William Green (review date spring 2002)

SOURCE: Green, William. Review of The Merry Wives of Windsor. Shakespeare Bulletin 20, no. 2 (spring 2002): 29.

[In the following excerpt, Green reviews Lillian Groag's 2002 Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of The Merry Wives of Windsor. The critic contends that the production fulfilled Shakespeare's aim of “writing a play to entertain” and praises the colorful costumes, happy mood, and setting.]

In her director's notes in the program, Lillian Groag, following a long tradition, stresses that The Merry Wives of Windsor is a farce. She particularly sees it as a farce that focuses on the rise of the middle class in Elizabethan England and...

(The entire section is 949 words.)

Russell Jackson (review date 2003)

SOURCE: Jackson, Russell. “Shakespeare at Stratford-upon-Avon: Summer and Winter, 2002-2003.” Shakespeare Quarterly 54, no. 2 (2003): 181-83.

[In the following review of Rachel Kavanaugh's 2002 Royal Shakespeare Company production of The Merry Wives of Windsor, Green praises its postwar British setting and “versatile and energetic” cast.]

In the pair of RSC touring productions seen at Stratford in the winter of 2002-2003, a versatile and energetic company was rewardingly cross-cast in plays that differed in theatrical style as well as dramatic genre. Rachel Kavanaugh set The Merry Wives of Windsor in postwar Britain, and David Farr's...

(The entire section is 1059 words.)

Robert L. Daniels (review date 14 August 2003)

SOURCE: Daniels, Robert L. “The Merry Wives of (West) Windsor.” Variety 280, no. 29 (14 August 2003): 7.

[In the following excerpt, Daniels praises director Victoria Liberatori's 2003 production of The Merry Wives of Windsor, particularly her contemporary Princeton setting and hip curtain call, which “very nearly had the audience dancing on the amphitheater steps.”]

Princeton landmarks and the small nearby community of West Windsor serve as the locale for an often-boisterous update of William Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor. The Bard's frothy spree was apparently whipped up in a fortnight to please Queen Elizabeth's request to bring Sir...

(The entire section is 461 words.)