The Merry Wives of Windsor (Vol. 83)
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...
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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 not that the economic position is the cause and alone active, while everything else only has a passive effect. There is, rather, interaction on the basis of the economic necessity, which ultimately always asserts itself.” There are interactions within and between the various intellectual systems that are put together by the ideologists of the ruling class—the “ruling ideas of each age” being, as Marx said, “the ideas of its ruling class”—and there are also reactions upon the economic base. Economic development, however, changing men's social relations and consequently men's ways of looking upon life, is the stronger force in the interaction between what Marxists call the economic base and the ideological...
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Criticism: Production Reviews
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 forgiveness,”1The Tempest, was staged in the indoor Angus Bowmer Theatre. The productions were as different as the plays themselves, offering spectators a broad sampling of Shakespeare's, and the Festival's, comic artistry.
Lillian Groag's production of Merry Wives became a three-hour marathon of sight gags, pratfalls, and petty stuff. The set and costumes were overly Elizabethan; several characters, especially Shallow, Hugh Evans, Slender, and the merry wives and their husbands, wore elaborate costumes that seemed designed primarily to out-do each other. The set featured two brightly colored doors stage left and right, suggesting the twin doors of an Elizabethan theatre, and the leaded casement windows on the upper...
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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 director Michael Bogdanov, the retitled, massively rejiggered Lone Star Love has morphed into a surprisingly funny, melodic and crowd-pleasing musical.
Still, it's tough to see this show on Broadway. Part of the problem is its hybrid nature. Most potential fans of a Shakespeare-centered musical are unlikely to want to hear a country score with tunes like “Quail Bagging” or “Texas Cattleman.” But for the “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” crowd, the relatively direct transfer of the narrative from The Merry Wives of Windsor may be a turnoff. You gotta know Falstaff for this show to be funny.
Still, the show—which still features the Ramblers playing and cavorting onstage—seemed to be...
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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 importance of family values to that society. (Those familiar with the background of Merry Wives are, of course, aware that with its Windsor locale it is Shakespeare's only play depicting village life and set in contemporary England.) Groag successfully melds the farce elements with her societal comments without losing sight of the richness of zany character portrayals in this supposedly staid English village.
The scenery reflects this atmosphere. With the Globe-like stage architecture of the Ashland outdoor Elizabethan Theatre, this production uses the two levels successfully to create a feeling of bourgeois respectability, especially in the furnishings in the various interior locales set on the main stage. The...
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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 Coriolanus began in a Samurai world into which modern elements—typewriters, tennis rackets, coffee cups, and guns—were gradually introduced. The design team of Peter McKintosh and Ti Green was common to both plays, McKintosh being credited with set and costumes for The Merry Wives, and Green with those for Coriolanus. The “season stage” (as the program refers to it) devised jointly by these designers made use of the Swan's platform and galleries but was adaptable to the venues—many of them nontheatrical—visited on the tour.
Postwar in the British consciousness still means post-1945 and specifically the period of austerity during which a Labor government laid the foundations of the National Health...
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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 John Falstaff back to life for a bit of holiday fun. The inspired gesture of Princeton Rep artistic director Victoria Liberatori finds frequent local news flashes from commentator Marty Moss-Coane of NPR's “Radio Times.” It's an amusing conceit that adds a little spunk to a cumbersome comedy that needs all the help it can get to succeed.
There's more local color. Sir John hangs outs in the Nassau Inn. a popular Princeton watering hole, and the Princeton Junction rail platform finds principal characters milling about, waiting for the train to come in. Perhaps the most familiar sight is the roadside sign that warns motorists of a deer crossing.
Purely farcical the play is a rather genial folly, and...
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SOURCE: Bennett, A. L. “The Sources of Shakespeare's Merry Wives.” Renaissance Quarterly 23, no. 4 (winter 1970): 429-33.
[In the following essay, Bennett contends that Shakespeare based The Merry Wives of Windsor on Ralph Roister Doister, an old English comedy.]
It is a commonplace of criticism that the Falstaff of The Merry Wives of Windsor is an altogether different comic from the ready and resourceful, the irrepressible Sir John of Henry IV. Could it have been otherwise? If the Queen wished to see Falstaff ‘in love,’ that would mean unsuccessfully in love, and nothing would do but to make Falstaff an amorous buffoon taken in repeatedly by transparent devices and exposed to the ridicule of ordinary minds. The tradition of the Queen's command aside, making Falstaff the dupe in a domestic comedy would require a radical change in character. And had not the real, the original knight died babbling of green fields and gone to Arthur's bosom? Finally, if Shakespeare had in mind Ralph Doister (or some other strictly thrasonical figure) while he was making Merry Wives, as it seems possible he did, would not the lusterless Sir John wooing citizens' wives be more fully accounted for?
Concerning the source of the main plot in Merry Wives (the flouting of Falstaff), Muir says, ‘In the present state of our knowledge it is useless to pursue...
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SOURCE: 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, England: Methuen, 1987.
[In the following essay, Clark studies the literary tradition of women's wit, particularly in The Merry Wives of Windsor.]
I should like to examine the treatment in a few plays, mainly by Shakespeare, of a kind of alternative wit in women. Wit in drama, at least of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, tends to be thought of in terms of qualities exhibited in dialogue, like quickness of speech, eloquence, skill in the arts of rhetoric; such qualities, though found in women, are more commonly the prerogative of men, especially if combined with powers of argument and strength of intellect. But there is another sort of wit, which expresses itself characteristically in cleverness of action rather than of speech; it incorporates resourcefulness, craftiness, cunning, and guile, and is demonstrated in an ability to turn situations to one's own advantage. This other wit, though found in men, has its distinctively female forms. The women who possess it often exercise it in collaboration with other women, and as a way of getting back at a world dominated by men. It is associated...
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SOURCE: Hall, Jonathan. “The Evacuations of Falstaff (The Merry Wives of Windsor).” In Shakespeare and Carnival, edited by Ronald Knowles, pp. 123-51. Houndsmills, Great Britain: Macmillan, 1998.
[In the following essay, Hall examines the language of The Merry Wives of Windsor and views the play “as a successor to 2 Henry IV.”]
Counterfeit? I lie, I am no counterfeit. To die is to be a counterfeit, or he is but the counterfeit of a man who hath not the life of a man. But to counterfeit dying when a man thereby liveth is to be no counterfeit, but the true and perfect image of life indeed.
Laughter is essentially not an external but an interior form of truth; it cannot be transformed into seriousness without destroying and distorting the very contents of the truth which it unveils. Laughter liberates not only from external censorship but first of all from the great interior censor …
Falstaff's language in 1 & 2 Henry IV is inseparable from the much discussed ‘polymorphous perversity’ which it expresses. Its historical resistance to the Crown's centralizing ‘Lenten civil policy’, as Michael Bristol has called it,3 remains to this day essential to the kind of...
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SOURCE: Collington, Philip D. “‘I Would Thy Husband Were Dead’: The Merry Wives of Windsor as Mock Domestic Tragedy.” English Literary Renaissance 30, no. 2 (spring 2000): 184-212.
[In the following essay, Collington argues that The Merry Wives of Windsor is a parody of the genre of domestic tragedy.]
Fond woman which would'st have thy husband die, And yet complain'st of his great jealousie; If swolne with poyson, hee lay in 'his last bed, His body with a sere-barke covered, .....Thou would'st not weepe, but jolly, 'and frolicke bee, As a slave, which to morrow should be free
When John Donne wrote these lines in his “Elegie: Jealosie” in the mid-1590s, he was invoking a crime that loomed large in the popular imagination of his time.1 Petty treason—the murder of a husband by his wife, or of a household master by a servant or apprentice—was never more topical a device for dramatists and poets. Whether they were writing ballads and pamphlets decrying the perils of adultery or urbane elegies celebrating sexual intrigue, early modern writers depicted petty treason out of proportion to its actual rate of occurrence.2 By suggesting that one lusty wife induces “loathsome vomiting” in her spouse (l. 7) so that she may “frolicke” with her paramour, Donne recalls details of crimes featured in widely circulated literary ephemera. One murder...
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Battenhouse, Roy. “Falstaff as Parodist and Perhaps Holy Fool.” PMLA 90, no. 1 (January 1975): 32-49.
Analyzes Falstaff as complex combination of court fool and charitable honesty.
Fleissner, Robert F. “The Malleable Knight and the Unfettered Friar: The Merry Wives of Windsor and Bocaccio.” Shakespeare Studies 11 (1978): 77-94.
Contends that Bocaccio's Decameron was a primary source of inspiration for The Merry Wives of Windsor.
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.
Reviews the stage history of The Merry Wives of Windsor during the eighteenth century, contending that its popularity has been overrated.
Swadley, Don R. “Three Jolly Parsons.” Allegorica 1, no. 1 (spring 1976): 278-97.
Comparative analysis of the clerical characters in nine comedies by Shakespeare, including The Merry Wives of Windsor.
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