The Merry Wives of Windsor: Sharing the Queen's Holiday - Essay

William Shakespeare


(Shakespearean Criticism)

The Merry Wives of Windsor: Sharing the Queen's Holiday

Leslie S. Katz, Amherst College


(Shakespearean Criticism)

The Merry Wives of Windsor is a spin-off: in it, Shakespeare resituates Falstaff in Windsor, where the wellknown scoundrel causes mischief by wooing the wives of two prominent townsmen, Master Ford and Master Page. Perhaps the play's identity as sequel or appendage contributes to its minor reputation; but Merry Wives has also suffered (in the annals of twentieth-century criticism) for being an "occasional" play, trivialized by its connection to a ceremonial occasion—much as Charles Dickens's Christmas Carol has become irreversibly connected to the Christmas theater season in the United States. By historically reconstituting the occasion and establishing its relationship to the play's composition, we can reclaim the interest of Merry Wives, not only as Shakespeare's memorialization of Falstaff within Queen Elizabeth's private theater, but, more generally, as Shakespeare's meditation on the afterlife of dramatic characters.1 The play reflects on how theatrical events, leaping the boundaries of court performance, penetrate an everyday network of conversation, recollection, and daydream: the "stuff of imaginative interchange on a local level. Merry Wives has much to show us about the interior archaeology of Shakespeare's dramatic canon: about how plays, as well as characters, can live in the minds of an audience, and how, inversely, as a result of that habitation, the audience can find itself situated back inside the canon's imaginative interstices.

According to theater historians, The Merry Wives of Windsor was probably commissioned by George Carey to be performed in 1597 on St. George's Day at a feast honoring Queen Elizabeth and her Garter knights.2 To mark the holiday, Shakespeare performed a restaging of Falstaff—relocating the fat rogue from the history plays in the theatrical milieu of civic comedy. Thanks to the Henry plays, Falstaff had become a distinct entity in the imagination of a popular audience, a character sufficiently known that he could cross genres as well as the boundaries of individual plays. Testimony to Falstaff's long and independent afterlife is the eighteenth century's claim—in disagreement with the theory that Carey commissioned the play—that Elizabeth "was so well pleased with that admirable character of Falstaff, in the two parts of Henry the Fourth that she commanded [Shakespeare] to continue it for one play more, and to shew him in love."3 This claim can be traced to several sources, but T.W. Craik, deepening its romantic flavor, warns that any one of the informants "may have invented it."4 What is interesting is how the lore spins out, creating a separate drama of cultural recollection. The legend of the Queen's commission aspires not only to give Shakespeare a retrospective motive for eroticizing Falstaff in Merry Wives but to interpret that motive as one of satisfying the Queen's desire, as if in a comic inversion Shakespeare were to pay suit to Elizabeth through a lascivious Falstaff—a Falstaff who, at any rate, had grown more lascivious in his passage from the court of Henry IV to that of the Queen. Thus two historical universes intersect in the context of Elizabeth's holiday, coming together in the plot of Merry Wives and, in particular, Falstaff's wooing of Mistress Ford.

The Queen's Garter ceremony created an occasion to assemble the English nobility, as well as foreign kings and dukes, who had been honored by inclusion in her royal Order. The garter emblem signified each knight's oath to defend the virtue and resplendence of the Queen. André Favyn, in his history of chivalry (The Theater of Honour and Knighthood [1619]), traced the origins of the Order to an anecdote about Edward HI "picking up a lady's garter and reproving the lascivious thoughts of bystanders with the famous words Honi soit qui mal y pense (evil be to him who evil thinks)"5—or more precisely, "shame be to him who, with evil motives, thinks on shameful things." This, at any rate, was the popular (as opposed to official) legend, which, in the course of the sixteenth century, spawned a host of fashionable derivatives, many involving Edward Ill's Queen. In Holinshed, for instance, "the Queen drops her garter on the way to her lodging and Edward orders it to be brought to him and vows to make all men reverence it."6 Every version of the tale ends with the same chivalric moral—of lust shamed and virtue encircled—not in the knight so much as in the bystanders who imagine that the knight entertains anything but virtuous intentions. That moral is variously communicated through the garter emblem or motto, or both, as in yet another permutation, where the fallen garter, belonging this time to one of the Queen's maids of honor, serves as the model for a blue velvet copy, embroidered with the words "Honi soit. …"7

Through the vehicle of the tale, Elizabeth acquires two roles: she is both Edward, royal host of the Order, and the Queen, whose chastity—or, under whose watchful eye, The character the chastity the attending maids—is...

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

Ask me no reason why I love you, for though Love use Reason for his precisian, he admits him not for his counsellor. You are not young, no more am I; go to then, there's sympathy. You are merry, so am I; ha, ha! then there's more sympathy. You love sack, and so do I; would you desire better sympathy? Let it suffice thee …at least if the love of soldier can sufficethat I love thee.…

…John Falstaff.

(Merry Wives, 2.1.4-19)

Mistress Page and Mistress Ford receive identical love letters from Falstaff. The adulterous ambition that the letters announce is menacing, not because it intrudes on an otherwise tranquil domestic order, but because it gives voice to a perverse desire festering already in the civic imagination, epitomized by Ford's desire to see his wife's reputation cheapened:

She dwells so securely on the excellency of her honour that the folly of my soul dares not present itself; she is too bright to be looked against. Now, could I come to her with any detection in my hand, my desires had instance and argument to commend themselves; I could drive her then from the ward of her purity, her reputation, her marriage-vow, and a thousand other her defences which now are too too strongly embattled against me.


Falstaff's lechery serves not as proof of Mistress Ford's dishonor but, rather, as the articulation of her husband's desire. In the reading Falstaff gives to Mistress Ford's actions, he delivers the lines that Ford himself would like to speak:

I spy entertainment in her: she discourses, she carves, she gives the leer of invitation; I can construe the action of her familiar style.


The play's comic intrigue derives from Ford's determination to heighten the pleasure of his fantasy by imaginatively switching places with Falstaff: first he disguises himself as a would-be suitor, and then he pays off the knight to make a liaison—under Ford's assumed name—with Mistress Ford:

There is money; spend it, spend it, spend more; spend all I have, only give me so much of your time in exchange of it as to lay an amiable siege to the honesty of this Ford's wife. Use your art of wooing; win her to consent to you; if any man may, you may as soon as any.


By borrowing material from Shakespeare's history plays and, in particular, building his fantasies around Falstaff, Ford identifies himself not only as a resident of Windsor—the play world—but also as a resident of London—the extradramatic world—and specifically as a member of Shakespeare's audience. If a man like Ford wishes, for whatever reason, to concoct scenarios of being cuckolded, how could he choose a more celebrated cuckolder than Prince Henry's fat knight, whose far-ranging reputation would give the scandal a seductive universality? The choice, moreover, plays on the prodigious body of Will Kemp, the clown who probably played the part of Falstaff: the unnatural proportions of his physique would simultaneously have maximized and minimized the fantasy's danger, giving it, on the one hand, more power to titillate and, on the one hand, more power to titillate and, on the other, more leeway to transform itself into a joke.23 Now it is Ford, rather than Shakespeare, who ignores genre boundaries, introducing the historical Falstaff into Windsor, indifferent to the transtemporal, translocative nature of his project. By becoming the property of their audience, characters in plays, and by extension the actors who play them, fuel a universe of private daydreams beyond the...

(The entire section is 1597 words.)


(Shakespearean Criticism)

A set of poetic associations travels via Falstaff between the world of Windsor and Shakespeare's history plays. Taken together, these associations imagine a fantastical relationship among kingship, theatricality, and lecherous desire. The relationship depends, in turn, on the doubleness that the history cycle invests, beginning with Richard II, in kingship and the crown. Commanding the onstage audience to watch as he uncrowns himself—"With mine own tongue deny my sacred state,/ With mine own breath release all duteous oaths" (4.1.209-10)—Richard strips his earthly body of the arcane mantle of the "body politic."25 This "pompous body," however, belongs to a fiction that Richard himself scarcely...

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

The 1602 Quarto of Merry Wives states that the play was acted '"divers times,' both for the Queen 'and elsewhere.'"30 A public performance would have served as a metatheatrical realization of the relationship implied within the play, of courtiers arriving to attend a Garter ceremony (and by extension the production of Merry Wives embedded in that ceremony) as well as the citizens at the periphery, assembling, in their turn, to watch the arrival of the court, and later, the grand procession of the Queen and her Order. In other words, the popular audience received the play itself as a thing produced for the court and, accordingly, went to the theater to see what the court saw. This factor...

(The entire section is 1779 words.)