The Merry Wives of Windsor: Sharing the Queen's Holiday
Leslie S. Katz, Amherst College
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 ), 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...
(The entire section is 8,110 words.)