The Merry Wives of Windsor
Most scholars believe that The Merry Wives of Windsor was written in 1597 and first performed as part of the entertainment at a Feast of the Order of the Garter on April 23 of that year. A well-known tradition, first recorded in 1702 by John Dennis, maintains that the play was written in two weeks at the command of Queen Elizabeth, who had so enjoyed the character of Falstaff in Henry IV that she requested that Shakespeare compose another play depicting Falstaff in love. No definitive source for The Merry Wives of Windsor has been discovered, but scholars have noted that many situations and incidents in the play can be found in earlier English and Italian works.
The Merry Wives of Windsor revolves around Falstaff s attempts to seduce the merry wives, Mistresses Ford and Page, and his subsequent humiliation at the hands of the women. The play has a variety of comic attractions, including broad physical humor, fast-paced action, and a host of eccentric minor characters. Despite the play's lasting popularity on the stage, The Merry Wives of Windsor received little critical attention for many decades. It has been regarded as a minor comedy by many critics, who maintain that the disjointed plot contains too many unrelated episodes and that the text, with its heavy use of prose, falls below the playwright's poetic standards.
Interestingly, many modern critics appear to be abandoning the view of The Merry Wives of Windsor as a flawed and minor play. H. J. Oliver (1971) has chastised commentators who neglect the play, praising the play's characters as "one of the most astonishing galleries of perpetrators of verbal fun that even Shakespeare ever put into a play," and its language as "superbly adapted to the purposes of the play." While the figure of Falstaff has been viewed as a disappointment by some scholars, who object to what they see as a trivialization of the great comic figure of the 1 and 2 Henry IV plays, Christiane Gallenca (1985) has argued that "his extraordinary verbal invention is less in evidence, but it still exists." Other issues addressed by recent criticism include the play's dramatic structure, characterization, and the role of women in the play.
Several critics have emphasized Falstaff s disguise as Herne the Hunter in the final scene of the play. John M. Steadman (1963) has compared Falstaff to the Renaissance Actaeon myth and questions whether Falstaff s transformation is a parody of the conventional symbols of "unchaste desire." Although Jeanne Addison Roberts (1979) has found fault with the identification of Falstaff with Actaeon, she agrees that both figures become sexually threatening to the social order, and contends that the final scene of The Merry Wives of Windsor represents the removal of the threat and the restoration of order. Anne Parten (1985) has asserted that cuckoldry, rather than lust or desire, is at the heart of the last scene. She contends that Falstaff s identification with the Actaeon myth is connected to cuckoldry, marking Falstaff as an example of masculine ineffectually.
The role of women in The Merry Wives of Windsor is another topic that has continued to interest critics. Sandra Clark (1987) examined the treatment of wit in women in the play and finds that women use wit "as a way of getting back at a world dominated by men." R. S. White (1991) has also explored Shakespeare's treatment of women's roles in The Merry Wives of Windsor, especially the role of Anne Page. He contends that "when men are not seeing Anne as a possession to be bought and sold, they are seeing her as a prize to be won." In addition, White questions whether Shakespeare challenges the politics of male supremacy in the play, noting that he provides his female characters with an unusual assertiveness and independence.
Many modern commentators object to the play's designation as a farce or slapstick comedy. Marvin Felheim and Philip Traci (1981) have examined how the setting, language, and characterization of the play mirror its realistic tone, asserting that the play "has its own center of gravity, a focus which makes it a particularly apt candidate for . . . realistic comedy." Scholars continue to debate the literary merits of The Merry Wives of Windsor, which has now begun to receive the critical attention common to Shakespeare's other plays.