(Shakespearean Criticism)

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.


(Shakespearean Criticism)

Christiane Gallenca (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "Ritual and Folk Custom in The Merry Wives of Windsor," in Cahiers Elisabethains, Vol. 27, April, 1985, pp. 27-41.

[Below, Gallenca details the role of folklore and ritual in The Merry Wives of Windsor, and asserts that the play "is based on those rituals which . . . celebrate the passage from Winter to Spring, from death to life. " ]

Ambiguity seems essential to The Merry Wives of Windsor [MW]1; it is an extension of the ambiguity of the previous play, Henry IV. Traditionally viewed as a comedy rapidly composed in response to Queen Elizabeth's desire to see Falstaff in love (the legend d ies hard), MW has been considered as a series of scenes with no real plot, or alternatively as the juxtaposition of three separate plots.2 The most indulgent critics have stressed the dominant position of the farcical elements3and the discomfiture of Falstaff, a figure of fun4 in which scarcely any trace remains of the truculent knight who played such an important part in Henry IV.

However, MW is not a farce, and Falstaff retains a certain brio which sets him apart from the other characters.5 His extraordinary verbal invention is less in evidence, but it still exists, offsetting in some degree the ridicule of certain situations. Falstaff is the mainspring of the plot and the vis comica of the play; he is also at the heart of its deeper significance. Through his symbolic dimension he transcends the limits of the rather simple role he is given. Northrop Frye, J.A. Evans and Jeanne Addison Roberts6 have interpreted his final humiliation (or the last joke) as a transposition of the ritual of the scapegoat. Falstaff undergoes a ritual death—or exclusion from the group accompanied by curses—after having himself described the cutting up of the deer, whose horns he is wearing, in accordance with the ceremonial of the hunt. Northrop Frye considers the series of mortifications (from the ducking in the river to the singeing with candles) as a "defeat of winter" or, with reference to Frazer, as the "carrying out [of] death"7 in the manner of the mid-lent observances in Silesia.8

It is clear that the comedy as a whole takes on fresh meaning and new significance if it is placed—or replaced—in a ritual context.9 Ritual and theatrical action must not, of course, be confused. Ritual is action, but action that remains predominantly magic on account of its immediate, practical, aims.10 Theatrical action on the other hand, though often based on ritual, uses it in an interpretative rather than a functional way, and aims too at some more permanent significance. Ritual integrated into theatre can modify the surface meaning of the work and even open up unexpected avenues. When ritual—this "paralanguage" as Claude Levi-Strauss calls it—progressively loses its primary function of direct utility, it correspondingly takes on meaning.11

The two major components of ritual, the Kenosis or evacuation and the Plerosis or filling up,12 the alternation of which corresponds to the rhythms of the cosmos, are both present in MW. The play, in my view, is based on those rituals which, in different ways, celebrate the passage from Winter to Spring, from death to life: Carnival, the Mummers' Plays, and the 'Charivari'. These different rituals were often found in association with one another, or at least in a close relationship stemming from the proximity of the dates at which they were performed. For Carnival is not fixed at one particular moment in the winter period. It begins as early as the winter solstice, or Christmas, and continues with dances, collections and costumed parades (animal disguises or transvestite costumes) until Shrove Tuesday (Mardi Gras), the final paroxysm of the season of festivity.13 Placed in this context, MW takes on a fresh vitality, and Falstaff s role is seen to have an unexpected positive side, with a determining effect on the future of Windsor society.

It has been said that MW is Shakespeare's sole English comedy; it is set in the shadow of the castle, in a small town whose social components are all carefully portrayed: the justice of the peace, the landowner, the bourgeois, the innkeeper, the priest, the doctor.15 The forest is an integral part of this homely provincial scene: although outside the town, it is in no sense a savage place, but simply a setting in which a spell can be conjured up and where the children can dance a masque of sprites. The legend of Herne the Hunter, presented as a superstition, is nevertheless the pretext for a collective undertaking, painstakingly organized following a complex ritual involving incantations, coronets of candles, rattles, songs, and dances in which the children form rings round a tree, the symbolic link par excellence between heaven and earth—and which is in this case an oak, one of the rare survivors from the primeval forest.

Shakespeare takes pleasure in using folklore and its rituals, rightly imagining that audiences will be delighted to discover a major current of English popular tradition in a play apparently derived from Latin comedy. Falstaff himself, in Act V, seems to accept the role that is thrust upon him (Fenton has already announced that Fat Falstaff/Hath a great scene, IV.6.16-17). The ironical detachment with which he views his new 'character' is apparent first in his naive acknowledgement of his transformation. For me, I am here a Windsor stag, and the fattest, I think, i'th'forest. Send me a cool rut-time, Jove, or who can blame me to piss my tallow? (V.5.11-15). Then he enquires of Mistress Ford: Am I a woodman, ha? Speak I like Herne the Hunter? (27-8). Beginning with a strictly formal invocation to the gods of Parnassus and to Love, responsible for the transformations of men to beasts, he passes rapidly through a series of puns on god and goose, beast and beastly, fowl and foul, to demonstrate that carnal passion cannot be the object of moral judgement since it is merely a reflection of the chosen disguise (beast or fowl). Moreover, the Falstaff who sings the praises of love to order sees his amatory relationships in terms of the conquest of the East or West Indies, or of Guinea. In fact the process of distanciation, inevitable in a character participating in a ritual incorporated in a comedy, is already very obvious at the end of Act IV when the twice-ill-treated knight declares that only his 'transformation' has been ducked or cudgelled (IV.5.91-2). Falstaff s ironical view of his own situation is also evident when he compares himself to a poached deer—he, the poacher of Eastcheap who is accused in Act I of having hunted illegally on Justice Shallow's grounds.

Falstaff, therefore, appears often as an actor conscious of the role he is made to play: after we had embraced, kissed, protested, and, as it were, spoke the prologue of our comedy (II.5.67-8); and the play, with its mirror-like multiplicity, invites understanding on several levels. Thus the major theme of the marriage of Anne Page can be seen simply as a reflection of the Plautian model, with victory going finally to the suitor preferred by the girl herself.16 But there exists a late-sixteenth century entertainment, derived from the mummers' plays and entitled The Wooing of Nan (Nan is the name which Mrs Page and Fenton give to Anne), in which a farmer's son is rejected in favour of the Fool.17 Moreover, marriage itself is, according to Van Gennep, a rite of passage, and it is thereby thematically linked with the 'charivari', the ritual disorder that celebrates the social disorder provoked by a couple illmatched in age or whose union is threatened by the character or conduct of one of the spouses. Anne's parents, concerned with material wealth and social status, are bent on arranging marriages which take no account of their daughter's inclinations: her father wishes to give her away to the wealthy simpleton, Slender; her mother to Caius, the snobbish French doctor who massacres English. These unsatisfactory but hypothetical unions are matched by the real married couple, the Fords, whose happiness is endangered by the pathological jealousy of the husband. All are liable to punishment by 'charivari'.

Falstaff, accused of debauchery by the citizens (And given to fornications, and to taverns, and sack,/ and wine, and metheglins, and to drinkings, and swearings,/ and starings, pribbles and prabbles? [V.5.158-61]) and by critics influenced by his role in Henry IV, is merely looking, like the other inhabitants of Windsor, for an arrangement that will prop up a precarious financial situation. On the surface, therefore, the character evolves according to the dynamics of sexual rivalry and economic conflict which govern the play. However, the two humiliations that he suffers at the hands of Mistress Ford and Mistress Page occupy far less time on stage than does the fury of the jealous husband intent on proving that his suspicions are grounded, and calling the whole neighbourhood to witness the unfaithfulness of his wife. So the comedy of the situation derives from Falstaff and the merry wives: the knight pays court without ardour to women who pretend to respond to his advances. Falstaff believes his charms to be successful; the women believe him to be in love, or at least lustful. The misunderstandings redouble when the gallant's corpulence proves a major handicap in the consequent game of hide-and-seek—a traditional element in social comedy. The ridicule rebounds on the husband, Ford, who disguised himself as Brook so as to bribe the seducer, and who has come to create a scandal in his own house, searching it from top to bottom only to retire baffled.

Shakespeare amuses himself with a play on words, the dual character being called alternatively Ford and Brook. But the name first given to Falstaff had been 'Oldcastle', to which the Brooke family, descendants of the Oldcastles, had objected. Shakespeare was obliged to rename his character Falstaff, and to present his apologies to the Brookes in the epilogue to the second part of Henry IV. It is therefore diverting to note that he gives to Falstaff (whose name may suggest impotence18) a partner called Brook. Contemporary audiences were in no doubt about the mocking allusion, for Sir Henry Brooke, recently created Lord Cobham, complained that the play made fun of him, and protested against the nickname of Falstaff which his enemies had bestowed on him.19

Falstaff and Brook are, briefly, allies: fellow-conspirators in the tavern, but rivals at Ford's house—where, however, Falstaff-alias-Oldcastle is also, ironically and punningly, in the house of Brook. Moreover, the tricks of which Falstaff is the first victim also rebound on Ford-Brook. Both are duped by the women, one as a husband, the other as a gallant; they are the victims of the same stratagem. The wives are quite aware of this:

Mrs Page: Is there not a double excellency in this? Mrs Ford: I know not which pleases me better, that my husband is deceived, or Sir John.


In Act IV, Mrs Ford restages the linen-basket episode for the pleasure of provoking the frustrated rage of Mr Ford. In his through-going search of his house, Ford carries along half Windsor at his heels: his neighbours are witnesses to his marital misfortunes, and he is an involuntary participant in his own 'charivari'. Falstaff s description of his actions is eloquent:

and at his heels a rabble of his companions, thither provoked and instigated by his distemper, and, forsooth, to search his house for his wife's love.


A little later Falstaff makes use of a significant epithet for Ford, whom he calls a jealous rotten bell-wether (100-01). The word primarily refers to the castrated ram who leads the flock, with a bell around his neck; in a secondary use it refers to the leader of a crowd, in this case the 'charivari'.

The purpose of the 'charivari' was to express the community's disapprobation by means of public ridicule accompanied by discordant noise (rough music) and physical action. The latter generally involved taking the victim for a ride, grotesquely seated on a carrying-staff or a beam. (This can be compared to the assouade encountered in southern France.20) It was called the 'skimmington ride' (in Somerset, since 1600, 'skimity'), or 'riding [to] the stang'; but also, in the sixteenth century, 'cowlstaff riding': it is a cowl-staff that Mrs Ford enjoins her servants to fetch in order to transport the great linen-basket in which Falstaff is hidden.

Go take up these clothes here quickly. Where's the cowl-staff? Look, how you drumble!


This 'cowlstaff riding' figures on a plaster bas-relief dating from about 1600 in Grace Hall in Montacute House in Somerset: the man, who is playing the flute, sits astride a staff carried on two other men's shoulders; he is surrounded by his neighbours, men and women (the presence of five women on the bas-relief is a surprise when one remembers that the continental 'charivari' was a purely masculine affair). In the account he gives of his adventure Falstaff insists, like Mrs Ford, on the fact of his being carried (carry me, took me on their shoulders), then on the filth with which he was covered—an important feature of the 'charivari', in which the victim was grimed with, for example, mud.

They conveyed me into a buck-basket [ . . . ]—rammed me in with foul shirts and smocks, socks, foul stockings, greasy napkins, that, Master Brook, there was the rankest compound of villainous smell that ever offended nostril.


and then to be stopped in like a strong distillation with stinking clothes that fretted in their own grease.


And in the height of this bath, when I was more than half stewed in grease, like a Dutch dish, to be thrown into the Thames.


In fact, Mrs Ford instructs her servants to throw him in the muddy ditch close by the Thames side (III.3.14-15). This is the first trial; in the second, Falstaff is very nearly arrested as a witch and put in the stocks. His treatment recalls the punishments meted out to Thomas and Agnes Mills at Calne in 1618, the surviving account of which describes in great detail the ritual adopted. The procession arrived in front of the victims' house to the sound of reed pipes, horns and cowbells. Then the symbols of ignominy—ram's horns and goat's horns tied to forks—were brandished, and the door of the house was forced. Agnes Mills was dragged out, beaten, and covered with filth. The organizers of the 'charivari' intended to seat her on the tail end of a horse, behind a rider wearing a white nightcap on his head, shining horns in his ears, and a doe's tail on his chin in lieu of a beard. The idea was to take Agnes Mills to Calne and to duck her in the duckingstool, stuffing her mouth with fermented grain if she refused to submit and would not sit quietly on the stool.21

The 'charivari' was inflicted on cuckolds and on men beaten by their wives, but also on termagants and wifebeaters. It therefore denoted an inversion of the natural state of things, or a subversion of the moral order. The merry wives justify their action by referring to the knight's depravity:

Against such lewdsters and their lechery Those that betray them do no treachery.


In fact, as they also mock Ford, they raise a point essential to the 'charivari': that of the role given to each sex in society.22 Finally, as wives and as members of the bourgeoisie, they make fun both of Mrs Ford's husband and of a nobleman, Sir John Falstaff. They thereby suggest the notion, common to the 'charivari' and to the Feast of Fools, that the hierarchical structure is an artificial one. Despite his blindness, Ford perceives this latent opposition:

Good plots! They are laid; and our revolted wives share damnation together.


The practice of the 'charivari' was condemned by Puritans and moralists because of its affinity with popular festivals and its mockery of the victim rather than the transgressor. It was the cuckold, not the adulterer, who was forced to take the ignominious ride. Often, however, a neighbour or an effigy took the place of the person involved. The ambiguous nature of the wives' vengeance, and the personality of Brook/Ford, lead me to suggest that Falstaff perhaps fulfils this role of substitute, acting as the representative of Ford. After his dip in the Thames, he temporarily gives up his enterprise:

Mistress Ford! I have had ford enough; I was thrown into the ford; I have my belly full of ford.


Each time he is visited by Brook, Falstaff dwells on the personality of Ford, showering him with insults and mocking gibes; he presents to the jealous husband a faithful portrait of his own degradation and proffers all the invective of the 'charivari' procession;

Hang him, poor cuckoldly knave, I know him not. Yet I wrong him to call him poor. [. . . ] Hang him, mechanical salt-butter rogue! I will stare him out of his wits; I will awe him with my cudgel: it shall hang like a meteor o'er the cuckold's horns.

(II.2.259-60; 267-70)

No, Master Brook, but the peaking cornuto her husband, Master Brook, dwelling in a continual larum of jealousy . . . the lunatic knave . . . fate, ordaining he should be a cuckold . . .

(III.5.64-6; 94-6)

Moreover, the numerous terms referring to cuckolding or the cuckold's horns are virtually all used by Ford, or referring to him. On occasions he harps on the words as if in a frenzy:

Fie, fie, fie, cuckold, cuckold, cuckold!


Buck? I would I could wash myself of the buck! Buck, buck, buck! Ay, buck; I warrant you, buck; and of the season too, it shall appear.


Page and Evans consider him raving mad, possessed by the devil:

Page: Why, this passes, Master Ford; you are not to go loose any longer, you must be pinioned. Evans: Why, this is lunatics; this is mad as a mad dog.


Evans: Master Ford, you must pray, and not follow the imaginations of your own heart: this is jealousies.


The ridicule of Falstaff, on the other hand, remains a secret known only to the wives: furthermore, the events are commented on by the character himself in a circumstancial and subjective manner: he often credits himself with symbols of virility: to be compassed like a good bilbo in the circumference of a peck (III.5.101-02), even though fate may prohibit the exercise of this potency: cooled, glowing hot, in that surge, like a horseshoe. . . Hissing hot (111-13).

Thus Ford, a suspicious, vindictive and perverse character, is in contradiction with the spirit of comedy, and for this reason must be cast out. He promises his friends some amusement, but offers them only a 'monster', himself. Falstaff can be compared to the 'Lord of Misrule' who, during his short reign, decided what type of 'charivari' should be inflicted on troublemakers or those who refused to contribute to collections.23 However, the 'charivari' performed by Falstaff has a positive function, leading to the reintegration of Ford in the social group, since the jealous husband repents and promises to reform.

This ritual function of reintegration, which reminds us of Henry IV where Falstaff, the representative of disorder, appeared at the same time as a moderating and beneficent influence, is most clearly manifested in Act V. Falstaff is an essential element in the community's festivities, placed at the centre of the joyful circle; and he is invited to the banquet which follows the marriage of Anne and Fenton. Northrop Frye, while giving no precise details, saw in Shakespeare's comedies the stamp of popular tradition.24Thus Shakespeare's pastoralism owes more to the realistic vernacular tradition than to arcadian conventions. In The Winter's Tale, for example, celebrations of Christian liturgy or the Eleusinian mysteries readily give way to the sheep-shearing feast.25 In MW, it is the rituals of Carnival and the Mummers' Plays that come to mind, since both are situated at roughly the same period of the year. The first liberates a surplus of vital energy before Lent, the others celebrate the victory of Spring over Winter or, occasionally, recall the hope that, back in September, had been placed in the season's sowing. (In Love's Labour's Lost the debate between Ver and Hiems also underlines the necessary alternation and complementarity of two periods of the year that both contain reservoirs of energy.) Carnival and the Mummers' Plays are rituals that divide up the long cold months of winter and perpetuate the conflicts between the forces of life and death. Both make use of disguise ('Mum' and 'Mom' mean 'disguise', and in Cornwall, Derbyshire, and Staffordshire today the Mummers are called 'guisers'.26 If we accept Van Gennep's categories,27 the Mummers' Plays are to be classed among the agrarian festivals, while the Carnival belongs to the cyclical ceremonies.

The central theme of the Mummers' Plays is that of death and resurrection.28 This folk theatre degenerated at the end of the seventeenth century, but among the surviving forms studied by R. J. E. Tiddy, E. K. Chambers, A. Brody, and more recently by A. Helm, one notes male characters dressed up as women—a feature that might explain the disguising of Falstaff as an old woman with a fringed hat and a handkerchief hiding his bearded face:

I went to her, Master Brook, as you see, like a poor old man, but J came from her, Master Brook, like a poor old woman.


Evans: By yea and no, I think the 'oman is a witch indeed. I like not when a 'oman has a great peard; I spy a great peard under his muffler.


In the Somerset mummings, Dame Dorrity sports an enormous bushy moustache, while Queen Susan's broad skirts fail to hide a pair of large masculine shoes.29

But the Yorkshire plays contain a different scene which can usefully be compared to the rituals of Carnival and which would explain Falstaff s corpulence, along with his power of life and regeneration: a man of continual dissolution and thaw (III.5.107). The episode follows the execution of Betty or Bessy, the man-woman so often encountered in the Mummers' Plays. Lifting her head, the Doctor declares: her things are out of joint and she is filling with wind causing her bowels to be in an uproar. Then he gives her pills to cure all ills, time present, time gone and time to come, and Betty goes into labour. The doctor is called Pennyroyal, the name of a plant with abortive properties.30 Now filling oneself with wind (by the eating of flatulent foods) was recommended at Carnival time, so as to control the natural movements of air and prevent any risk of invasion by souls freed by psychopomps—animals such as the bear, the ass or the deer.31 Thus the bear, mentioned by Slender at the beginning of the play as a terrifying animal, particularly for women, carries in its belly the souls of the dead; when it awakens from hibernation on Shrove Tuesday, it frees them by expelling an anal plug: this is the 'pet' de l'ours—the bear's fart.32

Heavy eating is thus a ritual act, which has the double effect of expelling internal air and ensuring against penetration by an external pneuma. In MW, Falstaff s girth is stressed frequently—though perhaps with less insistence than in Henry IV part 1 : the fat knight; this whale, with so many tuns of oil in his belly (II. 1.62); this greasy knight (II. 1.104); this unwholesome humidity, this gross watery pumpion (III.3.35-6); a hodge-pudding? a bag of flax?A puffed man?—. . . of intolerable entrails? (V.5.152-4) He himself uses a curious metaphor: they would melt me out of my fat drop by drop, and liquor fishermen 's boots with me (IV.5.92-3), which recalls that applied to him by Prince Hal: Falstaff sweats to death,/ And lards the lean earth as he walks along (II. 1.103-04). He can be related to the Tat Jack' of the Mummers' Plays;33 indeed, almost all the characters in those plays are called 'Jack', and in MW the name occurs some sixteen times, including the unusual expression ' Jack-of-Lent' applied to Robin, Falstaff s little page with his gaudy livery.34

Above all, Falstaff incarnates the Pantagruelian appetite, that by virtue of which, in Bakhtine's words, "the body . . . swallows, devours, rends the world apart, is enriched, and grows at the world's expense."35One recalls the fat knight's words in Henry IV part 1 : banish plump Jack, and banish all the world (II.4.474). In MW, the comic hero is apparently anchored in the material world where he takes his pleasure: his refuge is the tavern, his comfort draughts of mulled wine. His confession of human frailty: And bid her think what a man is; let her consider his frailty (III.5.44-5), reminds us of a similar avowal in Henry IV part 1 : Thou seest I have more flesh than another man, and therefore more frailty (III.3.166-7). But on the other hand, the rotundity of the knight appears as a closed universe which absorbs, processes internally and then liberates unexpected bounties in a sort of natural parturition. His bulging belly is related to that of the Twelfth Night King of the Bean. The Christmas Prince in the universities of Oxford and Cambridge bore the title of Rex Regni Fabarum, and according to Pythagorean doctrine the bean, inside man, develops in forty days into an embryo.36 This gestation might explain Falstaff s categorical refusal to consume beaten eggs in his sack: I'll no pullet-sperm in my brewage (III.5.28).37 This enclosed world finds it difficult to admit any intrusion from without that would disturb its equilibrium; thus for Falstaff death by drowning is the worst of all fates:

a death that I abhor: for the water swells a man; and what a thing should I have been when I had been swelled: I should have been a mountain of mummy.


Falstaff clings to this breath of life; his final metamorphosis, when he dons the stag's antlers, not only relates him to the deer, the classic psychopomp, but also tends to suggest abundance and liberality. The burns caused by the candles of the elves and sprites then evoke the Candlemas rite which commemorated a miracle performed by St Blaise, patron saint of ropemakers and weavers, and also, by virtue of the homophony, Blasen/Blasius, master of the wind and of breath.38 The metaphors derived from the life of weavers may then also be allusions to this saint who had been so popular in medieval England:

in the shape of a man, Master Brook, I fear not Goliath with a weaver's beam, because I know also life is a shuttle.


Certainly in the drubbing inflicted on the knight disguised as an old witch we may see a reference to the 'Old Dame Jane' of the Mummers' Plays who tries to prevent the marriage between the 'Clown' and 'the Lady'. The two female characters are also harvest figures, the old, rejected woman representing the previous year's wheat and the young lady this year's.39 This struggle between the past and the present and future is evident when the character is insulted by the villagers as being old, cold, withered (V.5.154), an incarnation of winter routed in the cyclical conflict of the seasons. But even in this case Falstaff, if he acts out the farcical episode of Bessy, is less ridiculous than Caius or Slender who are married to great lubberly boys dressed up as girls.40

My own inclination is to see Falstaff as the spirit of Carnival,41 and of fertility. When he dons the stag's antlers he thinks not of Actaeon torn to pieces by his dogs (an image that is nevertheless used several times in the play, by Ford and Pistol42) but of Jupiter, the irresistible seducer. The stag's points can signify cuckoldry, or virility. It is worth mentioning here a Mummers' dance, performed at seed-time (for fertility), that is still presented today at Abbots Bromley. The dancers are not masked, but each one carries a large set of antlers, weighing about 20 lbs, fixed to the end of a pole which he holds up before him throughout the various measures.43

Falstaff is not afraid to don the horns that Ford dreads to wear. The horns may be those of the moon, which rules over the cycles of vegetable life. In Henry IV part 1 the knight had declared himself proudly to be one of Diana's foresters, gentlemen of the shade, minions of the moon (I.2.25-6). He and his friends were men of good government, being governed as the sea is, by our noble and chaste mistress the moon, under whose countenance we steal (27-9). The horns may also be those of Kernunnos, the stag-cum-man who guides the dead; or again those of Merlin's steed. Falstaff is placed at the foot of the century-old oak tree, and his attitude brings to mind the 'green man' of primitive ceremonies, the incarnation of the vegetable spirit.44In English religious sculpture, this figure is represented by a face half-hidden in luxurious foliage, with thick branches sprouting from the corners of its mouth or, like a stag's antlers, from its temples.45Falstaff plays the part of Herne the Hunter, but in contrast to the latter who blasts trees and bewitches the flocks and herds, he is the very spirit of fecundity; early in Act V, in a sort of facetious incantation, he calls for a shower of aphrodisiacs:

Let the sky rain potatoes; let it thunder to the tune of 'Greensleeves', hail kissing-comfits, and snow eringoes; let there come a tempest of provocation . . .


He reminds us unmistakably of old Priapus, son of Dionysos and Aphrodite, god of fertility, whom Chaucer presents in the Parlement of Foules.46

In Henry IV part 1, Falstaff plays a part in the education of the Prince, and has been compared to the Centaur Chiron.47 In MW, he is always the object of censure, but ambiguity remains: after serving as a mediator between Ford and his wife, he unwittingly furthers Fenton's amorous enterprise. Falstaff is not abandoned in MW, despite the treachery of Pistol and Bardolph. The host is his friend, and this colourful character, reminiscent of the host of the Tabard, has a functional, catalytic role in the play. His high spirits48 and his taste for pranks, which he shares with Falstaff and Fenton, are the expression of his solid common sense. As early as Act III, he predicts Fenton's eventual victory:

. . . Master Fenton? He capers, he dances, he has eyes of youth; he writes verses, he speaks holiday, he smells April and May. He will carry't, he will carry't; 'tis in his buttons he will carry't.


Fenton is the Spring; impecunious because as liberal as the spring if we follow Thomas Nashe in Summers Last Will and Testament.49 Anne's parents disapprove of him because he belongs to a higher social class and because he has spent his youth in feastings and follies in the company of Prince Hal and Poins. Fenton therefore shares many characteristics with Falstaff. They both belonged to the merry group which the prince delighted in gathering round him, but both have fallen on hard times. Fenton admits that he is up to his ears in debt; Falstaff s chamber is hung with a tapestry representing the Prodigal Son, a motif he was particularly fond of, as it would appear from Henry IV part 2 (II. 1.142-3). Fenton writes verses, and Falstaff knows how to turn a compliment, even if he has to borrow one of Sidney's sonnets: Have I caught thee, my heavenly jewel? (III.3.38). But Fenton is really in love, and encourages Anne to choose by herself, for herself. He represents the spirit of liberty that Falstaff embodied in Henry IV. Fenton does not belong to the criminal underworld and is not continually on the lookout for a chance to rob or swindle, unlike Falstaff, for whom this constitutes a vocation (1 Henry IV, I.2.101). However, he has the wit to turn the masque and its disguises to his advantage. He carries off the Queen of May, Anne, whose green and white garments, along with her youth, recall the Warwickshire festival as described by Frazer.50

Falstaff, crowned with horns, enables Fenton to become that which Ford suspected Falstaff of being: Youth in a basket (IV.2.107-08), that is, the triumphant wooer. This is the final victory of the knight who, through a couple of hunting metaphors, mocks the vain efforts of the bourgeois characters:

I am glad, though you have ta 'en a special stand to strike at me, that your arrow hath glanced.

When night-dogs run, all sorts of deer are chased.

(V.5.231-2; 235)

The generosity of Nature has triumphed. The old stag has a successor, the young brocket, and both have vanquished the purely mercantile intrigues of their opponents. Herne the Hunter was also a forester, whose social function, according to Manwood, was to ensure protection and justice in the forest.51 In a society whose natural equilibrium is threatened, Falstaff restores harmony.


1 References to MW and to the two parts of Henry IV are to the New Arden editions of these plays, respectively edited by H.J. Oliver (1971) and A.R. Humphreys (1960 and 1966).

2 Jeanne Addison Roberts, Shakespeare's English Comedy, "The Merry Wives of Windsor" in Context (Lincoln, 1979), p. 66.

3 Robert B. Heilman, "The Taming Untamed, or, The Return of the Shrew", Modern Language Quarterly, 27 (1966), 151.

4 J. Dover Wilson, The Fortunes of Falstaff, Cambridge U.P. (1979), p. 97. 1st ed. 1943.

5 Kenneth Muir, Shakespeare's Comic Sequence, Liverpool U.P. (1979), p. 83.

6 Northrop Frye, "The Argument of Comedy" in English Institute Essays, 1948, ed. D.A. Robertson, Jr., Columbia U.P. (New York, 1949), p. 69. J.A. Bryant, Jr., "Falstaff and the Renewal of Windsor", PMLA, 89 (1974), 297. Jeanne Addison Roberts, ibid., p. 82.

7 Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism, Atheneum (New York, 1957, rpt. 1966), p. 183.

8 James G. Frazer, The Golden Bough, Macmillan (London, 1911-15, rpt. 1976), Part 3, VIII, pp. 233-5.

9 François Laroque, "Ovidian Transformations and Folk Festivities in A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Merry Wives of Windsor and As You Like It, Cahiers Élisabéthains, 25 (avril, 1984), 27-9.

10 Alan Brody, The English Mummers and Their Plays: Traces of Ancient Mystery, Routledge & Kegan Paul (London, 1970), p. 117.

11 Claude Lévi-Strauss, Mythologiques, t. 1, Le cru et le cuit, Plon (Paris, 1964), p. 343: "Ritual appears as a 'para-language' that can be used in two ways. Simultaneously or in alternation, ritual allows men either to modify an existing situation, or to name it and describe it. Generally the two functions overlap, or represent complementary aspects of one and the same process. But when magical habits of thought are on the decline and when ritual is no more than a surviving vestige, the first function disappears and only the second remains."

12 Theodor H. Gaster, Theopis (New York, 1961), p. 17.

13 Claude Gaignebet et Marie Cl. Florentin, Le carnaval, Payot (Paris, 1974, rpt. '79), p. 41.

15 Richard Marienstras, "Les personnages et les mécanismes narratifs dans Les Joyeuses Commères de Windsor, Revue d'Histoire du Théâtre, XXIV (1972), 251-68.

16 Oscar J. Campbell, "The Italianate Background of The Merry Wives of Windsor, University of Michigan Publications in Language and Literature, 8, Univ. of Michigan Press (Ann Arbor, 1932), 81-117.

17 E.K. Chambers, The English Folk Play, Clarendon Press (Oxford, 1933), p. 232. In the Bassingham Play (Lincolnshire, 1823), a Plough play, which is representative of the whole type called 'the Wooing ceremony', the Lady is wooed by several suitors (the Eldest Son, the Farming Man, the Lawyer, the Old Man) but the Fool finally wins her. Cf. Charles R. Baskerville, The Elizabethan Jig (Chicago, 1929), pp. 241-9.

18 William Green, "Humours Characters and Attributive Names in Shakespeare's Plays", Names, XX (3), 1972, 157-65. J.M. Maguin, "A Note on a Further Biblical Parallel with the Death of Falstaff, Cahiers élisabéthains, 10 (Oct. 1976), 66.

19 L. Hotson, Shakespeare's Sonnets Dated (Oxford, 1950), p. 148: Essex wrote in February, 1598 "[Sir Alex Ratcliff s] sister is maryed to Sr Jo. Falstaff. On that occasion Shakespeare was obliged to turn Brooke into Broome, to the detriment of several puns.

20Donkeying was not the same as the assouade, although it involved the same animal. In England, this punishment was inflicted by Yorkshire silk workers on those who transgressed the rules of the profession.

21Records of the County of Wilts, edited by B.H. Cunnington (Devizes, 1932), pp. 65-6.

22 Martin Ingram, "Le Charivari dans l'Angleterre du 16e et du 17e siècle: Aperçu Historique", in Jacques Le Goff et Jean-Claude Schmitt, Le Charivari, Mouton (Paris, La Haye, New York, 1981), p. 253, p. 255.

23 Ibid., p. 254, "At the end of the sixteenth century and during the seventeenth, these pretexts for 'charivari' took on a deeper significance, since the condemnation of games was linked with Puritan ideology."

24 Northrop Frye, "The Argument of Comedy", ibid., p. 67.

25 F. Laroque, "Pagan Ritual, Christian Liturgy, and Folk Customs in The Winter's Tale, Cahiers Élisabéthains, 22 (Oct. 1982), 25-33.

26 R. J. E. Tiddy, The Mummers' Play, P. Minet (Chicheley, 1923, rpt. 1972), p. 75. Alexander Helm, The English Mummers' Play, Brewer & Rowman (Bury St Edmunds, 1981), p. 4.

27 Arnold Van Gennep, Manuel de folklore français contemporain, tome 1er, III, Cérémonies périodiques, cycliques. 1 Carnaval, Carême, Pâques; Picard (Paris, 1947), pp. 833-4.

28 R. J. E. Tiddy, ibid., p. 71; A. Brody, ibid, p. 11.

29 A. Brody, ibid., p. 22.

30 Maud Karpeles, "Some Fragments of the Sword Dance Plays", JEFDS, 2nd s., II (1928), 35-42. H.C. I.272.

31 C. Gaignebet, ibid, p. 11, p. 132, p. 152.

32 Ibid, p. 11. E. Le Roy Ladurie, Le Carnaval de Romans, Gallimard (Paris, 1979), p. 116. A. Van Gennep, ibid, pp. 912-4 notes the erotic element and fertility symbolism present in the disguising of men as bears at Candlemas, on account of the licence accorded to bears and the fact that they frighten women.

33 A. Helm, ibid, p. 44, "Fat Jack, a quête character from Chesterfield, Derbyshire".

34 E.K. Chambers, ibid, p. 157, "[Jack-of-Lent] was a puppet, set up on Ash Wednesday and decorated with fish-emblems of the penitential season, used as a target for missiles during the six weeks of Lent, and finally destroyed in triumph on Palm Monday". E.K. Chambers, The Medieval Stage, Clarendon Press (Oxford, 1903), I, p. 261, Lenton in whyte and red heryngs skinns accompanied the King of Christmas at a Norwich Shrovetide riding in 1443. It is this idea of ritual destruction that Falstaff refers to at the end of V.5.127-9: See how wit may be made a Jack-a-Lent, when 'tis upon ill employment.

35 Mikhail Bakhtine, L'æuvre de François Rabelais et la culture populaire au Moyen Age et sous la Renaissance (Paris, 1970), p. 280; translated by Hélène Iswolsky under title Rabelais and His World, Massachussets Institute of Technology (Cambridge, Mass. and London (1968), p. 281.

36 Enid Welsford, The Fool, Faber (1935, rpt. 1968), p. 213. A. Delatte, Faba Pythagorae cognata. Serta Leodensis (Liège-Paris, 1930), pp. 35-57; M. Detienne, "La cuisine de Pythagore", Archives de Sociologie des Religions, 29 (1970), pp. 141-62.

37 A.R. Wright, British Calendar Customs, ed. T.E. Lones (London, 1936-40), vol.I Movable Festivals, p. 90 describes the battle of eggs that opposed the dean, chapter and choristers of Chester Cathedral at Easter. The egg, supreme symbol of generation and male potency, is linked with the Spring cycle, and hence with Shrove Tuesday and Easter.

38 C. Gaignebet, ibid, p. 126, p. 130. A. Van Gennep, ibid, p. 834.

39 J. Frazer, ibid., Part 3, V, pp. 140-4. E.K. Chambers, ibid, p. 159; p. 234: "The Old Dame Jane appears in 13 of the Plough examples." A. Brody, ibid, p. 107.

40 The abduction of the supposed brides in the dark can be related to the game of hide-and-seek that sometimes formed part of the ceremonial of the eve of Mardi Gras. cf. A. Van Gennep, ibid, p. 1106.

41 C.L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy (Cleveland, New York, 1959, rpt. 1963), p. 213 recognises "the association of Falstaff s figure with the gay eating and drinking of Shrove Tuesday and Carnival"; however, he does not develop this remark which, curiously he applies only to the history plays.

42 F. Laroque, "Ovidian Transformations and Folk Festivities . . .", ibid, p. 33.

43 A. Brody, ibid, p. 26 and figures 5 and 6. This spectacle can be related to the Welsh Mari Lloyd, or the ritual of Burrigham in Lincolnshire, where a horse's head is also carried on the end of a pole. In these two cases, the bearer's face is hidden by a piece of cloth, but in none of these examples is the man impersonating or transformed into the animal. He rather carries a sort of symbol of fertility, cf. J.G. Frazer, ibid., Part V, VIII, "The Corn-Spirit as an Animal", paragraph 8, pp. 292-4; paragraph 12, p. 304.

44 J.G. Frazer, ibid., Part 3, VIII, "The Killing of the Tree-Spirit", paragraph 1 "The Whitsuntide Mummers", p. 205, p. 208; paragraph 6 "Bringing in Summer", pp. 251-3: In Estonia, the Wood Spirit which fertilizes the wheat and protects the herds is carried away on Shrove Tuesday and suffers the same fate as the Carnival effigy.

45 Kathleen Basford, The Green Man, D.S. Brewer (Ipswich, 1978), p. 20 describes this type of sculpture "on the fourteenth century sedilia at Weston Longville (Norfolk)"; she adds that "this figure probably represents the Rogationtide processions for the blessing of the fields."

46 To be compared to 1 Henry IV, II.4.465-8: If to be old and merry be a sin, then many a host that I know is damned: if to be fat be to be hated, then Pharaoh's lean kine are to be loved.

47 Douglas J. Stewart, "Falstaff the Centaur", Shakespeare Quarterly, 28, Winter No. 1 (1977), pp. 5-21.

48 His favourite form of address, bully rook, bully Hector, bully Sir John might have its source in the names of the Ampleforth play characters, Bold Slasher, Bold Slaughterer, which later in the eighteenth century, become Bull Slasher, etc.

49The Works of Thomas Nashe, ed. R.B. McKerrow, III (London, 1910), pp. 222-7;256-9.

50 J.G. Frazer, ibid., Part I, X, "Relics of Tree-Worship in Modern Europe", pp. 87-8: villages of Cherrington and Stourton in South Warwickshire. This interpretation partly explains why Anne Page does not play the part of Queen of the Fairies according to the plan proposed in Act IV. Mrs Quickly takes her place, giving rise to a pun on 'queen'/'quean'.

51 John Manwood, A Treatise of the Laws of the Forest (London, 1598, rpt. 1615), p. 139, cap. 19.2. forester and minister of the forest.

Linda Anderson (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: "Romantic Comedies," in A Kind of Wild Justice: Revenge in Shakespeare's Comedies, University of Delaware Press, 1987, pp. 57-125.

[In this excerpt, Anderson studies the device of comic revenge in The Merry Wives of Windsor, examining the numerous revenge plots in the play and exploring the motivations behind them.]

The Merry Wives of Windsor is the changeling of Shakespeare's comedies. Not only is the play unloved by critics, it is sometimes not even acknowledged.13 One of the few critics to devote an entire book to the play concludes that Shakespeare merely adapted an old play, "a play of bourgeois life based on some Italian story," of which the hero was Sir John Oldcastle; that he made a botch even of mere adaptation: "the time-system of the Folio remains incurably irrational"; and that, finally, "it is not a play in which Shakespeare seems to have taken much pride or pleasure" (Crofts 1937, 108, 88, 140).

Even those critics who can tolerate the play generally perceive it as the least of Shakespeare's comedies, hardly meriting serious discussion.14 Yet the play deals with a usually serious theme, although in an unserious way: "You might call this a revenge play in the key of farcical comedy: bourgeois Windsor (concealing Shakespeare's own Stratford) opposed to a fat and amorous knight from the environs of the Court" (Trewin 1978, 120). The Merry Wives is, in fact, not merely concerned with revenge: it is obsessed with it. Nearly every character in the play vows revenge on another, three separate revenge plots (one containing three separate revenges) are carried out, and those who are not practicing their own revenges are frequently aiding others'. This alone would seem enough to create interest in a play whose author was soon to deal with the same theme in tragedy; but for the most part critics have been unable to see beyond the bulk of the play's central character.

"What Shakespeare did to Falstaff is the theme of most of the critical commentary on The Merry Wives of Windsor, and it has driven some critics into positive frenzies:

From among the plays so bright, so tender, so gracious of these years, one play—The Merry Wives of Windsor—stands apart with a unique character. It is essentially prosaic, and is indeed the only play of Shakspere written almost wholly in prose. There is no reason why we should refuse to accept the tradition put upon record by Dennis and by Rowe that The Merry Wives was written by Shakspere upon compulsion, by order of Elizabeth, who, in her lust for gross mirth, required the poet to expose his Falstaff to ridicule by exhibiting him, the most delightful of egoists, in love. . . . The Merry Wives of Windsor is a play written expressly for the barbarian aristocrats with their hatred of ideas, their insensibility to beauty, their hard efficient manners, and their demand for impropriety.15

But, the critic who penned that diatribe concludes, the "fat rogue" of The Merry Wives of Windsor is not Falstaff, and this has become the standard attack of those who dislike the play.16 Some critics take the "offense" done to Falstaff so personally that they seem to believe that Shakespeare saw him as a real person, rather than a theatrical construct:

[Falstaff] was ruthlessly trampled into extinction by Henry V: casting him off, the King killed his heart. Even more cruelly, so too did Shakespeare. It was murder in Hal; in Shakespeare, the crime worse than parricide—the slaughter of one's own offspring.

For Shakespeare, so the story runs, was commanded by his Queen to resuscitate the corpse whose heart had been fracted and corroborate, and to show him in love. Shakespeare obeyed: and there can be no clearer evidence of his own rejection of Falstaff. The boisterous merriment of The Merry Wives of Windsor is a cynical revenge which Shakespeare took on the hitherto unsuspecting gaiety of his own creative exuberance.

(Charlton 1938, 192-93)

Why Shakespeare should have felt compelled to take revenge on his own genius remains an unanswered question. But there is no reason to think that Shakespeare, in The Merry Wives of Windsor, was demonstrating his rejection of Falstaff or that he was creating a different character with the same name. Nor does Falstaff differ much from one play to another: he remains an artist of the spoken word, a braggart, and a schemer; nor are his reversals in this play anything extraordinary.17 One cannot help suspecting that it is not so much Falstaff s defeat per se, as his defeat, not by Hal or Poins, but by two middle-aged, middle-class women that rankles. Ironically, the glorification of the standard critical idea of Falstaff as an endearing lord of misrule has largely destroyed appreciation of the one comedy in which the actual character appears. Either the mystique of Falstaff or The Merry Wives of Windsor must be jettisoned, for "since Falstaff s attempt is villainous, the nature of comedy demands his discomfiture, or a repentance that to his idealizers is still more distasteful. The objection to Falstaff s defeat in the Merry Wives is, then, an objection to the very nature of comic drama" (Gilbert 1959, 88).

Certainly such an objection is an objection to comic revenge, and therefore unacceptable in terms of this play, which reeks of revenge and swarms with revengers of all shapes, sizes, and justifications. The play's first lines sound the note of legal revenge so often heard in the earlier comedies:

Shallow: Sir Hugh, persuade me not; I will make a Star Chamber matter of it. If he were twenty Sir John Falstaffs, he shall not abuse Robert Shallow, esquire.


But despite being a "Justice of Peace and Coram" (and Custa-lorum and Rato-lorum), Shallow would go beyond the law, if he could, to get even with Falstaff:

Ha! o' my life, if I were young again, the sword should end it.


All of this comes to nothing in the face of Falstaffs defiance and Evans's peacemaking, but another controversy promptly arises: Slender accuses Falstaffs companions of picking his purse, and two of them meet that accusation with threats:

Pistol: .. . Sir John, and master mine, I combat challenge of this latten bilbo.

Word of denial in thy labras here! Word of denial! Froth and scum, thou liest!


Nym: Be avis'd, sir, and pass good humors. I will say "marry trap" with you, if you run the nuthook's humor on me—that is the very note of it.


None of this is developed, and it would seem to have little purpose except to introduce the theme of revenge (and perhaps to establish Pistol and Nym as potential revengers). A number of critics, however, have seen elements of this first scene as indications of personal revenges by Shakespeare in the form of satiric portraits of Sir Thomas Lucy (as Shallow) or of Surrey Justice of the Peace William Gardiner and his stepson and tool William Wayte (as Shallow and Slender, respectively), with the latter of whom, at least, Shakespeare was apparently acquainted.18 Similar satiric topical allusions have been discovered in other characters: Oliver notes the tentative suggestion that Caius was a caricature of French gynaecologist Peter Chamberlain or a more general "'satire on the fad for foreign doctors.'"19 Oliver also notes that "New Cambridge saw . . . a reference to 'Nym' as an alleged short form of 'Hieronimo', the hero of Kyd's Spanish Tragedy, and so, particularly as Nym misuses the word 'humour', interpreted him as Shakespeare's caricature of Ben Jonson, who was taunted with having played the Kyd role."20

Whether or not Nym is a satiric jab at Jonson, he and Pistol are caricatures:

[Nym's] humor is to terrify by deliberate understatement and vague hints of the dark deeds he could do if he would. By stuffing the word 'humour' at least once into every sentence he utters, he derides what had apparently become a ridiculous over-use of the term among Shakespeare's contemporaries.

Nym's affectation is made the funnier through its continuous contrast with the humor of Pistol. His is an irresistible impulse to form horrendous speeches out of half-remembered tags from old plays written in 'Cambyses vein'. . . . In his contemptuous treatment of Nym and Pistol, Shakespeare was probably attacking a type of petty sharper familiar to anyone who walked the streets of Elizabethan London.

(Oscar James Campbell 1943, 72, 76)

Base and ridiculous as Pistol and Nym are, their revenge sets off other revenges, including the only one considered serious—if not too serious—Ford's. In a comic mode, they are classical dramatic revengers: they are injured, having been turned away by Falstaff for refusing to carry his letters to Mistresses Page and Ford. They thereupon vow revenge, in their nearest approach to stately language:

Pistol: Let vultures grip thy guts! for gourd and fullam holds,
And high and low beguiles the rich and poor.
Tester I'll have in pouch when thou shalt lack,
Base Phrygian Turk!
Nym: I have operations [in my head] which be humors of revenge.


They plot:

Pistol: Wilt thou revenge?
Nym: By welkin and her star!
Pistol: With wit or steel?
Nym: With both the humors, I.
I will discuss the humor of this love to [Page].
Pistol: And I to [Ford] shall eke unfold
How Falstaff (varlet vile)
His dove will prove, his gold will hold,
And his soft couch defile.


Nym goes so far as to claim he "will incense [Page] to deal with poison," (1.3.100-101) the most feared and hated of the revenger's weapons.21 They promptly deliver their messages and all but disappear from the stage.

Ford and Page are left to make sense of this wholly unexpected information; they cannot, however, come to any agreement:

Ford: Do you think there is truth in them?
Page: Hang 'em, slaves! I do not think the knight would offer it; but these that accusehim in his intent towards our wives are a yoke of his discarded men—very rogues, now they be out of service.
Ford: Were they his men?
Page: Marry, were they.


Page correctly considers that revenge may be the motive for these accusations and therefore, incorrectly, discounts them. Ford, on the other hand, remarks: "I like it never the better for that" (2.1.179). But Page has a better reason for ignoring this report:

If he should intend this voyage toward my wife, I would turn her loose to him; and what he gets more of her than sharp words, let it lie on my head.


But Ford cannot accept this, either:

I do not misdoubt my wife; but I would be loath to turn them together. A man may be too confident. I would have nothing lie on my head. I cannot be thus satisfied.


Ford immediately proves that a man may be too suspicious, as well, by arranging with the Host of the Garter to introduce him, disguised, under an assumed name.22 His credulity in this instance is in some part explained by Mrs. Quickly, who tells Falstaff that Ford is "a very jealousy man" who leads his wife "a very frampold life" (2.2.89-90). Thus, stung on his sore point by Pistol's accusation, Ford rapidly falls into a revenger's role, utilizing disguise and trickery—having told the Host he is doing this "only for a jest" (2.1.216), sneering at Page as "a secure fool" and "a secure ass" (2.1.233; 2.2.300-301), and finally vowing to "detect my wife, be reveng'd on Falstaff, and laugh at Page" (2.2.310-11).

Ford's suspicions grow progressively wilder: after meeting Mrs. Page and Falstaff s page, Robin, on their way to visit his wife, he leaps to the absurd—though, due to the wives' plotting, correct—conclusion that the two women have a joint rendezvous with Falstaff. His thoughts of revenge attain more violent expression:

Good plots, they are laid, and our revolted wives share damnation together. Well, I will take him, then torture my wife, pluck the borrow'd veil of modesty from the so-seeming Mistress Page, divulge Page himself for a secure and willful Actaeon; and to these violent proceedings all my neighbors shall cry aim.


So sure is he of his suspicions that he invites the neighbors he has brought home with him to witness his vengeance to take revenge on him if he is wrong: "If I suspect without cause, why then make sport at me, then let me be your jest, I deserve it" (3.3.149-51). Falstaff s escape in the buck-basket (the very word "buck" causes the frenzied Ford additional mental anguish) affords both Mistress Ford ("I know not which pleases me better, that my husband is deceiv'd, or Sir John") and his neighbors ("(trust me) we'll mock him") opportunity for comic revenge on his jealousy (3.3.157-59, 178-79, 228-29).

Ford again assumes his disguise and visits Falstaff, who tells him of his escape and vows another attempt. Ford's fury increases to the point where he himself seems the principal object of his revenge: "Well, I will proclaim myself what I am. . . . If I have horns to make one mad, let the proverb go with me: I'll be horn-mad" (3.5.143-44, 150-52). The only horns he has, of course, are in his own imagination: Falstaff, honest for once, has told him he has not succeeded. But Ford will not be denied his self-induced and increasing madness, as Mistress Page describes his approach in his second attempt to catch Falstaff:

Why, woman, your husband is in his old lines again. He so takes on yonder with my husband; so rails against all married mankind; so curses all Eve's daughters, of what complexion soever; and so buffets himself on the forehead, crying, "Peer out, peer out!", that any madness I ever yet beheld seem'd but tameness, civility, and patience to this his distemper he is in now.


Ford's neighbors also think him mad (4.2.122-27). This scene parallels the previous search: Ford offers himself as a butt of mockery if proved wrong (4.2.161-64) and is unable to find Falstaff (though he beats him nevertheless). But the wives now reveal the situation to their husbands; Ford professes to be cured of jealousy, and asks pardon, but he is able to continue as a comic revenger by joining in the final plot against Falstaff.

A standard critical reaction to this plot strand is expressed by Dowden (quoting Hartley Coleridge): "'Ford's jealousy is of too serious a complexion for the rest of the play'" (1881, 330). Even aside from the baseless assumption that comedy cannot deal with serious subjects, this assertion is open to question. Ford's jealousy is established as a character trait antedating the events of the play; he is a comic type—the jealous husband—not an ordinary man suddenly and reasonably given cause to suspect his wife. He is not wronged; against all the evidence but the word of the lying Falstaff and his cast-off men—and even having been told by Falstaff that he has been unsuccessful—he persists in defining himself as a cuckold, his wife and Mistress Page as loose women, Page as a gull, and, most ridiculously, Falstaff as a gallant seducer. The audience knows that Ford is a fool, and this effectively nullifies his threats. As Wilson concludes, Ford's jealousy "is not taken seriously by anyone but himself (1962, 91).

Page is free of Ford's brand of foolishness, but he exhibits a folly of his own, and with it a vengeful tendency. He believes not only that he can thwart young love, but that he has a right to do so. He will not allow his daughter to marry young Master Fenton, whom she loves and who loves her; and if they...

(The entire section is 26214 words.)

Falstaff And Desire

(Shakespearean Criticism)

John M. Steadman (essay date 1963)

SOURCE: "Falstaff as Actaeon: A Dramatic Emblem," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. XIV, No. 3, Summer, 1963, pp. 231-44.

[Here, Steadman compares Falstaff to the Renaissance myth of Actaeon by examining each character's relationship with the themes of lust and corrupt desire.]

In the final act of The Merry Wives of Windsor, Shakespeare confronts his audience with an obvious burlesque of the Actaeon myth. In impersonating Herne the Hunter, Sir John becomes a comic counterpart of the legendary hunter from Thebes. As Professor Bullough has observed, there is a certain "poetic justice" in Shakespeare's...

(The entire section is 16587 words.)

Gender Issues

(Shakespearean Criticism)

R. S. White (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "Women," in Twayne's New Critical Introductions to Shakespeare: The Merry Wives of Windsor, Twayne Publishers, 1991, pp. 17-34.

[In the following essay, White examines the males ' attitudes toward women in The Merry Wives of Windsor, and contends that Shakespeare gives his female characters more autonomy than other dramatists of his time.]

Just as there is a confrontation between insiders and outsiders in Windsor, so there is a more underground battle waged between women and men. As the men try to organise even affairs of the heart in a commerciallyminded way, so the women work hard to subvert such...

(The entire section is 6049 words.)


(Shakespearean Criticism)

Marvin Felheim and Philip Traci (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "Realism in The Merry Wives of Windsor," in Ball State University Forum, Vol. XXII, No. 1, Winter, 1981, pp. 52-9.

[Below, Felheim and Traci argue that The Merry Wives of Windsor is a realistic comedy by examining the credibility of the play's characterization and language; and concluding that it cannot be considered a farce.]

Ford: In love the heavens themselves do guide the state; Money buys lands, and wives are sold by fate.

(V. v. 229-30)1

At the conclusion of 2 Henry IV, the...

(The entire section is 8283 words.)

Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Beiner, G. "The Merry Wives of Windsor." In Shakespeare's Agnostic Comedy: Poetics, Analysis, Criticism, pp. 143-67. Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1993.

Examines the comic structure of The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Carroll, William C. "Falstaff and Ford: Forming and Reforming." In The Metamorphoses of Shakespearean Comedy, pp. 178-202. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985.

Studies Falstaff s transformation into a "comic monster."

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...

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