(Shakespearean Criticism)

The Merry Wives of Windsor

Until fairly recently, much of the criticism directed toward The Merry Wives of Windsor was unfavorable. Critics were apt to note that the Falstaff in this early comedy of Shakespeare's was greatly diminished from the charismatic and comical tour de force that appeared in 1 Henry IV. One explanation is found in the traditional anecdote which claims that Falstaff had been brought back to life after 2 Henry IV at the command of Queen Elizabeth I, who wanted to see the roguish, fat knight in love. Later criticism, however, has focused on the play's sources as well as its individual merits. Specifically, emphasis has been placed on the play's setting and connection to Elizabethan society, Falstaff's role as scapegoat, and on the issues of disguise and deception.

Leslie S. Katz (1995) looks back at the play's early performances. Drawing a connection between its first showing before the Queen in honor of her knights of the Garter and subsequent performances held for the general populace, Katz suggests that The Merry Wives of Windsor was intended to inspire patriotism in a citizenry who "went to the theater to see what the court saw." Rosemary Kegl (1994), on the other hand, underscores the play's link with its Elizabethan audience by studying the characters' insults and the manner in which they help to identify the vague and fluctuating middle class of the Elizabethan era.

Other critics have discussed the ways in which Falstaff acts as the play's scapegoat. G. Beiner (1988) uses the "social/anthropological term 'pharmakos'" to pinpoint Falstaff as "a threat and an aberration" that the wives must neutralize to restore morality and order to their community. Frederick B. Jonassen (1991) sees Falstaff somewhat differently. He argues that the knight's role as "Jack-a-Lent," or scapegoat, works both against and for the character, who must be "set apart from the rest of humanity" for his lewdness but who also exposes the overweening power and moral hypocrisy of his tormentors—thereby restoring balance to the community. Jeanne Addison Roberts (1975) concludes that Falstaff's role is "ambiguous," arguing that while he deserves his punishment, the wives go too far, so that in the end, the audience can't help but feel sympathy for the fat knight.

Ultimately, what ties each of the play's elements together is the frequent use of disguise in the play as well as the theme of deception. Picking up on the notion that domestic harmony must be restored in Windsor, Leo Salingar (1974) argues that the wives trick Falstaff to teach him a lesson and to cure Ford of his jealousy. Salingar also remarks that the play is a classic example of "the duper duped," for almost everyone in the play is deceived—including "Mr. and Mrs. Page, who are impregnable against Falstaff," but who "blunder over their daughter's marriage because they attempt to use trickery against her and against each other." William C. Carroll (1985) points to the play's theme of self-deception. Falstaff, Carroll observes, allows himself to be deceived by his own vain lust and Ford by his unwarranted jealousy. Nancy Cotton (1987) provides another variation on the theme of deception when she argues that the wives use deceit that borders on witchcraft when their "trick on the would-be cuckolder [Falstaff] restores potency to the husband, Ford." The Merry Wives of Windsor is, in fact, full of disguises meant to deceive someone, whether it be hopeful suitors to Anne Page, a jealous husband, ambitious parents; or a lascivious knight. But as Roger Moss (1995) asserts in his discussion of the scene in which Falstaff escapes from the Ford household disguised as a woman, all of this "dressing-up" also amounts to a form of adult "play," or "of wish-fulfillment stories, that belong to drama."

Deception And Disguise

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Leo Salingar (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: "Double Plots in Shakespeare," in Shakespeare and the Traditions of Comedy, Cambridge University Press, 1974, pp. 228-38.

[In the following excerpt, Salingar discusses possible influences on and sources for Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor. The author contends that the play is a classic example of "the duper duped," as almost everyone in the play is deceived.]

A Midsummer Night's Dream marks the end of the first phase in Shakespeare's writing of comedies, when one of his main interests is to devise an intricate plot. In most of his later comedies mere intricacy of plot is less important, though of course it is still present, and Shakespeare still applies the Italian principle of the double plot, as for instance in Much Ado, where he carefully interweaves his borrowed intrigue, the slander of Hero, with his invented intrigue, the deception of Beatrice. But The Merry Wives of Windsor shows how thoroughly he had absorbed the methods of classical and Italian comedy, and how readily he could fall back on them as his principal standby when—as seems very likely in this case—he was more than usually pressed for time. It has less psychological or poetic substance and is more simply a lively stage entertainment than any other of his mature comedies, so that there is no strong reason to doubt the eighteenth-century legend that he wrote it in about a fortnight, to obey the Queen's wish that he should show Falstaff in love. In view of the last Act, it can be called a fairy play, like A Midsummer Night's Dream; and it looks as if it was written for a first performance at Windsor, to celebrate an installation of knights of the Garter,1 just as the Dream looks as if it was written for a first performance at a noble wedding. In any case, the play has, with good reason, remained a favourite on the stage, and if Shakespeare did in fact compose it in a fortnight, it is, as Gildon said, 'a prodigious thing, when all is so well contrived, and carried on without the least confusion'.2 It is a brilliant example of the more mechanical side of Shakespeare's art as a comic playwright.

In one respect it is quite different from Italian Renaissance comedy, in that it depends on exploiting the reputation of characters Shakespeare had created and made popular himself. Although Falstaff has lost most of his irony and his resourcefulness, his reputation with the public can be taken for granted, so that his mean shifts can be taken in at once as evidence that he is falling off from his previous glory, to a caricatural antithesis to everything the Order of the Garter stands for, while his dismal failure even in trickery gains in comic effect because the audience can co-operate by remembering him as cleverer than, on the showing of the present action, he really is. Similarly, the audience must have been prompt to welcome a familiar figure of fun in Justice Shallow; and so too with Pistol, Bardolph, Nym and Mrs Quickly—although the latter does not appear to be the hostess already known to the public, but a similar person of the same name. Shakespeare had either already used or was soon to use again the device of reintroducing Falstaff and associated characters of his own invention into the historical sequels to 1 Henry IV; and this device was no doubt one of the primary reasons for the theatrical success of The Merry Wives—it makes a kind of greeting from the playwright to his public. Even a new character in this play, Fenton, can be placed by a passing allusion to Henry IV: 'The gentleman is of no having: he kept company with the wild Prince and Poins' (Merry Wives, III.ii.62).

The device of exploiting known characters depends on an established intimacy between dramatist and public. Shallow and Pistol and the rest are stock types, but something more as well. They have mannerisms which can be exploited because the audience already know something about them, can partly anticipate their reactions, and can be pleased to find their expectations a little exceeded—as when Falstaff is brought on to bluff his way through charges of poaching and robbery, or Nym declares, 'I will keep the haviour of reputation' (Liii.74), or, in the opening scene, Shallow boasts of the coat of arms he has borne, 'any time these three hundred years', threatens to bring Falstaff before the Star Chamber for 'riot' and then, in the next breath, exclaims, 'Ha! o' my life, if I were young again, the sword should end it' (I.i.36). Here, surely, the actor is to take advantage of the spectator's previous knowledge about him and his readiness to project a shadowy personal history from another play. And Shakespeare also exploits the discovery he uses to great effect in Henry IV, the invention of a personal biography for fictitious as well as historical characters, the attribution to fictitious people of a personal memory including off-stage events and acquaintances as well as details of their own past. Thus Shallow here says, in 'character', 'if I were young again', and later (II.iii.40), in the cadence of 2 Henry IV:

Bodykins, Master Page, though I now be old, and of the peace, if I see a sword out, my finger itches to make one. Though we are justices, and doctors, and churchmen, Master Page, we have some salt of our youth in us; we are the sons of women, Master Page.

This comes as a response to Page's presumably ironic reference to Shallow's fighting days, in keeping with his biography in 2 Henry IV. The same device is carried over to Shallow's new stage companion, his nephew, Slender, who boasts to Anne Page, in the family manner, how he has 'bruis'd [his] shin' with a fencing-master and how he has 'seen [the bear] Sackerson loose twenty times, and [has] taken him by the chain', notwithstanding the shrieks of the ladies present (I.i.258ff). Slender's great stroke as a suitor imbued with family pride is, 'Pray you, uncle, tell Mistress Anne the jest how my father stole two geese out of a pen, good uncle' (III.iv.39) (he had, of course, been complaining with Shallow in the first scene, of being robbed by Falstaff's crew). Better still in a similar vein is Mrs Quickly's character-sketch of Dr Caius's servant—'An honest, willing, kind fellow . . . ; his worst fault is that he is given to prayer; he is something peevish that way; but nobody but has his fault' (I.iv.9). This is the kind of superfluous detail where Shakespeare could be described as at his most Dickensian. Yet these touches, which are commonest in the actors connected with Henry IV, certainly do not amount here to characterisation in depth. Nor are they 'humours', psychological deviations, in Jonson's sense, though Nym is fond of the word; there is no general satire behind them. Nym's catchword, 'humour', or Slender's repeated sigh, 'Ah, sweet Anne Page!' are no more than comic personal tags, like 'Barkis is willin' ', and Shakespeare uses them to create nothing more than 'character' parts of the mechanical sort that Strindberg was to decry in his preface to Miss Julie. At most, The Merry Wives marks a fresh step in the creation of such 'character' parts, since the amusement it arouses is like the amusement people share over known personal kinks within an intimate social group.

The purely verbal humour in the play has a similar effect. Falstaff's wit is still there, but at a low ebb. Sir Hugh Evans's Welsh English, Dr Caius's French English, Pistol's bombast and the Host's cosmopolitan and military-sounding epithets belong to the general farce tradition of linguistic extravaganza that Shakespeare also uses, to better effect, in the Fluellen scenes in Henry V. There is a slight suggestion that command of English English should go with mental superiority, so that Falstaff is brought down an extra peg when he realises at the end that one of his tormentors is 'that Welsh fairy', 'one that makes fritters of English'; but that is all. For the most part, the dialogue has very little of the inner richness and significance of Shakespeare's other mature comedies; it simply adds zest to the entertainment of the intrigue. The play as a whole would make poor supporting evidence for Coleridge's opinion that Shakespeare always preferred character to plot.

On the contrary, The Merry Wives fits easily into the fashion of the late 1590s for rapid and complicated intrigues, as in the first comedies of Chapman and Jonson. And it seems most probable that, like Chapman and Jonson, Shakespeare turned back to Roman comedy for the suggestion for his principal plot. If he was indeed faced with a commission to write a court play at short notice about the fat knight in love, the most promising model to consider would have been Plautus's Braggart Soldier.3 Possibly Shakespeare had remembered Plautus's comedy previously, in the Ephesian setting of his Comedy of Errors;4 in any case, it could now have given him the essentials for the scenario he needed—the boaster, inordinately vain about his sexual charm, who is lured into an intrigue with a married woman (a pretended married woman in Plautus), steals into his neighbour's house, is soundly thrashed and is terrified into avowing his fault. Pyrgopolynices, already wealthy, had been actuated simply by sexual vanity, whereas Falstaff is in search of funds, but this hardly affects the scenario. Plautus, like Shakespeare after him, harps on the craft of women; and . . . the 'good-natured' bachelor, the bon viveur in The Braggart Soldier could have furnished other elements in Falstaff's character and also the character of his Host, who takes a friendly share in a young lover's intrigue; while the Host's far-fetched military jargon (for which there is no strong reason in Shakespeare's scheme) could have been prompted by the exotic names used to describe the victories of Plautus's warrior. In general structure, too, Plautus's play anticipated the main lines of Shakespeare's: there is a static opening scene showing off the role of Pyrgopolynices, then comes the first of the two intrigues against him, the intrigue involving the invention of a double identity for the heroine, who is in his clutches for the time being, and whom he will agree in the course of the second intrigue to release so as to pursue his new supposed innamorata, while the heroine is led off by her real lover in disguise. The Merry Wives also begins with a scene exhibiting Falstaff's character, reputation and exploits, with no direct consequences for the main intrigue. Then much of the first two Acts is taken up with the rivalries over Anne Page, which are due to end in a manner not unlike The Braggart Soldier.

It has been suggested also that Shakespeare borrowed from Plautus's Casina, where husband and wife are at odds over a girl's marriage, like Anne's parents, and where Shakespeare could have found hints for the way Dr Caius and Slender are hoaxed into marrying two boys in disguise, as well as for the scene where Falstaff receives a drubbing in the garments of 'the fat woman of Brainford'.5 At the same time, crossed wooings and sex-disguises were also part of the Italian comic tradition, and Shakespeare elaborates them in the Italian manner. The details of Falstaff's misadventures, for instance, cannot be traced to any particular source but belong to a broad renaissance tradition. Professor Bullough discusses three or four possible sources,6 including a tale by Ser Giovanni Fiorentino, whose book (published in Italy in 1558) had certainly provided Shakespeare's main source for The Merchant of Venice and could have suggested the buck-basket episode in The Merry Wives. Another tale, based on an Italian model, comes from Tarlton's News out of Purgatory (1590), and a third, in the same tradition of farcical novelle, comes from Riche's Farewell to Military Profession; it contains a beating episode involving a Soldier, a Doctor and a Lawyer, three lovers of the same married woman. Tales of wives who outwit either their husbands or their lovers can be traced back, as Bullough points out, to the Decameron; and they form the common stock of Italian carnival plays like La Calandria. Shakespeare's cast and his repertoire of situations in The Merry Wives come from this joint narrative and stage tradition. In Munday's Two Italian Gentlemen, for instance, there are cross-wooings, letters and misleading messages, a braggart soldier, a comic pedant, a witch who is also a go-between, transferred disguises, a scene where a lover has been lured into a woman's bedroom, a street-fight and a scene of incantations and nocturnal mock-terrors in a graveyard. Shakespeare has absurd elderly wooers (Falstaff and Dr Caius) and an absurd young wooer (Slender); in addition to his braggart soldier, he provides a pantaloon, a comic doctor, a comic clergyman-pedant, a female go-between, a supposed witch or fortune-teller (Falstaff as the fat woman) and a climax in a nocturnal scene of magic which is not genuine but feigned.

A common feature in the novelle Professor Bullough discusses is the pattern of the duper duped. Thus, in Riche's story, the Doctor and the Lawyer hope to trick the wife but are tricked themselves; in Ser Giovanni's tale and in Tarlton's News, the lover, a youth, confides in an older man without knowing that his adviser is his mistress's husband, the husband pretends to counsel the lover and tries to trap him with his wife, and after each of the first two escapades—there are three altogether in each tale, as with Falstaff—the lover unwittingly relates to the husband how the wife had hidden him or spirited him away in the nick of time. Although the upshot in Shakespeare's comedy is different, this pattern evidently underlies the sub-plot wherein Ford visits Falstaff disguised as 'Brook' and hears enough to keep his causeless jealousy boiling.

Moreover, Shakespeare carries this principle further. The theme of the duper duped is common in farces like Maître Pathelin: possibly it expresses at bottom the revenge of native shrewdness against acquired cunning, of the layman against the clerk. But in Italian comedies on the lines of Supposes and Calandria it becomes an extended pattern, with duplicated or antithetical situations in a balanced symmetry. Similarly, The Merry Wives becomes a network of 'supposes'. Not only does Falstaff imagine he is deceiving both wives and husbands in one plot, while Ford believes he is outreaching his wife and Falstaff, whereas in fact the two wives are outwitting both men; but the link between the Falstaff plot and the wooing plot is precisely that Mr and Mrs Page, who are impregnable against Falstaff, both blunder over their daughter's marriage because they attempt to use trickery against her and against each other. Similarly with the efflorescent sub-plots: Falstaff thinks he can reduce Pistol and Nym to mere messengers and they turn against him; when Dr Caius challenges Sir Hugh because the latter is helping Slender's suit, and the Host prides himself on having tricked the doctor and parson out of their duel, both league against the Host in reprisal, swindling him out of his horses—which in turn provokes the Host to help Fenton snatch the bride away from both of his scheming rivals. Meanwhile, Mrs Quickly encourages all three of Anne's suitors, tries to make them—and herself—believe she is indispensable, and accomplishes nothing for herself or any of them. In a sense, her bustling about is quite superfluous to the plot and a less talkative go-between would have served equally well. But Mrs Quickly helps to complete the pattern; imagining she is deceiving those around her, but chiefly fooling herself, she is a counterpart to Falstaff. Moreover, it is part of Shakespeare's joke that the audience cannot be quite sure which way some of the intrigues are tending; one sleight-of-hand serves to camouflage another.

At the same time, the two main plots are antithetical in moral substance and parallel in progression. One action deals with attempted adultery, the other with matchmaking; in one, lust is the cover for money, in the other, love triumphs over mercenary concerns. Falstaff, or 'bully Hercules' as the Host calls him (I.iii.6), is notable for his cowardice—which provides the fun of the discovery scenes at Ford's house. The other action is filled at first with the bellicose words of men of peace, the doctor, the parson and Justice Shallow (who, like Mrs Quickly, contributes to the pattern of characters over and above the intrigue). Some scenes, about a third of the play, deal with both actions in close proximity, while the rest alternate between one action or its sub-plots and the other, until both are tied together in the episode of the fairies' dance around Herne's oak. But meanwhile the two actions appear to move in opposite directions. In one, Falstaff, the central actor, begins the action, although his schemes recoil on himself; he is trying to gain something from the other characters. In the second, Anne, who is passive, is the central figure in the sense that she is the magnet who draws the others. It is plain from the outset what Falstaff's story will be like, or at latest it is plain from the moment when the two wives compare his letters (II.i), and the comic interest can only spring from variations on a declared theme. The theme of Anne and her rival suitors is no less familiar, and is heralded in the opening scene, but the form it will take is partly camouflaged by the sub-plot concerning the doctor's duel with the parson and their joint revenge on the Host. This sub-plot is sustained from I.iv to IV.v, while the tertius gaudens, Fenton, who has also been introduced early (I.iv), remains in the background, not meeting Anne on the stage until III.iv , the scene following the buck-basket episode, when the farcical interest of the first main plot has begun to quicken. Even then, the lovers' dialogue is soon interrupted, and it is not until IV.iv, in the scene at Ford's house where the dominant interest is the reconciliation between Ford and his wife and the hatching of another, general scheme against the fat knight, that the audience are given a hint of the form the conclusion of Anne's story will take, by means of a couple of short asides, from Page and his wife (IV.iv.72, 83).

A few details in Shakespeare's plan, in the horse-stealing business, for instance, may have been made to seem unduly cryptic because of a bad text. But there is no call for editorial theories of revision or the mangling of topical allusions. As it stands, the camouflage device is highly effective. In the first place, it allows the characters to meet at Ford's or Page's house, at Falstaff's inn, or in the street or the fields outside Windsor, without making it too obvious that they are propelled by the machinery of the plot. Such accidental-seeming encounters are part of the realistic scheme of Italian city comedies. Lyly had attempted something similar in the Rochester of Mother Bombie, but with more patent artifice; in several plays close in date to The Merry Wives, like Every Man in his Humour, this impression of everyday movement in the streets was evidently a sought-after dramatic effect.

Secondly, the camouflage provides for some suspense and gives the audience the pleasure of discovering a new spurt in the action just when it appears that the conclusion can be foreseen. This is precisely one of the main technical objects of an Italian double plot; and Shakespeare contributes to this result further by the way he manipulates Anne's three suitors. Caius blusters, but does not meet her directly; Slender woos her like a nincompoop; while Fenton at first seems to be relying on help from Mrs Quickly and does not show his hand to the audience (by approaching the Host for help) until late in the game ( By this time we know that Anne's parents have each begun their own plots, so that they seem to be helping Fenton against their will. And since Anne herself seems to make no move at all—an unusual passivity for a comic heroine in Shakespeare—her marriage when announced has the appearance (as Ford, now for once a consoler, soothingly tells her parents), of guidance from 'the heavens themselves' (V.v.219). In relation to her parents' scheming, it results in rounding off the pattern of the dupers duped. And this incidentally brings a grain of consolation to Falstaff, in the final release of forgiveness.

Shakespeare habitually works towards a finale much grander than in Roman or Italian comedies. In this case, he evidently wanted a closing device which would serve two purposes at once, to complete the gulling and punishment of Falstaff in public, and to cover the last moves in the wooing of Anne; at once an exorcism and a celebration. Hence, it would seem, his choice of the wives' third trick against Falstaff, with the knight wearing a stag's head as Herne the hunter—an implicit mockery of his effort to cuckold others—and the other actors in disguise as tormenting fairies dancing round him. But for the substance of the wives' trick Shakespeare turned back to the legend of Actaeon in one of his favourite books, Ovid's Metamorphoses, which he evidently knew well, in Latin and in Arthur Golding's translation (1567), and used extensively in his poems and again and again in his plays.7 In the Metamorphoses (III. 138-252), Actaeon, while hunting, accidentally comes upon Diana bathing, surrounded by her nymphs; the offended goddess changes him into a stag; and the poor mortal is torn to pieces by his own hounds. Shakespeare uses this legend several times. In A Midsummer Night's Dream it may have supplied some of Hippolyta's recollections (IV.i.109) of hunting with Cadmus (Actaeon's grandfather) with 'hounds of Sparta' in 'a wood of Crete', and the Latin text (III, 173) provided the name of Titania, an unusual alternative for Diana. In the Dream, Shakespeare also salutes the legend by inverting it, making the wood-enclosed goddess pursue the mortal and transforming the mortal into an ass. He probably recalls it again in As You Like It, through the First Lord's literary description (II.i) of the 'poor sequest'red stag' whose tears fall, like Actaeon's, into a brook; and he alludes to it more directly in Twelfth Night (Li), when Orsino's attendant invites him to hunt 'the hart', and the duke punningly replies:

Why, so I do, the noblest that I have.
O, when mine eyes did see Olivia first,
Methought she purg'd the air of pestilence!
That instant was 1 turn'd into a hart,
And my desires, like fell and cruel hounds,
E'er since pursue me.

Orsino's image of the hunter hunted is in line with the medieval and Renaissance tradition of Ovid moralised, and in The Merry Wives Shakespeare uses the legend in a similar way. Actaeon is mentioned twice in the course of the play (II.i.106 and III.ii.34) as the emblem of a cuckold; but the idea behind Falstaff's masquerade as the hunter wearing a stag's head could have been taken from Golding's moralistic interpretation of the legend, in his Epistle to Leicester:8

All such as doo in flattring freaks, and hawks, and hownds delyght,
And dyce, and cards, and for to spend the tyme both day and nyght
In foule excesse of chamberworke, or too much meate and drink:
Uppon the piteous storie of Acteon ought to think.
For theis and theyr adherents usde, excessive are indeed[;]
The dogs that dayly doo devour[,]theyr followers[-]on with speede.

'Fie on sinful fantasy', the Windsor fairies sing as they pinch and burn Falstaff; Ford mocks him by asking where the horns are now; and Falstaff is compelled 'to perceive that [he has] been made'—like Bottom—'an ass'. Shakespeare conceals his borrowing from the Actaeon legend behind Mrs Page's narration (IV.iv) of a local 'old tale'—apparently invented; but then at the beginning of the final scene, he makes Falstaff refer to other amatory metamorphoses, as if in compensation to Ovid:

Now the hot-blooded gods assist me! Remember, Jove, thou wast a bull for thy Europa; love set on thy horns. O powerful love! that in some respects makes a beast a man; in some other a man a beast. You were also, Jupiter, a swan, for the love of Leda. O omnipotent love! how near the god drew to the complexion of a goose! A fault done first in the form of a beast—O Jove, a beastly fault!—and then another fault in the semblance of a fowl—think on't, Jove, a foul fault! When gods have hot backs what shall poor men do? 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?

This is very much the style of Chaerea, in The Eunuch, and the first divine disguise Falstaff calls to mind is taken from the same legend of Europa ('the daughter of Agenor') that Lucentio had quoted in The Shrew. Here again, Shakespeare's ranges freely across Ovid's poetry, not for separate details but to link together a whole chain of images and ideas. And again the principle that unites the chain is the theme of the psychological transformation caused by love. Ovid enables Shakespeare to turn his action into something at once richer and stranger than any Italian comedy. On the other hand, he introduces the invented folklore of The Merry Wives with the same amused scepticism that the Italians reserved for stage magic; when Mrs Page has described the terrors inspired by Herne the Hunter, 'Sometime a keeper here in Windsor Forest', she adds,

You have heard of such a spirit, and well you know
The superstitious idle-headed eld
Receiv'd, and did deliver to our age,
This tale of Herne the Hunter for a truth;

on which her husband comments,

Why yet there want not many that do fear
In deep of night to walk by this Herne's oak.
But what of this?

'This', the first audiences would have been prompted to notice, was going to be magic of quite a different sort from that in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

During an Italian court entertainment Ovid's mythology would have figured separately in the intermezzi, not inside the comedy. The motif of transformation in A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Merry Wives typifies both the poetic and the theatrical divergences between Shakespeare and the earlier Renaissance playwrights. Shakespeare's art is even more self-conscious than the Italians'; he is not following their tradition but using it. Otherwise, however, the Dream and The Merry Wives show him exploiting the methods of the Italian double plot to the uttermost, with stories which he can be said to have invented. And in both plays he goes to the centre of the Italian tradition of comedy and the classical tradition behind it. In the Dream the happy ending is due principally to Fortune, in The Merry Wives, to trickery. But both plays are festival masquerades. And in both, the consequence of illusions is to restore what seems to be the right or natural course for love and domestic harmony. The masquerade changes the characters. . . .


1 See William Green (ed.), Merry Wives, in Complete Signet Classic Shakespeare, ed. Barnet, pp. 962-6.

2 Charles Gildon [1710] (quoted, Bullough, Sources, vol. II, p. 3).

3Cf Reinhardstoettner, Plautus, pp. 595ff; Boughner, The Braggart, pp. lOff.

4 Baldwin, Five-Act Structure, pp. 665, 684; and see above, pp. 115-17.

5 Bullough, Sources, vol. II, p. 9.

6Ibid. pp. 4ff.

7 Highet, Classical Tradition, pp. 116, 203-7; Whitaker, Shakespeare's Use of Learning, pp. 26, 64, 101, 104; cfBullough, Sources, vol. I, pp. 161, 179, 371, 373; vol. II, p. 17; vol. VI, pp. 12, 88.

8 Golding (trans.), Ovid's Metamorphoses, Epistle, lines 97ff, ed. Nims, p. 408.


Baldwin, T. W., Shakspere's Five-Act Structure (Urbana, 1947)

Boughner, Daniel, The Braggart in Renaissance Comedy (Minnesota, 1954)

Bullough, Geoffrey (ed.), Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, vols. I-VI (London, 1957-66)

The Complete Signet Classic Shakespeare, ed. Sylvan Barnet (New York, 1972)

Golding, Arthur (trans.), Ovid's Metamorphoses [1567], ed. John Frederick Nims (New York, 1965)

Highet, Gilbert, The Classical Tradition (London, 1967)

Reinhardstoettner, K. von, Plautus (Leipzig, 1886)

Whitaker, Virgil K., Shakespeare's Use of Learning (Huntingdon Library, 1953)

William C. Carroll (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "Falstaff and Ford: Forming and Reforming," in The Metamorphoses of Shakespearean Comedy, Princeton University Press, 1985, pp. 183-201.

[In the excerpt that follows, Carroll examines Falstaff's alteration in The Merry Wives of Windsor from what he was in the history plays. Carroll also emphasizes the role of deception in the play as the wives deceive the aging Falstaff and as both Falstaff and the jealous Ford deceive themselves.]

We should count ourselves fortunate that Shakespeare places the same character [Falstaff] in two quite different genres, in history play and comedy, instead of bemoaning the fact that Falstaff does not forever remain what he was in the great tavern scene in [Henry IV] Part One. Say a day without the ever. The comedies remake time by embracing metamorphosis, and, given that, Falstaff must eventually find himself in another land; in The Merry Wives of Windsor, in a relentlessly middle-class world, as we shall see, his metamorphic qualities continue in a different vein. On the whole, however, most modern readers have been disappointed in Falstaff's relocation to the suburbs. In a play which has been said to reveal Shakespeare's "bitter disillusionment,"3 and which has been termed "Shakespeare's most heartless farce,"4 Falstaff's share of the blame has been large. Indeed, in one formulation, Falstaff "has disqualified himself as a comic hero. He has let Shakespeare down."5 Too many readers have occupied themselves with noting the differences between this Falstaff ("A new character with an old name"6) and the bulkier, more enchanting figure of the Henriad. The Falstaff of Merry Wives is frequently described as an outright impostor, some other fat man who has somehow taken over the "old name" and body, but not the soul, of the "true Jack Falstaff."7 I have argued elsewhere that the play is a coherent work exploring the nature of the imagination, and that if it was overrated in the eighteenth century it has been underrated in the twentieth. The play represents a logical, perhaps inevitable, culmination of the question of metamorphosis, especially as it is revealed in Ford's curious relation to Falstaff in the play, and in Falstaff's sacrifice at the end.

A shadow of his former self, the Falstaff we meet in The Merry Wives of Windsor does seem to be suffering from the effects of a spiritual and sexual diet that has been all too effective. Like the advertiser's "after" picture, he is now, as the Pages describe him, "Old, cold, withered" (V.v.156). The threat he supposedly offers to the honor of the merry wives is never convincing, and they easily overtake and outwit the once nimble knight. Never have the phallic implications of Falstaff's name seemed more appropriate, for his staff has apparently fallen beyond all hope of tumescence. When Mistress Quickly defends Mistress Ford by saying "that was not her fault. She does so take on with her men; they mistook their erection," the irony of her malapropism (presumably for "direction") cannot fail to strike even Falstaff, who replies with a new sense of his limitations, "So did I mine, to build upon a foolish woman's promise" (III.v.37-41). His elaborate plot against the merry wives is wishful thinking more than anything else. But at least he has sense enough to make his motivation ultimately financial rather than sexual: "I will use her [Mistress Ford] as the key of the cuckoldy rogue's coffer, and there's my harvest-home" (II.ii.267-9). Page's ultimate taunt at the end is not that Falstaff is impotent, but that he is "as poor as Job" (V.v.158). That is the sterility best understood in the relentlessly middle-class world of Windsor. And Ford's final triumph is to demand not sexual but financial vengeance upon Falstaff. "Over and above that you have suffered, I think to repay that money will be a biting affliction" (V.v. 169-71). If these final insults seem to have relatively little effect, it is only because they seem to fall so wide of the more sensual Falstaff we have known in the Henry plays; the rules of the game seem to have been changed, as Shakespeare adopts a genre with quite different assumptions and associations.

It is made clear that Falstaff is a threat only to the extent that people think he is. Moreover, Ford is the only character in Merry Wives who considers him a threat, and thereby transforms him into one. Falstaff has retained his girth—he is still a "hodge-pudding . . . a bag of flax" (V.v. 154)—but even Pistol and Nym are able to trick him now. Only Ford succumbs to him, and Ford's deception is self-induced. Falstaff becomes a grotesque incarnation of Ford's worst fears, a comic monster, a priapic bogeyman conjured up by a runaway imagination. Like Orgoglio in The Faerie Queene, Falstaff is a decrepit windbag pumped up by his victim's error—by Ford's mania, what Evans terms his "fery fantastical humours and jealousies" (III.iii.164) and what we might term his transformational mania. When Ford's "humour" is exorcised and he comes to his senses, Falstaff is suddenly deflated.

Recent critics of the play have stressed its ritual elements, and described Falstaff as a scapegoat figure, reenacting a folk game Frazer called "Carrying Out Death."8 Falstaff's general impotence, moreover, indicates that his final punishment is partly, as J. A. Bryant, Jr. has observed, "directed at the expulsion of evil which was not entirely of his own generating."9 That is the very definition of the scapegoat's role—the embodiment of the sins or fears of the community, which will be purged once the scapegoat is driven off or sacrificed. Falstaff's role, as ever, leans toward allegory. The "reverend vice," "gray iniquity," and "father ruffian" of Henry IV, Part I (II.iv.458-9) attains the status of a full devil in Ford's mind, and the movement of Merry Wives indicates how it is Ford's mind that must be disenchanted, exorcized of a "devil" that represents an unsettling threat to the rest of society. Ford forms his suspicions and inclinations to arrive at Falstaphobia, then he must be re-formed to expunge the monster in his brain. At the end of the play, the entire community will transform Falstaff into an animal, exorcize his comic threat, and then invite him home to supper.

When we recall Falstaff's boast in Part II, "I am not only witty in myself, but the cause that wit is in other men," we recognize that his ability to ignite our imaginations, as he has incinerated Ford's, is exactly why we love Falstaff. But rather than a positive virtue in Windsor, "wit" is a potentially subversive power to be repressed and channeled.10 "Wit" is one of the chief agents of transformation, internal and external, and the stolid middle-class folk of Windsor will have none of it. Falstaff poses a threat to their rigid and comfortable social order, and such a threat to safely established boundaries cannot be tolerated. At the end of Merry Wives the defeated Falstaff is made to utter a sententious maxim more characteristic of the inhabitants of Windsor: "See now how wit may be made a Jack-a-Lent, when 'tis upon ill employment!" (V.v. 129-31) The exhortation is directed to the Windsorites as much as it is to the audience.

Ford cannot get Falstaff out of his mind because Falstaff embodies everything that Ford has repressed and that threatens him most. At the first fruitless search of Ford's house, Page chides Ford: "Are you not ashamed? What spirit, what devil suggests this imagination?" (III.iii. 207-9), and Evans theorizes that Ford suffers from a "pad conscience" (Ill.iii.212). After the second fruitless search of the house, Evans returns to the theme of demonic possession: "Master Ford, you must pray, and not follow the imaginations of your own heart. This is jealousies" (IV.ii. 151-2). With this allusion to Jeremiah 13:10, Evans seeks to explain Ford's disturbance by the agency of external forces. But the play insists on internal turbulence instead:

FORD. Well, he's not here I seek for.
PAGE. No, nor nowhere else but in your brain.

(IV.ii. 153-4)

The wives agree with Page's analysis. When Mistress Ford asks of the just-cudgeled Falstaff, "Shall we tell our husbands how we have served him?" Mistress Page replies, "Yes, by all means—if it be but to scrape the figures out of your husband's brains" (IV.ii.207-10). This image equates an internal change with a physical one, as if Mistress Page was turning a pumpkin into a jack-a-lantern.

Ford has all along had an unhealthy predisposition to "figures" and "imaginings," for his jealous humor slides all too easily into paranoia, the rabid imagination transforming all outward signs into monsters and gargoyles. When Ford and Page first hear of Falstaff's intentions toward their wives, their very different reactions are set in apposition:

PAGE. If he [Falstaff] 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.
FORD. 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.


Page's loose style indicates a mind at ease. The "i f clause refers not even to his wife's infidelity, but to the issue of whether Falstaff has such intentions at all; his hortatory conclusion shows the extent of his confidence. Ford's paratactic nervousness, by contrast, jumps from assumption to assumption, as the hypothetical gives way to deluded declaratives, and the feeble double negative "not misdoubt" emotionally betrays the logically positive affirmation. Ford thus plays Iago to his own Othello: he's divided against himself, fearing the dread deforming horns upon his forehead which Page is confident of avoiding. When Ford, disguised as his watery namesake Brook, makes his self-cuckolding proposal to Falstaff, all logic has been overturned.

Another index of Ford's susceptibility to delusional transformation is found in the references to the "witch" of Brainford. The name of the town almost too obviously suggests the witch's origin in Ford's brain. Here we find the kind of imaginative complicity which helps create metamorphosis. To commonsensical Mistress Ford, this unseen woman is merely "My maid's aunt, the fat woman of Brainford." Significantly, Falstaff, that other emanation of Ford's brain, is disguised in her clothing. But of all the characters in the play, only Ford believes her to be a witch, as his wife explains: "I would my husband would meet him [Falstaff] in this shape. He cannot abide the old woman of Brainford; he swears she's a witch, forbade her my house, and hath threat'ned to beat her" (IV.ii. 80-3). When Ford does learn that "she" is in his house, he becomes more hysterical (it is only a matter of degree by now): "She comes of errands, does she? We are simple men; we do not know what's brought to pass under the profession of fortunetelling. She works by charms, by spells, by th' figure, and such daubery as this is, beyond our element; we know nothing. Come down, you witch, you hag, you; come down, I say!" (IV.ii. 167-73). The transformation here is completely internal, for Falstaff has become the witch not through his own talent at mimickry but through the "figures" of Ford's brain. By beating Falstaff in the "witch's" clothing, Ford is cudgeling both phantoms of his brain at the same time, but his exorcism still has a further course to run.

Ford's encounter with the witch of Brainford marks an important turning point in Merry Wives. He rushes offstage in a frenzy, but when we next see him, just forty lines later, he is much changed. His mania has vanished: "Pardon me, wife. Henceforth do what thou wilt. / I rather will suspect the sun with cold / Than thee with wantonness" (IV.iv.6-8). His sudden conversion, like Oliver's at the end of As You Like It, is only as arbitrary as the cause of his mania in the first place; Ford describes his former self (already in the third person) as "him that was of late an heretic," but now "as firm as faith" in the belief of his wife's honor. Yet his claim to an absolute change is suspect, and something of the old disease lingers, as Page warns: "'Tis well, 'tis well; no more. / Be not as extreme in submission as in offense" (IV.iv.9-11). Whatever happened offstage (and the play offers no explanation), it is clear that the encounter with the "witch" represents the extremity of Ford's delusion. Middle-class Windsor may have been more susceptible to such superstition—we have already heard Evans suggesting possession as the cause of Ford's disease—but the play has everywhere stressed that Ford is alone, and without foundation, in his beliefs, a perfect study in uncontrollable transformational mania. The humor of it never fails, as audiences well know, but the same deranged imaginings will later be uttered more ominously by Othello and Leontes.

Ford's encounters with Falstaff become progressively more grotesque throughout the play, his delusions more absurd, and Falstaff's means of escape correspondingly more ludicrous. When Ford is about to break up the second attempted tryst, the "witch" Falstaff desperately seeks a hiding place: "What shall I do? I'll creep up into the chimney." To which the wives reply, "There they always use to discharge their birding-pieces." "Creep into the kilnhole" (IV.ii.50-4). This exchange is a windfall for Freudian analysis. All of the hiding places which are suggested are dream-displaced images of female sexuality—"press, coffer, chest, trunk, well, vault." According to his wife, Ford "hath an abstract for the remembrance of such places and goes to them by his note." Of course: where else does one go in a dream? This passage also suggests that Ford knows these places by book or rote rather than experience. Mistress Ford concludes, "There is no hiding you [Falstaff] in the house" (IV.ii.50-60). Nor outside, either. The only way out for Falstaff is by sexual disguise, so that Ford's brain will not recognize its own creation; the female emanation temporarily displaces the male specter. Although succubus takes over for incubus, the implications are the same. Falstaff's "disguise" in woman's clothing, moreover, is completely ludicrous, a monstrous parody of women disguising as men so common in the other comedies; but here is no spunky Ganymede or light-toed Cesario. This disguise succeeds with Ford but doesn't deceive anyone else; at the end of the play, amid other discoveries and revelations, we will see, by contrast, how other disguises achieve mimetic transformation—how we were deceived.

Ford eventually gains control of himself, but Falstaff, like Frankenstein's monster, is still on the loose, a too-visible reminder of folly and sexual license. Ford's conversion precedes Falstaff's humiliation by a full act, and the rest of the play turns on how best to reform Falstaff (if such a thing is possible), an action on which the Anne-Fenton plot turns as well. Mistress Ford's suggestion that Falstaff crawl into the "kilnhole" takes us far in the direction of ritual, or at least fairytale. The play frequently reminds us, through Falstaff's links with ritual, of the animal nature of man—first Falstaff is a presumably tumescent buck, then a whimpering scapegoat—and it is precisely this animal-human boundary which the Windsorites want kept firm. It turns out that the Windsorites' way of dealing with Falstaff's "wit," his powers of transformation, is to turn the same energies against him, and in the second half of Merry Wives Falstaff is metamorphosed into a sacrificial animal himself. This fat Proteus suddenly turns into just another of Circe's victims, as his gigantic desires make him another victim of love's transforming powers. Falstaff's transformation is hugely comic, as Bottom's metamorphosis was, but it is edgy and uneasy, as if the ritual were to be real and Falstaff truly killed. Even in the Henriad, we recall, Falstaff was increasingly associated with animals, the "roasted Manningtree ox with the pudding in his belly" (I, II.iv.457-8) served up for sacrifice in Part I the "huge hill of flesh" (I, II.iv.245) ready to be quartered and roasted. By Part II he is explicitly a sacrificial beef, the "martlemas" (77, II.ii.100)11 and, in Doll Tearsheet's phrase, a "whoreson little tidy Bartholomew boar-pig" (II, II.iv.234). On both Martinmas Day (November 11) and St. Bartholomew's Day (August 24), the young animal, specially fattened up, would be slaughtered. "Doth the old boar feed in the old frank?" asks Hal (II, II.ii. 145-6); but more to the point is the question, who is going to feed on the old boar? To catalogue all the animal imagery associated with Falstaff would be to stand like Adam naming the beasts, and it is already clear that Falstaff—"this whale," as Mistress Ford says, thrown "with so many tuns of oil in his belly, ashore at Windsor" (II.i.63-4)—represents an aspect of man that Ford, and the others, would prefer to suppress. No wonder that the quelling of Falstaff has so many primitive, even savage, undertones.

As an emblem and agent of wit, Falstaff has embodied the possibilities, comic but often dangerous, of change and transformation. Circean energies represent the greatest threat, but more frequent is a simple fear of disruption and change in Windsor. Ford has fallen away from an implied better self and must be re-formed and brought back to it. Falstaff would overturn all sorts of social institutions, not the least of which is marriage, and must be re-formed. Above all, Falstaff is, in his own words, "a man of continual dissolution and thaw" (III.v.111-12), continually renewing himself and reinventing his relation to those around him. Eventually he will maintain that he has "suffered more for their [the women's] sakes—more than the villainous inconstancy of man's disposition is able to bear" (IV.v. 105-6). It is just this "inconstancy," Falstaff's natural condition, which is a threat to the rest of Windsor and which must be harnessed. Shape-shifting is bad form.

After, but only after, Ford's great awakening, when Falstaff's dream-like power vaporizes, the fat knight begins to fear his own metamorphosis, and now turning passive victim, he loses control of this slippery energy. "I would all the world might be cozened," he says, "for I have been cozened and beaten too. If it should come to the ear of the court how I have been transformed, and how my transformation hath been washed and cudgeled, they would melt me out of my fat drop by drop, and liquor fishermen's boots with me" (IV.v.90-6). This punishment is both comic and scary. Surrounded in the forest, Falstaff cowers in fear of still another kind of "dissolution": "Heavens defend me from that Welsh fairy, lest he transform me to a piece of cheese" (V.v.83-4).

In one sense, such a transformation would be a desirable means of escape. Falstaff enters the final scene disguised as Herne the Hunter, "with a buck's head upon him, " and he invokes the Ovidian tradition of metamorphosis to justify his condition: "Remember, Jove, thou wast a bull for thy Europa; love set on thy horns. O powerful love, that in some respects makes a beast a man; in some other, a man a beast. You were also, Jupiter, a swan for the love of Leda. O omnipotent love, how near the god drew to the complexion of a goose!" (V.v.3-8). This choric commentary reflects on much that has happened in the play, and looks back as well to such different comedies of metamorphosis as Love's Labour's Lost and A Midsummer Night's Dream. "Omnipotent" Love is the agent of change that has brought Falstaff to this ludicrous state as a comic monster, and love's darkest side—fanatic,...

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Elizabethan Society

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Rosemary Kegl (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: "'The Adoption of Abominable Terms': The Insults That Shape Windsor's Middle Class," in ELH, Vol. 61, No. 2, Summer, 1994, pp. 253-78.

[In the essay that follows, Kegl notes that the specific insults traded by the characters within the play serve to define various social groups and hierarchies within Elizabethan society.]


I take the title of this essay from Francis Ford's first soliloquy in The Merry Wives of Windsor.1 Misconstruing his wife's merriment as unfaithfulness, the distracted Ford laments:

See the hell of having a...

(The entire section is 19336 words.)

Satire And Scapegoating

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Marjorie Dunlavy Lewis (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: "The Ingenious Compliment: A Consideration of Some Devices and Episodes in The Merry Wives of Windsor" in Studies in Medieval, Renaissance, American Literature; a Festschrift, Texas Christian University Press, 1971, pp. 64-72.

[In the following essay, Lewis argues that The Merry Wives of Windsor was meant to pay tribute to the Queen's noblemen and their chivalric code of love and honor by satirizing those who falsely claim to be chivalrous.]

When an Elizabethan playwright had the task of providing a script to be presented before an audience of noblemen who were being celebrated for...

(The entire section is 17237 words.)


(Shakespearean Criticism)

Jeanne Addison Roberts (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: "'The Merry Wives of Windsor' as a Hallowe'en Play," in Shakespeare Survey: An Annual Survey of Shakespearian Study and Production, Vol. 25, 1972, pp. 107-112.

[In the following essay, Roberts suggests that The Merry Wives of Windsor is set during the festival of Hallowe'en and thus acts as a transition from the spring-like Falstaff of 1 Henry IV to the wintry, aging Falstaff of 2 Henry IV]

In trying to define the mood and the artistic movement of Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor, it is provocative to imagine what the season of the setting ought to be. Since much of...

(The entire section is 3461 words.)

Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Beiner, G. "The Libido as Pharmakos, or The Triumph of Love: The Merry Wives of Windsor in the Context of Comedy," in Orbis Litterarum, Vol. 43, No. 3, 1988, pp. 195-216.

Observes that the aging, lascivious Falstaff is treated as a "pharmakos" or scapegoat who must be punished and symbolically cast out so that jealousy might be dispersed and order restored through young love and marital fidelity.

Ericksoii, Peter. "The Order of the Garter, the Cult of Elizabeth, and Class-Gender Tension in The Merry Wives of Windsor." In Shakespeare Reproduced: The Text in History and Ideology, edited by Jean E. Howard and Marion F....

(The entire section is 461 words.)