The Merry Wives of Windsor
While The Merry Wives of Windsor has generally remained popular in performance, this comedy of the ne'er-do-well knight Falstaff and his disastrous efforts to romance two clever city housewives has not always been well received by literary critics. According to T.W. Craik (1989), the play fell into disregard early in the nineteenth century when critics dismissed it in favor of thematically complicated Shakespearean comedies such as Twelfth Night. Critics have since charged that the Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor is a pathetic caricature of the crafty Falstaff in the Henry IV plays. This objection was reinforced by those who believed that the play was written not out of inspiration but in answer to Queen Elizabeth's command that Shakespeare write a play showing the fat knight in love. More recently, however, literary critics have begun to reexamine the play's sources and overall structure and now place a higher value on its comic variety and its portrayal of Elizabethan society.
Both Giorgio Melchiori (1994) and Barbara Freedman (1994) cast doubt on the argument that The Merry Wives of Windsor is a so-called “occasional” play that had been ordered by the Queen for a courtly celebration. Indeed, Freedman suggests that the comedy is too rich in topical references to have been written for any single occasion, and that what is in fact more interesting about the play is the manner in which it reveals Shakespeare's virtuosity in applying the current events of his time in an engaging way to traditional comedic forms. The precise nature of these comedic forms is examined by G. Beiner (1988) and Robert S. Miola (1993). Beiner describes Falstaff as a “pharmakos” or potential threat to the community of the play—one that has to be united against and routed so that the final act can resolve itself into a “festive celebration” of marriage between Fenton and Anne Page. Further, Beiner asserts that Falstaff's role as pharmakos is important to Shakespeare's works overall because it firmly connects The Merry Wives of Windsor with other plays such as Twelfth Night, where the “malcontent” Malvolio likewise serves to draw the play to a festive close. While literary critic Miola remains unimpressed with the comedic resolution to The Merry Wives of Windsor, describing it as “flawed” and at times “badly garbled,” he nevertheless credits Shakespeare for incorporating a variety of European comedic forms into the play which are then used to greater advantage in his comedy All's Well That Ends Well.
Finally, several critics have focused on The Merry Wives of Windsor as representative of Elizabethan urban life. For example, while R.S. White (1991) acknowledges that the characters make very conscious references to themselves as participants in the artificial world of a play, he adds that the setting of this play is a very realistic portrayal of sixteenth-century London life and examines how it differed from the rural life beyond the town. Camille Wells Slights (1985) also looks at the play's juxtaposition of urban and rural, arguing that in the cynical London setting of the play, idealized “pastoral values” are achieved when Fenton and Anne Page ultimately ask her parents to bless their marriage. Alternatively, Charles Stanley Ross (1994) sees the play’s setting in a more ambiguous light. He argues that fraud is the focus of The Merry Wives of Windsor, and the fraudulent practices reflect the ambiguous morals of Renaissance society. The critic also notes that in his attempt to cheat the wives, Falstaff is the most flagrant practitioner of fraud in the play.