The Merry Wives of Windsor
Long dismissed as one of Shakespeare's lesser accomplishments, The Merry Wives of Windsor has been reassessed by modern critics who have found the play to be a more interesting work than earlier commentators. The plot centers on the attempts of Falstaff to seduce the two “merry wives,” the Mistresses Ford and Page. When Falstaff's efforts are discovered, the wives form an elaborate scheme designed to humiliate him. Falstaff is the focus of much critical attention; his relationship to the Falstaff character of the Henry IV plays, as well as his role as an outsider and element of disorder within the Windsor community are of particular interest to modern scholars. Because the play focuses on English middle-class society, critics are often drawn to analysis of the social hierarchies, domesticity, and gender roles in the play, which are explored and assessed within the context of Elizabethan social order and concerns. The Merry Wives of Windsor has been a continued success on the stage, and modern productions aim to exploit the play's various comic attractions.
The Merry Wives of Windsor has often been dismissed as farce. Jeanne Addison Roberts (1979) concedes that while the play does contain elements of farce, it transcends this genre in its many complexities. Roberts finds the plot artfully contrived and that the play's structure reflects a simplified, ordered life, not the randomness of farce. The critic also notes that while the characters may be types, this does not make them farcical. The character at the center of much of the critical discussion and debate concerning the play is Falstaff. Roberts (1973) assesses the critical treatment of Falstaff and the concern with the Windsor Falstaff's relation to the Falstaff of the Henry IV plays. Roberts explains that while neoclassicists were more concerned with morality than with character analyses, Romantic critics either adopted a sympathetic attitude toward Falstaff, or rejected the notion that he was the same man depicted in Henry IV, Parts One and Two. Later Romantics, or Romantic Victorians as Roberts refers to them, likewise found the Windsor Falstaff to be inferior to the Henry IV Falstaff, but observed that he was not different enough to be viewed as a separate character. Roberts's own view reflects that of many modern critics and concurs with the assessment of many Romantic Victorians: the character in all three plays is essentially the same person. Edward Berry (2001) maintains that the Falstaff of the Henry IV plays is linked to the Falstaff of Merry Wives of Windsor through the issues of poaching and social rebellion. Berry explores Falstaff's role within The Merry Wives of Windsor, demonstrating the ways in which Falstaff, as a poacher and a fallen knight, poses a threat to society and emphasizes the conflict between the court and the Windsor bourgeois society. Berry also comments on the anti-patriarchal nature of the comic revenge Falstaff suffers at the hands of the wives.
Like Berry, Jeffrey Theis (2001) seizes upon the significance of the play's treatment of poaching. Theis contends that poaching serves as a trope through which the issues of class hierarchies, gender roles, and conflict between generations may be explored, and demonstrates the ways in which poaching is used as a metaphor within the play for the usurpation of control over property. This includes, according to Elizabethan notions of property, a husband's control over his wife and parental control over children. Theis maintains that the play's treatment of poaching as a dramatic illustration of an act of transgression reveals the arbitrary nature of society's conception of property. Similarly interested in the play's examination of social and gender issues, Wendy Wall (2001) uses the play's treatment of fairylore to explore its attitudes toward domesticity and class conflict. Citizens disguised as fairies appear at the end of The Merry Wives of Windsor under the direction of the Mistresses Ford and Page, who have orchestrated an elaborate revenge designed to humiliate Falstaff. Wall contends that the disciplining of Falstaff by the fairies reveals a concern with the protection of property and social authority from violation by the upper classes. Additionally, Wall maintains, the fact that the play is so heavily concerned with commerce, industry, and work underscores the importance of the fairies' regard for housework. Wall further argues that the play presents housewifery as essential to community structure and suggests that the men in the play have distorted a genuine middle-class belief in the connection between work and social life.
While social order and gender roles are the focus of many critical analyses of the play, modern stage productions often center instead on The Merry Wives of Windsor's lightheartedness and comic value. John Bemrose (1995) reviews a Stratford Festival production of the play directed by Richard Monette and Antoni Cimolino, and finds that too much of the comic subtlety in the play was overstated. Rod Dungate (1997), reviewing the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of the play, directed by Ian Judge, comments that the pace was appropriately swift and that the cast was greatly energetic. Dungate finds Judge's take on the play fresh and interesting. Aline Waites (1998) assesses the same production, directed by Judge, noting that the production ran a bit long but was considerably “jolly.” Anita Gates (2000) describes the proper approach to staging The Merry Wives of Windsor as “adorably silly,” and praises the Pearl Theater Company's production for achieving this effect under the direction of James Alexander Bond.