The Merry Wives of Windsor The Merry Wives of Windsor (Vol. 71)
by William Shakespeare

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

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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...

(The entire section is 64,821 words.)