The Merry Wives of Windsor
Long dismissed as one of Shakespeare's lesser accomplishments, The Merry Wives of Windsor (c. 1597-98) has been reassessed by modern critics who have found the play to be one the most exuberant and entertaining of Shakespeare's comedies. The plot centers on the attempts of Sir John 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. A well-known anecdote claims that the play was written in two weeks at the request of Queen Elizabeth, who had so enjoyed the character of Falstaff in the Henry IV plays that she requested Shakespeare compose another play depicting the fat knight in love. Critics have remained keenly interested in the character of Falstaff, particularly his relationship to the Falstaff of the Henry IV plays. Many scholars have expressed disappointment with the comedy's characterization of Sir John, maintaining that the play trivializes the complex character presented in the Henry IV plays. Commentators are also interested in the play's unique representation of the everyday life of the English middle-class, and appreciate the glimpse into Elizabethan society that the play offers. Although not well received by literary critics, The Merry Wives of Windsor has proven irresistible on the stage; the play was popular with its original audiences and remains a favorite with modern audiences as well.
Falstaff's characterization in The Merry Wives of Windsor is a major area of critical concern. In his 1959 essay, Allan Gilbert traces connections between the character of Falstaff as it was presented in the Henry IV plays with his portrayal in Merry Wives, noting that although Falstaff's character changed, there is a consistency of character across all three plays that cannot be dismissed. Gilbert also argues that the Falstaff of Merry Wives should not be compared to the Falstaff of Henry IV, primarily because the latter is a history, while the former is a comedy. Taking a similar view, A. L. Bennett (1970) argues that the shift to comedy necessitated Shakespeare's radical change in the character of Falstaff, from the “ready and resourceful, the irrepressible” Sir John of Henry IV to the “amorous buffoon” of Merry Wives. Roy Battenhouse (see Further Reading) analyzes Falstaff's character across all three plays, concluding that the character is a complex combination of court fool and charitable honesty and that the knight ultimately represents a covertly Christian spirit. Paul N. Siegel (1976) studies Falstaff's character from a Marxist literary perspective and explores his place in Elizabethan society. According to Siegel, Falstaff is a “representative of the enduring spirit of ordinary humanity coping through the ages with the knocks of a rough world.”
The Merry Wives of Windsor's popularity throughout its stage history rests on its fast-paced action, broad physical humor, situational irony, and eccentric characters. In his review of Lillian Groag's 2001 Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of the play, Michael W. Shurgot (2001) remarks that the production was a “three-hour marathon of sight gags, pratfalls, and petty stuff.” William Green reviews the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's 2002 staging of the play, also directed by Lillian Groag, and contends that the production fulfilled Shakespeare's aim of “writing a play to entertain” and praises the colorful costumes, happy mood, and setting. Many directors have taken a less traditional approach to the play, often staging it as a musical or in unique settings. Russell Jackson (2003) reviews Rachel Kavanaugh's 2002 Royal Shakespeare Company production of The Merry Wives of Windsor and notes its post-World War II setting. According to the critic, the setting conveyed the “confident rhetoric of the period.” Robert L. Daniels (2003) praises director Victoria Liberatori's 2003 production of The Merry Wives of Windsor, particularly her contemporary Princeton setting and hip curtain call, which “very nearly had the audience dancing on the amphitheater steps.” Reviewing the 2001 Ohio Theater musical adaptation of the play titled Lone Star Love, Chris Jones (2001) lauds director Michael Bogdanov's adaptation of the play as “funny, melodic, and crowd-pleasing.”
Recent criticism of The Merry Wives of Windsor has also addressed such issues as the play's sources, genre, and the role of women. Bennett, after a careful consideration of the theme, characters, and general structure of The Merry Wives of Windsor, contends that the old English comedy Ralph Roister Doister was the primary source for the main plot of Merry Wives. Philip D. Collington (2000) argues that The Merry Wives of Windsor is a parody of the genre of domestic tragedy, a genre popular in Shakespeare's day in which the protagonists are ordinary middle class or lower class citizens. Collington compares The Merry Wives with a lesser-known domestic tragedy, the anonymous A Warning for Fair Women, and claims that although the play was not a source, it represents “cultural and generic phenomena that Shakespeare incorporates and parodies in his comedy.” Discussing the role of women in the play, Sandra Clark (1987) contends that the women of Merry Wives work to destroy stereotypical conceptions of women with their wit, which “operates as a means of obtaining revenge for women against the insults offered to their honesty by the male vices of lust and jealousy, and also as a way of restoring to the community the values of order and domestic stability.”