William Shakespeare The Adoption of Abominable Terms: The Insults That Shape Windsor's Middle Class

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The Adoption of Abominable Terms: The Insults That Shape Windsor's Middle Class

(Shakespearean Criticism)

"The Adoption of Abominable Terms": The Insults That Shape Windsor's Middle Class

Rosemary Kegl, University of Rochester


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 false woman! My bed shall be abus'd, my coffers ransack'd, my reputation gnawn at, and I shall not only receive this villainous wrong, but stand under the adoption of abominable terms, and by him that does me this wrong. Terms! names! Amaimon sounds well; Lucifer, well; Barbason, well; yet they are devils' additions, the names of fiends; but Cuckold! Wittol!—Cuckold! the devil himself hath not such a name.

I will prevent this, detect my wife, be reveng'd on Falstaff, and laugh at Page. I will about it; better three hours too soon than a minute too late. Fie, fie, fie! cuckold, cuckold, cuckold! (2.2.29, 1-300, 310-14)

In this passage, Ford tests a series of interchangeable selfdesignations—Amaimon, Lucifer, Barbason—before settling upon the term to which his own particular hell entitles him: cuckold. It is a term that he prematurely adopts in order to distinguish himself from the "wittol," from the foolish husband who would knowingly endure his wife's infidelity. Ford announces that Alice Ford's adultery would threaten his control over her sexuality, over his wealth, and, most unendurably, over his good name. He emphasizes that she is his property and, more specifically, that she is property with which she cannot be entrusted. He does so by marshalling a string of proverbial insults about those who make "fritters of English" (5.5.143). "I will rather trust a Fleming with my butter," he says, "Parson Hugh the Welshman with my cheese, an Irishman with my aqua-vitae bottle, or a thief to walk my ambling gelding, than my wife with herself" (2.2.302-5). Ford pledges to diminish the threat of an "abus'd" bed by publicizing his wife's plans. He seals that pledge by reiterating the single, abominable term to which his identity has been reduced: "Cuckold, cuckold, cuckold!"

Although Ford's fellow inhabitants of Windsor do not share his disruptive jealousy, they do share his preoccupation with the terms that designate their shifting and uneven relationships to one another. As the play's opening lines indicate, that preoccupation frequently takes the form of a perpetual naming and self-naming:

Shallow: Sir Hugh, persuade me not; I will make
  a Star Chamber matter of it. If he were twenty
  Sir John Falstaffs, he shall not abuse Robert
  Shallow, esquire.
Slender: In the county of Gloucester, Justice of
  Peace and Coram.
Shallow: Ay, cousin Slender, and Custa-lorum.
Slender: Ay, and Rato-lorum too; and a
  gentleman born, Master Parson, who writes
  himself Armigero, in any bill, warrant,
  quittance, or obligation, Armigero.

I begin my analysis of The Merry Wives of Windsor by citing these passages because I am interested in the terms that the play's characters adopt and impose upon one an-other. As each passage's emphasis upon abuse indicates, insults are central to this process of naming the relation-ships among Windsor's inhabitants. Accounts of Renaissance slander and defamation cases and accounts of Renaissance shaming rituals, such as the skimmington and the charivari, describe how insults also were central to a larger process of establishing the shifting authority relations among state, local, and ecclesiastical officials.2 By focusing on Shallow and Sir Hugh Evans—the play's justice of the peace and parson—and by focusing on the history of Windsor and of its castle, I locate the play's network of insults within this larger social process. Within this framework, I examine how Shakespeare's "abominable terms" promote collective identities—"townsmen" and "gentlemen"—which participate in Renaissance struggles over absolutism and between...

(The entire section is 11,276 words.)