The Merry Wives of Windsor was probably written for a ceremonial occasion and it is clearly intended primarily as an entertainment. Unlike such earlier comedies as The Comedy of Errors and The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Merry Wives is not colored by any possibility of serious unhappiness that must be forestalled. In this respect, it is the shallowest Comedy of Shakespeare's plays, and it is therefore sometimes thought of as an unimportant diversion in Shakespeare's development, an essentially trivial work that does not warrant attention. However, the play's success on the stage—historical and current—has affirmed its value, and modern commentators have increasingly found it to be a particularly interesting work.
The Merry Wives is a variation on a medieval moral tale, and thus it draws on the theatrical traditions of Shakespeare's day. But Shakespeare added contemporary elements; it is the only one of his works to focus exclusively on English life in his own time. Moreover, in The Merry Wives the playwright gave the initiative in the play's plot to the wives, rather than to male characters, as was normal in earlier comedies, including his own. This points intriguingly to the prominence of heroines in his later comedies.
As a moral tale The Merry Wives recounts the triumph of domestic values over the threat of corruption brought in by an outsider, Falstaff, whose amoral selfishness is contrasted with the communal solidarity of the townspeople and whose status as a courtier makes him a social alien. In an ancient tradition, known in Shakespeare's day through both Roman drama and the medieval Morality Play, satirical comedy exposed human foibles by making fun of them. The happy resolution that defines the genre usually consisted in precisely the sort of humiliation and forgiveness that befall Falstaff in the play. Thus Shakespeare applied a familiar formula, immediately understood by his audience and so self-evident in its intentions that subsequent readers and theatre-goers have responded just as instinctively.
The play also offers another sort of tale, a standard plot in Elizabethan Comedy: the triumph of young lovers—Anne Page and Fenton—over the machinations of the girl's parents and her mercenary suitors. The final comic resolution of this story buttresses that of the Falstaff plot. Moreover, the double denouement is both forecast and supported by the sub-plot of the enmity and reconciliation of Caius and Evans, whose proposed duel is defused by the collective efforts of various townspeople. Thus the play's theme—the power of good over evil—is developed in several mutually reinforcing ways.
The contempory feel for The Merry Wives is one of its strikingly novel features. In this work, as in the Henry IV plays, written at almost exactly the same time, Shakespeare dramatises his own world with unprecedented theatrical realism. He doubtless created the Boar’s Head Tavern in 1 Henry IV to strengthen that play's historical themes by associating them with a more mundane aspect of English society. In The Merry Wives, which is concerned solely with entertainment, historical markers are almost nonexistent (although a few references are made—e.g., in 3.2.66-67—to the world of Henry IV), and the entire play is a detailed slice of Elizabethan rural life. The characters enjoy such country entertainments as greyhound racing (1.1.81-89) and hunting with small hawks (3.3.214-
215); they are familiar with stiles (3.1.32), goose-pens (3.4.40), bilberries (5.5.46), and the ways of the cuckoo (2.1.121). The specific geographical references—Frogmore (2.3.81), Eton (4.5.63), Datchet Mead (3.3.12), Herne's oak in Windsor Forest (4.4.53)—lend great realism to the play's setting. More sophisticated tastes are also provided for in the literary humor of William's Latin lesson (4.1) and in the inside jokes about the Count of Mompelgard in 4.3 and 4.5, accessible only to the highest ranks of courtly society. Also, several minor jests involve quotations from the works of Sidney and Marlowe, requiring an educated familiarity with contemporary literature, although Shakespeare's audience will have recognised these references much more readily than modern readers can.
Despite its innovativeness, the play was also conspicuously part of the contemporary vogue for the Comedy of Humors, in which social types are represented by boldly identifiable characters, each sporting a notable eccentricity of speech or behavior. Most of the secondary figures in The Merry Wives exhibit such traits: Evans and Caius each speak with a comic foreign dialect—Welsh and French respectively. Pistol is an archetypal swaggerer. Slender a foolish bumpkin, the Host a jovial glad hander, Ford, though more humanly complex, belongs to a very ancient tradition, that of the unreasonably jealous husband. Even Falstaff takes on the role of a character type, the unsuccessful lecher, although his motive in approaching the wives is actually mercenary.
The play's many comic characters are ranged around Falstaff, who, although he is a less masterful figure than in the Henry IV plays, is nonetheless as brassy, zestful, and humorously rhetorical as ever, brandishing language like a torch to baffle and confuse his intended victims. The difference is that in The Merry Wives he does not succeed, even temporarily. He is a comic butt, destined from the outset to be defeated by the forthright and faithful wives. That the resourceful rogue of Henry IV, Part 1 should be so easily bested, not just once but three times, has been regretted by some, who see in Falstaff's downfall the trivialization of a great comic figure. However, in The Merry Wives Falstaff’s function is different. He is not placed in contrast with a historical plot involving politics and war, a circumstance that gives his wit extraordinary resonance in the Henry IV plays; here, he has an almost abstract, allegorical role, as the spirit of malevolence that, while comic and releasing, must be roundly crushed. The ¥a\staff of The Merry Wives has been seen as similar to the scapegoat, a sacrificial animal of pre-Christian religious traditions, who is figuratively laden with the misdeeds of the people and then released into the wilderness or killed, taking with it the sins of the community. Certainly 5.5 is suggestive of such rites, which were still remembered and understood in Shakespeare's day, having disappeared only recently—they may, in fact, have still been alive in the remotest parts of Britain. In any case, at the close of the play, Falstaff's humiliation is mitigated by the fact that Page and his wife have also been foiled in their plans for Anne, and the fat villain is included in the final forgiveness and good cheer that embody the spirit of Shakespearean comedy.
The Merry Wives anticipates Shakespeare's later work in its emphasis on women. While the wives, comfortably settled in middle-aged domesticity, are not much like the bold and venturesome heroines that the playwright was soon to create—Beatrice (Much Ado About Nothing), Rosalind (As You Like It), Viola (Twelfth Night), and Helena (All's Well That Ends Well)—they nonetheless prefigure them. They are clearly the most sensible and competent people in Shakespeare's Windsor. They know who they are, and they firmly assert themselves; we are left in no doubt that they are 'merry, and yet honest too', as Mistress Page says (4.2.96). Falstaff's greed is the first stimulus to the plot, but the wives are his target precisely because they are the important figures in their households, and the initiative in the plot's development lies squarely with them. They repeatedly lead Falstaff on—and thus, indirectly, Ford—although the men think they are imposing their wills on the world. The wives' vigor is evident not only in the execution of their plans but in their language: for instance, Mistress Page passes boldly from technological to classical to sexual imagery in condemning Falstaff’s use of identical love letters (2.1.71-78), closing with the ornithological: 'I will find you twenty lascivious turtles [turtledoves] ere one chaste man'. (2.1.78). The merry wives are the defenders of domesticity against promiscuity—of order against misrule, that is—and their symbolic importance clearly indicates, for the first time in the plays, the high value Shakespeare placed on female influence in human affairs, a position that he would reassert, perhaps more strikingly, in later works.
The Merry Wives of Windsor is not one of Shakespeare's greatest plays; it lacks stirring poetry and monumental characters, and its concerns are not so sophisticated as the political philosophy and psychological exploration of some of the more important works. However, it is a bold reminder of the popular morality theatre of medieval England, and it also presents a delightfully picturesque view of 16th-century rural life. An expertly plotted farce that ranges from gentle charm to high hilarity, it deploys a dozen splendid comic characters in a world of solid virtue that is exemplified by its commendable though understated heroines. As such, the play has been appreciated by generations of theatre-goers, and increasing attention from scholars and critics will reinforce its continuing popularity
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