The Merry Wives of Windsor
Infidelity, extramarital relationships and attempted adulterous encounters are usually very serious subjects with many layers of subtext, of guilt, blame and a myriad of other heavy emotions...but who says they can't be hysterically funny as well. During the creation of the Henry IV plays, Shakespeare took a break from his father/son and kingly story lines for a trip into the ridiculous. Courtier, rogue, and self proclaimed 'Gentleman of the Shade' Sir John Falstaff and his conies went on a road trip from from London to the provincial town of Windsor. The home of Windsor castle, a centuries royal country retreat, Windsor was not unlike Shakespeare's home town and which he seems to have populated with people similar to his own Stratford neighbors. From the witty resourceful title characters of Mistress Ford and Mistress Page to their bombastic husbands to the motor mouthed Host of the Garter Inn, Shakespeare spoofed and profiled many a familiar face of English country life. Despite the presence of Falstaff and passing references to King Henry IV, Merry Wives is one of those rare occasions that Shakespeare gave a slice of life in his own day and a setting that he knew intimately.
As they play appeared in the 1623 First Folio
Falstaff and his cronies, true to form, have taken up residence in the town's local inn and watering hole, The Garter Inn, run by the friendly and ever eager to please Host. However, the Inn is a cut above their old haunt of the Boar's Head Tavern and is frequented by the town's leading citizens, the ever suspicious Mr. Ford, his best friend Mr. Page, an unintelligible Welsh parson Sir Hugh, the equally unintelligible and irritable French Dr Caius, and the rogue in training Master Fenton. Fenton, a sometime friend of Prince Hal, seeks to court Mr. Page's daughter Anne, but is refused because Mr. Page wants her to marry the idiotic Slender, a much richer catch and partner up with the connected country Judge Shallow, Slender's uncle. Falstaff bored with these loving proceedings and always looking to line his purse and cause a bit of mischief decides to court both the wives of Mr. Ford and Page. Thinking the two middle aged housewives are easy pickings for a legendary romancer such as himself, he sends them both love letters, but both women are soon on to them. Instead of passing the notes on to their husbands, both wives decide to give Falstaff a taste of his own medicine by "allowing" the affair with Mistress Ford to go forward. One botched encounter after another leaves Falstaff miffed, wet and smelling of dirty laundry. All the while being pursued by an extremely jealous Mr. Ford who disguises himself to get at the truth of his wife's infidelities. The culmination reaches a fever pitch as the wives get the rest of the town in on one last practical joke on Falstaff and resolve the courtship of Anne Page. Fenton, with the help of another Mistress Quickly (not the same character from Henry IV) elopes with Anne while Falstaff is supposedly haunted by evil fairies which are actually the disguised townspeople.
The title page of the 1619 quarto highlighting the play's highpoints, Sir John Falstaff and his cronies.
Merry Wives is enigmatic to where it falls into the scheme of the Shakespeare's works and the scholarly dating of the play reflects this confusion as it has been suggested it was written anywhere from 1596-1602. Equally perplexing is the legend surrounding its writing. The first Shakespearean biographer, lawyer turned researcher Nicholas Rowe reported that the play was commission by Queen Elizabeth herself because she wished to see a play in which her new favorite character Falstaff fell in love and for it to be written in a fortnight (14 day period). No contemporary or surviving external evidence supports Rowe's assertion but the play itself supports its on many levels. Though it contains subplots and seems to follow a basic story structure from The Merchant of Venice (young lovers triumphing over older parents), the play is just concerned with straight farcical entertainment, nothing deeper. Most familiar characters such as Falstaff and his cronies don't seem as fully drawn as in the Henry IV plays and only seem to fit the story. Also, more than any other play, there are several salutatory references to the Queen and to the Order of the Garter ceremony, an occasion bestowing the Lord Chamberlain's title who was in charge of the court's entertainment. Replete with topical and geographic references, such as the naming the town tavern, the Garter Inn, has lead to the assumption that the play was prepared for a particular "Knighting of the Garter" ceremony and written in a short period of time.
The leading contender is April 23, 1597, when the theater company's patron Henry Carey was given the title of Lord Chamberlain. Shakespeare's company who had been known as Lord Chamberlain's men under Carey's father were now once again restored to the Lord Chamberlain's title. For a year's time, the office had gone to another nobleman, Lord Cobahm. Lord Cobham had caused the company some concern a year earlier when Henry IV, Part 1 had come out. He was a direct descendant of Sir John Oldcastle, the character Falstaff was based on and he didn't care much for his ancestor presented. The character originally had the name of Oldcastle. To keep their livelihood healthy, the company had the name changed to Falstaff. Cobham died in the interim, but the name stuck. A jab at Cobham is perhaps found in Merry Wives as Mr. Ford appears to be a caricature of the cantankerous Lord. Ford when disguised uses the name of Brooke, the family name of Lord Cobham.
When translated to the public stage, the play was so popular it was pirated into a quarto edition, which bears almost no resemblance to the actual play and is one of the worse of the pirated editions. Only with the First Folio did the play appeared in it's true form. Thought, slightly less meaty than the other high comedies, Merry Wives, is not a favorite among scholars, mostly due to the fact that Falstaff is seen as a shadow of his towering Henry IV self because he is the butt of and not player of jokes. However, the critiques appear to be unfounded as Prince Hal constantly pulled one over on the Fat Knight and here he is still the beer swilling, skirt chasing, proverb quoting likeable rogue he always was. The play has always proven successful on stage and is one of the most often staged of Shakespeare's comedies today.
Click below or on the side links to view the Play Text either as a full page or scene by scene format; a Directory of Characters with extensive descriptions and backgrounds; a Scene by Scene Synopsis of the play; and extensive Commentary on the show.
Click here to see our production of The Merry Wives of Windsor.
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