The Merry Wives of Windsor

December 3

January 19, 2014

in CST's Courtyard Theater

by William Shakespeare
directed by Barbara Gaines

A Look into Windsor

The world of The Merry Wives of Windsor is one of constant cultural collision: men challenge women; women confound men; the old test the young; the young outwit the old; and citizens of all social positions share one municipal space. Some of the most significant and humorous contests involve outsiders that reside in or pass through Windsor, especially the two non-Englishmen in the play: Sir Hugh Evans, the Welsh parson, and Dr. Caius, the French physician. These men help reveal the powerful preoccupation Shakespeare’s England had with the coming of foreign influence.

During the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the gap between the once-isolated British Isles and the European continent steadily narrowed. With the onset of the age of exploration, English boundaries became more permeable to merchant trade, outside invasion, and general foreignness in the way of ideas, lifestyle and culture. Such intrusions (as many English considered them) threatened the destruction of traditional English values. Anti-Italian scorn was particularly strong. As home of the Catholic Church, Italy was perceived by Protestant England to be decadent and corrupt, sentiments captured by many of Shakespeare’s contemporaries. The word “Italianate” conjured up images of poisoned devotionals and chairs designed to trap unsuspecting sitters. France, too, was considered a hotbed of negative influence, especially concerning fashion. Outlandishly ornamented headdresses, pleated ruffs, padded doublets, puffed sleeves and richly decorated hose imported from France seemed designed to increase English expenses.

While the “sophisticated” welcomed new styles, conservative ranks descried vanity. The use of cosmetics, the smoking of tobacco, the drinking of imported wine, vices of every kind were attributed by to corrupt foreign influences. The moral debate between continental and English values, imbued with strong religious overtones, was bitter. Attacking the sinfulness of extravagant clothing became an integral part of the larger Puritan movement’s condemnation of lavish, worldly living.

As potentially volatile as these issues were, The Merry Wives treats them all humorously. Neither the citizens of Windsor nor the outsiders are ever in serious jeopardy. Even when the out-of-town, worldly Falstaff introduces still more cultural influences, his threat is never really serious. The integrity of Mistresses Page and Ford renders his immorality impotent. And the foreign Dr. Caius and Sir Hugh Evans never duel because the community prevents it. We are, after all, in the world of comedy.

The playful ridicule of the "outsiders" may implicate the ways in which a culture—any culture—protects and maintains itself at the expense of those who speak, act and think differently from the "natives." The play certainly presents itself as fruitful ground for this examination. Ultimately, though, The Merry Wives of Windsor ends with the joyous invitation that all "laugh this sport o'er." Here, there is room for everybody, cultural reconciliation on Windsor's terms.

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