The Merry Wives of Windsor

December 3

January 19, 2014

in CST's Courtyard Theater

by William Shakespeare
directed by Barbara Gaines

A Local Habitation and a Name

A Scholar's Perspective
by Stuart Sherman

“The poet’s pen,” says Duke Theseus late in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “… gives to airy nothing / A local habitation and a name. Such tricks hath strong imagination …”

A few years after the Dream, Shakespeare’s strong imagination would perform this trick with unusual specificity. In a play first touted as Sir John Falstaff and the Merry Wives of Windsor, he combined an emphatically local habitation—Windsor, a prosperous suburb thirty  miles from his own playhouse—with the name of the most celebrated and resilient character he had yet created. Though he may at first have intended Falstaff for a comic turn in a single play (Henry IV, Part 1), he ended up featuring him in four, of which the Merry Wives may well (or may not) have been the last. According to legend, appealing but unreliable, Queen Elizabeth, enamored of Falstaff in the earlier plays, commanded Shakespeare to write “one play more,” in which he was to show Sir John “in love.” And that’s what we get to see in this one play more: Sir John in love, or lust, or greed (neither he nor we can be quite sure which) with those merry wives.

But the play itself’s in love with Windsor. Geographically, the Merry Wives is unique in Shakespeare’s canon. Apart from the history plays, necessarily centered in London, no other Shakespeare play transpires in England, and even the histories travel far afield (France, Wales). Here then is Shakespeare’s most local play of all; no other cleaves so assiduously close to home. Part of this play’s point is that there’s no place like it.

Windsor differs from other Shakespearean settings in what might be called its social tessitura, the pitch and spectrum of its characters. There’s a lower proportion of higher-ups—no kings, queens, princes, dukes—and a wide diversity within the middle register: two prosperous bourgeois households, a genial innkeeper, a Welsh priest, a French doctor, and more small children running about than anywhere else in Shakespeare.

The variety makes itself manifest in language too. In this emphatically English play, the English tongue is twisted in ways innumerable, at the hands of an English playwright utterly intoxicated with it and infinitely capable of putting it through new permutations. Out of mangled oaths, preposterously protracted small talk, impenetrable foreign accents, cross-lingual double entendres, and a Latin tutorial gone horribly awry, Shakespeare constructs a deliriously comic tower of babble. (In a fine finishing touch, he names his luckless Latin pupil William.) One character remarks of Falstaff, “He loves the gallimaufry”—a stew made up of any and all ingredients at hand. Windsor itself proves such a melting pot, and in its capacious laughing way, the Merry Wives loves a gallimaufry too.

But what it may love best is the merry wives themselves: Mistress Page and Mistress Ford, witty, collusive, and indomitable. Appalled by Falstaff’s adulterous advances, they giddily conspire in his punishment. Our pleasure in their company arises partly from their pleasure in one another’s, partly from the ingenuity of their tricks and traps. They’re clearly crazy about each other, an Elizabethan Lucy Ricardo and Ethel Mertz, but without the end-of-show subordination to their menfolk, whom they best at almost every turn. And their inventiveness aligns strikingly with Shakespeare’s: in their three attempts to foil Falstaff, they end up scripting, directing, and starring in their own remarkably subtle play, via performances of ardor and alarm faked for the fat knight’s benefit.

Their climactic stunt, involving a midnight rendezvous in a nearby forest, mingles the domestic and the fantastic with strong echoes from an earlier comedy. “I do perceive,” Falstaff shouts as his distress peaks, “that I am made an ass”; in that last word audiences may well recall such another figure of fun. Like Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Falstaff (wearing buck’s horns as his prototype wore ass’s ears)believes himself improbably beloved, and finds himself in the woods at night surrounded by what he thinks are fairies acting on the dictates of a formidable Fairy Queen. Unlike Bottom, though, Falstaff experiences pain, not passion—and in a markedly different, more down-to-earth context: the Fairy Queen is in ordinary life the doctor’s housekeeper, the puckish chief sprite is in truth the Welsh priest; and the fairies themselves are Windsor children in masquerade. Shakespeare writes as though, this time round, the local habitation and its inhabitants can provide magic and mirth enough on their own, without supernatural intervention.

What then of the big name whom Shakespeare has transposed into this new milieu out of the history plays that first gave him birth, berth, and girth? Falstaff fares badly, and Falstaff fares well. “I[’ve] suffered the pangs of three several deaths,” he exclaims at one point, exasperated and exhausted by the punitive ordeals the merry wives have conjured up. (Hyperbole has always been his strong suit.) And during that final forest punishment, he appears to suffer rejection at the hands of the tight-knit community the play so deeply prizes.

But in Shakespeare’s hands, the punishment readily enough transmutes into something more generous. When Falstaff complains of having suffered “three separate deaths,” he may, from the vantage of Shakespeare’s audience, be telling a subtle truth. In his three history plays, Falstaff “dies” three different ways. In the first, he cunningly (and comically) counterfeits death on the battlefield long enough for the audience to believe him actually dead, up to the hilarious moment of his reanimation. In the second he suffers a rejection so painful that his friends fear he will shortly die of it—though the playwright, in an epilogue, promptly reassures his audience that their favorite will return in the sequel. In that sequel, though, the playwright potently breaks his promise: Falstaff never reappears; instead, he dies offstage.

For Shakespeare’s first audiences, subjected in the histories to this piquantly orchestrated sequence of delight, death, and disappointment, the Merry Wives may well have figured as an all unlooked-for resurrection. Here Falstaff remains alive, self-admiring, and reasonably cheerful (despite the occasional sputtering complaint) from start to finish. And perhaps beyond. Some of the final scene’s homespun enchantment rubs off on him. Dressed, at the merry wives’ instructions, as a horned figure out of folklore, he may attain a measure of that immortality befitting what Shakespeare’s strongest imagination had already made of him: a mighty and anarchic English myth.


Stuart Sherman, Associate Professor of English at Fordham University, is a specialist in eighteenth-century literature and the author of Telling Time: Clocks, Diaries and English Diurnal Form, 1660–1785.

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