The Merry Wives of Windsor

December 3

January 19, 2014

in CST's Courtyard Theater

by William Shakespeare
directed by Barbara Gaines

Windsor Washing

A Scholar's Perspective
by Wendy Wall

We don’t often think about high art as concerning itself with things like grease and dirt: these are the realities of daily life, not the subject of Shakespearean drama. But The Merry Wives of Windsor is an extraordinary play because it makes us reconsider the importance of what we deem trivial. Shakespeare’s only comedy set in an English small town is also the comedy boasting the most prose and the most references to household life. The play explores social standing, jealousy, civic order, and the struggles of courtship. These issues are worked out in a plot rife with attention to practices and objects that are strikingly familiar: brewing, baking, dressing meat, mending clothes, canning preservatives, puddings, pippins, cheese, and most importantly, laundry; for laundering becomes an important metaphor for the baptismal cleansing that needs to take place in the town.

The play was probably written in 1597-98, after Shakespeare had created the character of Falstaff for his Henry IV history plays. If banished from the world of politics and history, Falstaff emerges resurrected in the most unlikely place: the bourgeois town of Windsor, where he is up to his old tricks of creative scamming. Here he comes up against the formidable power of both shrewd wives and a middle class citizenry sensitive to aristocratic intrusion.

When the jealous Mr. Ford intrudes upon his own home to search for his wife’s presumed lover, he turns an everyday chore into a nightmarish confusion of tricked husbands, thanks to the women’s handiwork. Spying a “buckbasket” (laundry basket), he rants, “Buck? I would I could wash myself of the buck…” Playing on the word “buck” as a symbol of a horned, cuckolded husband, as well as a lustful animal, Ford hilariously misses the fact that the wives have secured Falstaff within their own goods—in that same buckbasket.

The battle of the sexes surfaces in many of Shakespeare’s plays, but never are women so clearly victorious over their male counterparts. “I’ll exhibit a bill in the parliament for the putting down of men,” says Mrs. Page upon receiving Falstaff’s insulting duplicated love letter. Yet

Mrs. Page and Mrs. Ford turn to domestic rather than political action, as the play shows the women, using their housewifely authority to straighten out matters in the community at large.

The play deflates Falstaff’s pretensions by making him into gross fat puddings, whale oil and cooking grease. The wives’ attempts to purge him of lust consolidate their role as cooks, home doctors, and housecleaners. Imagining themselves as almost supernatural launderers, they punish seducers and jealous husbands by becoming clever playwright figures: most tellingly they script Falstaff as dirty laundry; dress him as a gossiping woman, and finally have him pinched by fairies who set out to scour literal and moral filth. One character commands the fairies, “to Windsor chimneys shalt thou leap;/ Where fires thou find’st unrak’d and hearths unswept.” The dirt of the community can only be swept away, it seems, by attentive houseworkers; and the wives lead the men in creating order in Windsor where official authorities fail. As illusory projections, the fairies extend the merry wives’ domestic power beyond the household into the reach of the court, forest and myth.

On the perimeters of the play, pushed to the margins, is the majestic court at Windsor, reminding the audience of another powerful woman in the period—Queen Elizabeth. But the citizens don’t directly pay homage to the crown; they readily nominate the comic mis-speaker Mistress Quickly as their own workaday “fairy queen.”

Merry Wives suggests that people’s deepest emotions and fears are expressed in relation to the concrete things that they know best. If the play is successful, we not only laugh at Falstaff’s woes, Ford’s doubts, and the women’s victory, but we also start to contemplate the reassuring if trivial features of our own lives that allow us to forge order out of disorder. At the end, everyone in Windsor joins by the fire to laugh at their “sport” and share a moment where differences in the community (marked by foreign accents as well as by gender and generation) fade in the spirit of merry England. We close immersed in powerful myth of the nation, a fantasy world that never strays far from the joys of home.

Wendy Wall, Professor of English at Northwestern University, specializes in Early Modern English Literature and Culture, 1500–1660 and is the author of Staging Domesticity: Household Work and English Identity in Early Modern Drama.


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