The Merry Wives of Windsor

December 3

January 19, 2014

in CST's Courtyard Theater

by William Shakespeare
directed by Barbara Gaines

Windsor’s (and England’s) Women

While debating the precise date of its genesis, scholars and historians agree that England at the writing of The Merry Wives of Windsor was in the midst of profound social debate. The traditional picture of a highly ordered, stable society—for centuries the romanticized view of Elizabethan England—has been widely challenged. Instead, more contemporary scholars are in agreement that the world at the turn of the seventeenth century was a world in flux. Fundamentally incompatible social thoughts stood uneasily side by side as “new philosophy” undermined previously absolute values; old certainties were unforgivingly called into question. Drama, then as now, served as a medium especially suited to mediate divergent and incompatible points of view.

Central to this debate was the status of women in Elizabethan society. While there was no unified activity comparable to more recent women's rights movements, there were sixteenth-century women preoccupied with the role of women in marriage, the rights of women in the home, the education of women, and the laws and statutes that governed a woman's behavior.

Many marriages were still arranged and husbands exerted near-absolute authority over their wives. A woman's legal right to hold and dispose of property was strictly governed by pre-arranged marriage contracts. In the eyes of the law, man and woman became one entity at the time of their marriage, with the husband at the head. He executed control over his wife's property, and could sell, give away or even destroy it at will. In a very real sense, a wife surrendered her liberty, her estate and her authority to her husband.

Nevertheless, during this same period now referred to as “Early Modern England,” there was an increasing secular and religious emphasis on the importance of genuine emotional and intellectual companionship in marriage. So-called “companionate marriage” stressed the emotional tie between husband and wife and underscored the importance of partnership in childrearing and household management. As you might expect, there was considerable tension between this egalitarian ideology and rigidly hierarchical marital traditions, a tension that can be seen in marriage “conduct books” of the time. How things played out in individual English households we can never know for certain, but as Merry Wives might suggest, no ideology can wholly resolve the complexity of wedded roles and relationships. What is certain is that this was a time of intense cultural debate, as England adjusted to vast and rapid religious, social and economic changes. Like so much else, gender roles, which had been dictated by medieval traditions for centuries, became the subject of deliberation and revision.

Of greatest influence during the mid-sixteenth century was the "Homily on Marriage,” which drove home (literally) the inferior status, rights and character of a wife. This weekly reminder, ordered by the Crown in 1562, revealed a weak creature lacking strength and constancy of mind, prone to weak affections and vain fantasies and opinions. The ideal woman was submissive, charitable, virtuous and modest. Some Elizabethans went so far as to revive Platonic doubts as to whether a woman could even be considered a reasoning creature. Does she, after all, have a soul?

Despite such negative attitudes, the sixteenth century also saw a steady stream of books praising women. Even so, many men remained doubtful of a woman's worth beyond childbearing, child-rearing and household maintenance. Bishop Aylmer, in a sermon before Queen Elizabeth, steps very cautiously between two viewpoints:

Women are of two sorts: some of them are wiser, better learned, discreeter, and more constant than a number of men; but another and worse sort of them are fond, foolish, wanton, flibbergibs, tattlers, triflers, wavering, witless, without council, feeble, careless, rash, proud, dainty, talebearers, eavesdroppers, rumour-raisers, eviltongued, worse-minded, and in everyway doltified with the dregs of the devil's dunghill.
(Lawrence Stone p. 197)

Despite the Bishop's conciliatory soft-stepping, his words reflect the prevailing attitude that existed in the latter half of the sixteenth century. Ironically, the sixteenth century saw more powerful queens on the throne than at any other time in English history: Henry VIII's first wife, Catherine of Aragon, was a favorite of the pope and spiritual guardian of English Catholicism; his two daughters, Mary I and Elizabeth I, ruled in succession for fifty years from 1553 until 1603.

The sixteenth century saw heated debate about the education of women. For a brief period, during the middle third of the century, there was a vigorous push by Renaissance humanists for classical female education. A handful of aristocratic women, such as Lady Jane Grey and Queen Elizabeth, were as expert as men in classical grammar and languages. Still, among the non-elite, domestic skills were the staples of a girl's education; all the rest was ornamentation. In a widely told story, King James I, who succeeded Queen Elizabeth to the throne in 1603, upon introduction to a young woman accomplished in Latin, Greek and Hebrew, asked, "But can she spin?"

In 1561, a translation of Castiglione's The Courtier introduced a very different ideal of womanhood, whose primary qualities were the social graces—skill in music, painting, drawing, dancing and needlework. Again, many women outside the upper classes hadn’t the opportunity to partake of "charm school" training, but eventually this new courtly ideal reached women of all classes. Education in the social graces did nothing to violate the Protestant, especially Puritan, ethic of woman as dutiful daughter or wife; skill in such "womanly" tasks posed no threat to male superiority. In a sense, the controlling of women, whether in the father-daughter or husband-wife relationship, was perceived as suitable conformity to the authorities of Church and State. A woman's subservience to her father or husband was likened to her submission to the Crown or God. These analogs between family, church and state were commonplace in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Changes in the roles and status of women were an implied challenge to traditional authority at all society’s levels. If a wife could challenge her husband, why could not a Parliament challenge the Crown?

Henry VIII's establishment of the English Church and the shift from Roman Catholicism to Protestantism actually served to limit women’s chances for self-expression. Women lost the opportunity to vent their problems and frustrations to an objective third party in priestly confession outside the home. The result was greater confinement to the home than had been realized previously.

Interestingly, control over women was least pervasive in working-class families. Mobility and fluidity of the family as a nuclear unit was greater because economic considerations did not so much shelter working-class families within the home. Fathers often were absent for long periods of time seeking work, resulting in wives exerting greater power. In addition, both male and female children were often apprenticed to wealthier families to learn a marketable trade. Consequently, husbands had less control over their wives, and parents, less control over their children. Driven mostly by practical concerns, the average English family was probably less rigid in its configuration than was posed by earlier scholarship about this period.

Besides, public rhetoric and sentiment did not always match private reality. Among all classes, many wives were true partners with their husbands and had considerable control over household life, sharing responsibility for the servants, children and household finances. (Mistress Ford did, after all, have "all the rule of her husband's purse.") During the latter part of the sixteenth century, women were increasingly visible outside the home, running counter to Puritan practice and threatening the control exercised by fathers and husbands. Despite the gradual emergence of women into English public life, the prevailing attitude persevered: women's primary contributions to English culture were child-bearing, child-rearing, and household maintenance.

The Merry Wives of Windsor provocatively reflects some of the most negative Renaissance stereotypes of women and reveals how poorly they describe Shakespeare's housewives. Both Falstaff, confident he can seduce two Mistresses to restore his fortune, and Frank Ford, convinced of his wife's predilection for infidelity, reflect conventional English attitudes of the late sixteenth century. Surely it is the women who stand as protectors of traditional values in Merry Wives. It is the women whose virtue and integrity are never in doubt. And it is the women who never falter in their convictions or choices.

Was Shakespeare challenging the dominant beliefs of the time? Can women be both "merry” and virtuous? Is The Merry Wives of Windsor merely a nostalgic return to the setting of childhood, or is it a veiled, pointed commentary on the conservative, traditional values of late sixteenth-century England? We may never be able to answer these questions, but it’s altogether possible these were questions Shakespeare often asked of himself.


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