* Indicates a note at the end of the blog

When Meg Page, townswoman, friend of Alice Ford, mother of Anne Page and a merry wife of one of Windsor’s leading merchants, one of the two Merry Wives of Windsor, receives a letter professing love from the dissolute hustler knight Sir John Falstaff, she recognizes at once that he is proposing an illicit sexual liaison. She is cheerfully affronted. She wonders what she might have done that he would dare to “assay” her “in this manner” (2,1,24). “What should I say to him?” she wonders. And then she says, “Why, I’ll exhibit a bill in the parliament for the putting down of men.”

In Elizabeth’s time there was a parliament (from the French parler, to talk), which she summoned when she needed a consensus of courtiers for some decision or financial matter. It met some 13 or 14 times during her reign. It consisted only of men above a certain income, who could be elected only by other men of a certain status and income. Despite having a female monarch there were no women members of parliament.* So Meg Page is making a joke, that must have felt quite tired, when she talks about a bill for the putting down of men. Her point, I think, is that Falstaff’s behavior is not unique and reflects something about the attitudes and behavior of men in the society of Elizabethan Windsor. She wants to have revenge on men in general, though she also makes it clear that Falstaff will be an individual target: “For revenged I will be, as sure as his guts are made of puddings.” (2,1,29-30) Since Mistress Ford, also a townswoman and wife of a wealthy Windsor merchant, receives an almost identical letter, the two friends plot their revenge on Falstaff which culminates, in the final act, in the masque of Herne the Hunter.

The revenge plots of the two women tell us a great deal about the irony of women’s position in Elizabethan England. The irony arises from the significant gap, between the formal, legal position of women as the property of their fathers or their husbands with no guaranteed right to govern their own destiny or act in relation to social organisations, and their actual willingness and power to get things done and to wield sweeping influence over society as a whole and their husbands and friends in particular.

It is the two wives who decide to act against the bumbling intruder. Mistress Ford does not wish to take the issue to her husband because she knows he does not have the rationality or perception to understand the situation, let alone do something about it. And besides, he torments himself with his imagined cuckoldry,** fearing what it might do to his reputation and therefore the basis of his trade and wealth, and both fearing and taking pleasure in the erotic threat and promise of his wife sleeping with someone else. When Ford decides to up the ante by creating the persona of yet another lover, Mr Brook (note the wateriness of both names), he creates a complex voyeurism through which to experience Alice’s sexuality.

Ultimately, when the third stage of revenge takes place in Windsor Great Park, it is the women who lead the action. Page and Ford both demur to their wives. And when the comic solution is offered at the end, the “breaking bread” together, it is Meg Page and not her husband who invites everyone to “laugh this sport o’er by a country fire”. (5,5,241)

The wives are not the only women who drive the action of the play. Mistress Quickly is a wonderfully Octopus-like creation. Her aspirations and her fingers are everywhere. She intrudes in the guise of helping, she is both a busy-body and a woman who survives financially and socially by making conflicting alliances with everyone. She acts as go-between for Falstaff and the wives, hoping that they won’t spot her as the double agent (the wives do, Falstaff doesn’t). She also acts as marital go-between for all the men (indeed almost all the men with the exception of Falstaff) who are seeking Mistress Anne Page’s hand in marriage. She persuades each one in turn that she has their interests at heart and that Anne (or Nan) will choose him, and the money rolls in and her abundant ego swells.

And Anne Page is also a woman of action (or girl – I can never work out quite how old she is. Fourteen or fifteen?). She is aware of the limitations and potential of each of the men who comes a-courting. When her father announces that the effete and self-absorbed Slender is his choice, she says “Good mother, do not marry me to yond fool.” And then, in one of the best lines in the play, when her mother says she seeks a better husband and Mistress Quickly interprets this to mean Dr Caius, Anne says: “Alas. I had rather be set quick i’th’earth, and bowled to death with turnips!” (3,4,85-90).***

But it is in her relationship with Fenton that Anne shows her spirit most clearly. At the beginning of the play he pursues her with diffidence and a kind of passive acceptance, as though he is unable to effect the situation. He says to Anne, “I see I cannot get thy father’s love, therefore no more turn me to him, sweet Nan” (3,4,1-2), and Anne’s response is to tell him to keep trying. She pokes him to act in his own behalf, she draws from him a realization that he loves her for herself and not (just) for her father’s money. She transforms him into an active partner when they contrive to ditch the favored courtiers of mother and father and to get married independently. Fenton, the only character in the play who undergoes substantial change, is transformed into the man (or boy) who lectures the father at the end: “You do amaze her. Hear the truth of it…” (5,5,219)

So, the women in the play are the actors, working through informal means to preserve their own interests and advance the welfare of society. But there are other dimensions of women’s position that are revealed and explored in Merry Wives. It is important for us to understand that it is in a society where women exercise their power from behind, clandestinely, that men like Sir John Falstaff will behave as he does. Falstaff’s ill-conceived plan to board one or both of the women (as though they were ships), get his stones off, so to speak, and most importantly gain access to their husbands’ money, depends firstly on his belief that women have real control over their husbands’ purses, and secondly on a somewhat contemptuous perception of married women as sexually promiscuous. It is both telling and alarming that despite legal changes in society over the four centuries since the play was written, women still earn less than men, are still seen by men in power as fair game, as wanting it, as property and objects of both desire and derision. #Metoo has been a long time coming, and we can only work toward a time when women will have their revenge on the Trumps and Johnsons and Kavanaughs of this world.

The irony of Falstaff’s plan is twofold: firstly, Master Ford, exploring his private obsession with the thought that his wife is unfaithful – or might be – offers Falstaff a far easier and less messy access to his money than Alice Ford does; and secondly, it is Ford himself who is convinced that his wife is promiscuous; furthermore, he gets off on it. It cannot escape the audiences for this play that when Ford enjoins his friends, including the Welsh parson, his neighbor Master Page, and the French Doctor Caius, to pore with their hands through the contents of the buck(laundry)basket which contains her underwear, and to delve into the smallest nooks and crannies of the house – the woman’s domain, identified in a metaphorical sense with her body – until they find evidence of the fat intruder, he is inviting the men of the neighborhood to become intimate with his wife.

Shakespeare has a full, complex, multi-layered appreciation and understanding of women. It is true and disappointing that there are too few female characters in his plays. But oh my, the ones we have are wonderfully rich. Merry Wives is a beguiling, funny and engaging play, and the wives themselves share with other women in Shakespeare an intelligence and practicality that makes them great theatrical characters and real ones too.

 

* Quite apart from Merry Wives, Britain became the constitutional monarchy we know today – in which the royal family has very limited power, though elected representatives must swear an oath of allegiance to the reigning monarch – through a long and gradual process beginning with the English Civil War in the mid 17th century and the Act of Union with Scotland in 1701. Britain did not become a democracy until the Reform Act of 1918 gave women the right to vote, and the Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949 reduced the power of the hereditary House of Lords to veto bills passed in the House of Commons. The first woman elected to the UK parliament was a member of Sinn Fein and did not take her seat: Lady Constance Markievicz in 1918. The first woman to be elected and actually sit in parliament was Nancy Astor, an American who married Viscount Astor when she was 26.

 

** From Old French cucuauld, which itself comes from cucu, or cuckoo, a bird with a habit of laying its eggs in another bird’s nest.

 

*** I wonder if this runs parallel to the Jarramplas festival in the village of Piornal in Southwest Spain in which “hundreds of people have been running through the streets of a tiny town in southwestern Spain, chasing a fancy-dressed, beast-like figure and pelting it with turnips”. (https://www.mcall.com/sdut-spanish-town-celebrates-bizarre-turnip-throwing-2016jan20-story.html)

churchman's cigarettesAs a visual spectacle, The Merry Wives of Windsor is little more than knockabout comedy. It ranges from farce to the subtle humor of gesture. It’s good knockabout, mind you, and despite the preposterous improbability of the plot it is vastly entertaining. Its theater is very domestic and in this respect it can be linked to the comedies of manners of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It abounds in the details of domestic life and as a central theme explores the forces, such as virtue and faithfulness (honesty), that keep daily life on a more-or-less even keel. In the life of the town that is at the center of the play conflict is almost always settled with food. A “hot venison pasty to dinner” is offered as a palliative to Justice Shallow, who fumes that he has been wronged. It is Master Page’s belief that they will “drink down all unkindness.” And at the end of the play, despite the substance of Falstaff’s intrusive campaign against the women, Mistress Page shakes it off and says, “Good husband, let us everyone go home, and laugh this sport o’er by a country fire”.

This apple-cart of ordinary life is upset not from within but by a man whose history and aspirations link him to the life of the court. Falstaff walks roughshod over simple rules that keep the community of non-royal Windsor together. He poaches deer, he commits violence against servants, he ignores the locals, he demands attention and above all he interferes with the stability of local women and their husbands. He’s a hustler with a knighthood that allows him, for a time, to get away with very bad behavior. Merry Wives is about how the community of Windsor deals with this attack from outside.

Seeking to find a place for the play in the literary canon, critics over the centuries have talked principally about the language of the play, seeing language as the quality that distinguishes it from other plays by Shakespeare. What critics mean by this is that Merry Wives focuses on the language of ordinary people. Uniquely in Shakespeare almost all of the characters speak in prose. The exceptions are Falstaff, a knight with a silver tongue that in this play deserts him in the face of the unimpressed Mistresses Ford and Page, and Fenton, upper class and apparently educated, whose poetic view of his own destiny sometimes causes him to stumble when practical matters demand action.

All of the characters in the play have recognizable linguistic mannerisms, and what’s more, they are aware of each other’s. They comment on them all the time; they constantly make jokes about them. Mistress Quickly says of Dr Caius: “here will be an old abusing of God’s patience and the King’s English” (1,4,4-5). Master Page says of Corporal Nim, “Here’s a fellow frights English out of his wits.” At the end of the play Master Ford says, aiming his jab at the Welshman Pastor Evans: “I will never mistrust my wife again till thou art able to woo her in good English.”

The habits of speech of the characters are very personal and individual but they also tell us a great deal about their social class and aspirations. Dr Caius and Sir Hugh Evans are the kind of men who hang around and make their fortunes from a court that has occasional need of their otherwise fairly lowly services. They are extremes, “foreigners” whose mangled use of English provides a major source of entertainment in the play. It is not simply that they mispronounce the words – Caius in flagrant franglais , Evans in inf(l)ected Welglish – but their personal misadventures with words. Caius almost always begins a sentence with “I” or “Me”. He is utterly self-centered. Sir Hugh uses nouns instead of verbs or, in some cases, adjectives, or replaces whole phrases with a single noun: “Give ear to his motions, Master Slender, I will description the matter to you, if you be capacity of it.” (1,1,199-200) And a few lines later we get the misuse of the noun together with the ironically hilarious correction of someone else:

It is a fery discretion answer. Save the faul’ is in the ‘ord ‘dissolutely’ – the ‘ort is,
according to our meaning, ‘resolutely’ – his meaning is good. (1,1,236-8)

Other characters also provide us with humor or simple pleasure. The host – in the Curtain production the hostess – of the Garter (an inn in Windsor, which is home to the highest order of English knighthood, the order of the Garter), takes delight in her own use of words. “Said I well…?” she asks (1,3,11) of Falstaff after bandying a trio of words in German, Latin and French. She is playful: “My hand, bully: thou shalt have egress and regress – said I well? – and thy name shall be Brook…” (2,1,195-6). And in the fourth act, speaking to the servant Simple, whose name describes its bearer, she comes up with an ‘inkhorn’ term, a Latinate noun for cannibal: “Go, knock and call: he’ll speak like an anthropophaginian unto thee.” (4,5,7-8). I doubt that anyone in Elizabethan England would have said such a word except Shakespeare when he was writing this play.

One of the funniest mis-users of English is Mistress Quickly. In her multiple jobs as domestic servant and go-between she mixes with a range of people, many of whom are far more educated than she is. She aspires to their use of big words, but she consistently tries and fails to come up with them. She is an arch-exponent of malapropism. “Well, thereby hangs a tale,” says Mistress Quickly of Anne (Nan) Page to her woo-er Fenton. “Good faith, it is such another Nan – but, I detest, an honest maid as ever broke bread … indeed, she is given too much to allicholy and musing.”(1,4,138-142). She means ‘protest’ rather than ‘detest’, though the latter is something perhaps of a Freudian slip; and by ‘allicholy’ she means ‘melancholy’, though there is no doubt that she will have seen that melancholy is often a result of too much alcohol. And in typical Shakespearean fashion her malapropisms often carry a sense that bears directly on some aspect of the play. For example, when she approaches Falstaff as a go-between for Mistress Ford she says “this is the short and the long of it; you have brought her into such a canaries as ‘tis wonderful.” Of course she means ‘quandary’ rather than ‘canaries’, but she is also part-mindful that sack, the beloved drink of Falstaff, might well have been imported (by Page or Ford?) from the Canary Islands. In Act 3 the host(ess) says to Ford, Page and Caius, “I will to my honest knight Falstaff, and drink canary with him.” (3,2,78-9)

The other characters are less defined by their use (or misuse) of language. Ford and Page both speak with the articulate quality of middle-class merchants. Except that Ford’s language is tinged with obsession. He is wordy, almost poetic at times. Page on the other hand can be quite curt, though he is always trying to find words of appeasement. He is a merchant and businessman and needs a calm environment in which to practice his craft. The women, Meg Page and Alice Ford, are rational, practical and quick to find humor but they create their own language of moral urgency in order to deceive Falstaff. Their role-playing while Falstaff is hidden behind the arras or the door gives us two of the most hilarious scenes in the play. The second time Falstaff visits Mistress Ford in hope of getting her into bed, Mistress Page comes in and in a role-playing speech describes Master Ford’s ill-tempered dangerous progress toward the house. After a pause she says: “I am glad the fat knight is not here.” It’s one of the best comic moments in Shakespeare.

Falstaff is the only character who speaks consistently with the poetic weight of the main characters in Shakespeare’s other plays. Even when he is speaking prose, even when he is talking to Pistol about his despicable plan to seduce Mistress Ford, he gives us a complexity that allows us to follow him while getting beneath the surface:

No quips now, Pistol – Indeed I am in the waist two yards about, but I am now
about no waste: I am about thrift. Briefly, I do mean to make love to Ford’s wife.
I spy entertainment in her: she discourses, she carves, she gives the leer of invitation.
I can construe the action of her familiar style, and the hardest voice of her behaviour –
to be Englished rightly – is “I am Sir John Falstaff’s”. (1,3,38-45)

Falstaff is also capable of a kind of tenderness in his speech (ah, the negative capability I talk about in another blog). In All’s Well That Ends Well, the character Parolles, who has many traits in common with Falstaff, is shamed and humiliated for his braggard’s cowardice. Recognizing himself in his own shame he says: “Yet I am thankful. If my heart were great / ‘Twould burst at this.” (4,3,319-20). Falstaff has a similar moment at the end of the play when he realizes he has been exposed and that his belief he could get away with it was false. “I do begin to perceive that I am made an ass,” he says. It is Shakespeare’s genius that he included the condition “begin to” in that line; those words indicate the extent to which Falstaff needs to go to understand the implications of his own behavior. Falstaff then goes on to admit that his rationality had been challenged:

And these are not fairies. I was three or four times in the thought they were not fairies,
and yet the guiltiness of my mind, the sudden surprise of my Powers, drove the
grossness of the foppery into a received belief, in despite of the teeth of all rhyme and
reason, that they were fairies. (5,5,121-6)

There are two further linked aspects of the language of Merry Wives that I would like to mention. It may be that the word ‘merry’ in the title leads us to expect a play that is light in theme and light in performance, and indeed literary criticism has until recently taken it this way. The word ‘merry’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon myrige, which means pleasing or delightful; in this play the meaning is the same with the addition of ‘open’. Thus, when Mistress Page says (4,2,100) “Wives may be merry and yet honest too”, she means that they can be open to others and pleasing to the mind and eye, without throwing their virtue out of the window (with the buck?); that is, being attractive doesn’t mean they’re easy. The title is therefore a preliminary statement of the moral crux of the play, a very serious one during the Elizabethan period and equally serious now: Weinstein, Epstein, Trump. Beauty is not availability.

And beneath the merry surface of the play, not too far beneath it, there is violence in the language that can be quite shocking. Falstaff is convinced by very little that the Mistresses Ford and Page are up for a sexual liaison with him. At various stages throughout the play he lets us know that what he’s after is a boosting of his ego, some sex on the side, and access to their husbands’ money. He doesn’t mind whether it’s Mistress Ford or Mistress Page, and in the final act as he dresses as the buck in the masque of Herne the Hunter he imagines having them both at the same time. Yet for the sake of a minor liaison he raises the stakes very high. He says to Mistress Ford, standing close to her in her own home, “I cannot cog (lie), I cannot prate (go on and on), Mistress Ford; now shall I sin in my wish: I would thy husband were dead” (3,3,42-4). Now, that’s a pretty violent wish. He goes on to suggest, with no intention of following through with it, that he could make her his lady. That is, he would marry her (the correct salutation for the wife of a knight is Lady; she would be Lady Falstaff).

When I began to take note of the violence threatened or described in the play, it surprised me just how much of it there is. And it is not all Falstaff. Doctor Caius, billed by the Host(ess) as a wise physician 2. 3. 50, nonetheless threatens to castrate the Welsh parson Sir Hugh: “By gar,” he says, “I will cut all his two stones. By gar, he shall not have a stone to throw at his dog.” (1,4,104-6) In return, in a later scene, Sir Hugh uses his equally hilarious English to threaten the same of Dr Caius: “I will gnog his urinals (genitals) about his knave’s costard (head) when I have good opportunities…” (3.1.13-14)

In equalling this violence of language, Master Ford speaks with bitter, wounding sarcasm of and to his wife in the second scene in which Falstaff is in the house. “Mistress Ford, the honest woman … I suspect without cause, do I?” he says sharply, and when she replies “God be my witness you do, if you suspect me of any dishonesty,” he replies with the voice of a somewhat bewildered patriarchy: “Well said, brazen-face, hold it out!” (4,2,121-128) Ford therefore compounds the violence toward his wife that Falstaff started.

There is always so much to Shakespeare’s language. It is impossible to grasp it all at once, and I am sure that we members of the audience will manage to receive only a part of what is offered. But it is always somewhat wonderful in a Shakespeare production that even if we miss the subtleties of specific words or phrases we so often leave with an enlarging, enlightening sense of the multiplicity of character, of speech, of action and of life.

It has become a truism that Shakespeare’s plays are rich and complex. That is one of the reasons they have remained at the top of the chart for five centuries. But that complexity can often seed confusion in the minds of both audience and actors. Shakespeare appears to say contradictory things about his characters, and they seem to speak and act in several directions at once.

In Merry Wives Anne Page appears to succumb to Fenton’s honesty and his account of his own transformation while nonetheless demanding that he convert his words into practical action. When he complains at the beginning of 3,4 that he cannot get her father’s support he pleads, “no more turn me to him, sweet Nan.” But she doesn’t want him to give up so soon: “Gentle Master Fenton, yet seek my father’s love. Still seek it, Sir. If opportunity and humblest suit cannot attain it …” She does not get a chance to finish her sentence, but we can tell by her tone – beginning quietly and disarmingly with “gentle” but then repeating her instruction – that she will demand of him some active proof of the love he has stated for “the very riches of thy self”. She is at once charmed by Fenton and in sharp control of the situation they find themselves in. In sharp contrast to the way every man who courts her thinks, she is the dominant one.

On an even grander scale Falstaff horrifies us with his lascivious, self-serving and violent pursuit of Mistresses Ford and Page, while attracting us with his poetry and claiming our sympathy with his folkliricized demise. Of course the contradictions of Falstaff, a man who is gross and petty, who repels and attracts, who acts prosaically and speaks poetically, have fascinated audiences, critics, other writers and composers since he first appeared in Henry IV, Part 1. The composer Verdi adapted Merry Wives for has last opera, Falstaff, which has given us the great fugal finale ‘Tutto nel mondo è burla’ (everything in the world is a jest): https://youtu.be/yx2zJMN4uEo.

How do we think about these paradoxes of character, these canaries (quandaries) of thought and action?

The great English poet John Keats, in December of 1817, was thinking about the same question as he walked home from a Christmas pantomime talking to his friends Browne and Dilke. In a letter later that month to his brothers Tom and George he wrote:

I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke, on various subjects; several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason – Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half knowledge.

This is a wonderful way of understanding this quality that Shakespeare had in abundance but that he shares with most great writers, composers and artists. For Keats negativity was not the objectionable quality it has become in our positivist century. Keats had been reading Hegel, whose Phenomenology put forward the idea that negation, or negativity, is essential to dialectical thinking.

Keats did not elaborate on the teasing and intuitive idea of ‘negative capability’. However he did continue to think about the way great writers create characters who cannot be bridled by ordinary reins. In a letter to his friend Richard Woodhouse in October the following year, he wrote that the

poetical Character is not itself – it has no self – it is everything and nothing – It has no character – it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated – It has as much delight in an Iago (Othello) as an Imogen (Cymbeline). What shocks the virtuous philosopher delights the camelion Poet.

We do not have to justify the way Shakespeare builds contradiction and paradox into even the most minor of characters. But it takes a lot of effort to put aside the Western habit of dissecting and seeking a reason or an excuse for everything.

 

[Keats’ letters are worth reading for their own sake as well as for their insights into creativity and art. There are various editions available online, in e-text versions and in bookstores. Hegel’s Phänomenologie des Geistes (1807) (Phenomenology of Mind/Spirit) is available in various translations and also online etc. This work provided Karl Marx with a philosophical basis for his radical dialectic.

EDITIONS

There are many editions of The Merry Wives of Windsor and what you choose will depend on the content you want and the format. I tend to use two editions: firstly, the Arden, which is the most scholarly and provides a comprehensive gloss on words, phrases and editorial choices; and secondly, the RSC version which is aimed at performers and feels easier to read. I have given details of these below. There are other excellent editions (Folger, World Library, Cambridge, Penguin) all with something to offer. Avoid editions published as part of a Collected Works, since the text usually predates modern scholarship and the notes tend to be either minimal or unreliable or both. Online versions are similar to the editions in Collected Works.

William Shakespeare, The Merry Wives of Windsor, ed. Giorgio Melchiori, London and New York, Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare, 2000.
William Shakespeare, The Merry Wives of Windsor, ed. Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen, Basingstoke, Macmillan for the Royal Shakespeare Company, 2011.
William Shakespeare, Sonnets, ed. Katherine Duncan Jones, London and New York, Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare, 2010.

One difference between these two editions of Merry Wives is that in the Arden, as in most editions, Master Ford’s name when he is in disguise is Brook, while in the RSC version it is Broom. Brook was the name used in the Quarto edition of 1602, and as such provided a pun on the relationship between a ‘brook’ or creek and a ‘ford’, or crossing. In the Folio version of 1623 the name was changed to Broom, perhaps to avoid giving offence to Lord Cobham, whose family name was Brooke and who had already objected to the original name given to Falstaff (Sir John Oldcastle).

THE BOOK OF SONGS AND SONNETS

In the opening scene of the play Slender, in his ineffectual courtship of Anne Page, turns to the audience and says “I had rather than forty shillings I had my book of Songs and Sonnets here.” He’s referring to Tottel’s Miscellany, the anthology compiled by Richard Tottel that introduced the sonnet form and the work of the poets Thomas Wyatt and the Earl of Surrey to the Elizabethans. Shakespeare learned a great deal of his poetic method from Wyatt in particular. One of Wyatt’s best known quotes is:

They flee from me, that sometime did me seke
With naked fote stalking within my chamber.

A modern edition of Tottel’s Miscellany is published by Penguin:
Richard Tottel, Miscellany: Songs and Sonnets of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, Sir Thomas Wyatt and Others, ed. Amanda Holton and Tom MacFaul, London, Penguin, 2011.

A GREAT RESOURCE

Knowledge about Shakespeare is always useful, though the absence of evidence from his personal life has lead to a proliferation of theories and speculations. The following website, managed by the Folger Library in partnership with others such as the Bodleian Library (University of Oxford), makes available a wide range of primary documents.

Shakespeare Documented: https://shakespearedocumented.folger.edu/

CRITICAL TEXTS

There are many discussions of Shakespeare’s work in general and individual plays in particular. The edition of the play you use will offer a bibliography and your local library may have its own selection. I suggest two books. The collection of new critical essays brings together some of the recent critical work that has led to a re-thinking of the importance of the play in the Shakespeare canon not least because it recognizes the centrality to the play of the two wives rather than seeing it simply as an additional riff on Falstaff. And the book on popular culture helps us to understand the English-ness of the play and its use of pagan beliefs.

Evelyn Gajowski and Phyllis Rackin, eds., The Merry Wives of Windsor: New critical essays, London, Routledge, 2015.
Mary Ellen Lamb, The Popular Culture of Shakespeare, Spenser, and Jonson, London, Routledge Studies in Renaissance Literature and Culture 2, 2006.
George Puttenham, The Arte of English Poesie, first published in 1589 by Richard Field, now available as a public domain e-book.
Clare Colebrook, Irony, London, Routledge, 2004.
D.C. Muecke, Irony and the Ironic, 2nd edition, London and New York, Methuen, 1970 &1982.

The critical texts are expensive and local libraries are not guaranteed to have them. I have copies of the three mentioned above, as well as of the Arden and RSC editions, and members of the cast and crew are welcome to consult them.

 

In Sonnet 129 Shakespeare explores the theme:

The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust;
Enjoyed no sooner but despisèd straight:
Past reason hunted; and no sooner had,
Past reason hated, as a swallowed bait,
On purpose laid to make the taker mad:
Mad in pursuit, and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.
All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

 One of the aesthetic tensions in Merry Wives is between the deceptive unrest of Falstaff in his pursuit of the two women, and the self-destructive unrest of Master Ford’s jealous obsession with his wife’s imagined unfaithfulness.

This high tensile unrest is one of the central features of the sonnets written, supposedly, to Shakespeare’s Dark Lady. It is something that Shakespeare never tired of, the way all those complex rationalizations, emotional thrusts, understandings and misunderstandings work together to create human interaction and its treatment in art.

Here are two of the Dark Lady sonnets that take us right to the heart of perception and deception, to the point where the impact of love and of sexual desire is to distort our perception of the truth and even the truth itself.

Sonnet 137

Thou blind fool, Love, what dost thou to mine eyes,
That they behold, and see not what they see?
They know what beauty is, see where it lies,
Yet what the best is take the worst to be.
If eyes corrupt by over-partial looks
Be anchor’d in the bay where all men ride,
Why of eyes’ falsehood hast thou forged hooks,
Whereto the judgment of my heart is tied?
Why should my heart think that a several plot
Which my heart knows the wide world’s common place?
Or mine eyes seeing this, say this is not,
To put fair truth upon so foul a face?
In things right true my heart and eyes have erred,
And to this false plague are they now transferr’d. 

Sonnet 138

When my love swears that she is made of truth
I do believe her, though I know she lies,
That she might think me some untutor’d youth,
Unlearned in the world’s false subtleties.
Thus vainly thinking that she thinks me young,
Although she knows my days are past the best,
Simply I credit her false speaking tongue:
On both sides thus is simple truth suppress’d.
But wherefore says she not she is unjust?
And wherefore say not I that I am old?
O, love’s best habit is in seeming trust,
And age in love loves not to have years told:
Therefore I lie with her and she with me,
And in our faults by lies we flatter’d be.

In the fifth act of Merry Wives the play turns into a carnival of English folklore. The children of the town, with Sir Hugh as their coach and Mistress Quickly as the Faerie Queen, become fairies who torment Falstaff as punishment for his lust-fueled pursuit of two of Windsor’s upstanding middle-class wives. The only other play in which fairies feature so prominently is A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where their role is somewhat different, though comparably dark. Falstaff himself, at the suggestion of the Windsor wives, is dressed as a character in English pagan mythology, Herne the Hunter. With horns on his head he suffers the fate that Master Ford imagined for himself: a cuckold – traditionally wearing horns – being physically tortured and publicly humiliated. He is removed from the town, which embodies the values of rationality and moral certainty, to the country, in which the bestial forces of desire and greed are exposed. As Mistress Page says to her husband: “Do not these fair yokes / Become the forest better than the town?” (5.5.103-4)

It is interesting that for the wives there is no doubt, not even a shred of superstitious emotional doubt, that the stories of Herne and fairies have no reality in their town lives. Falstaff, on the other hand, willfully gives himself up to playing the buck, a bestial version of his self-image, and confesses to a fear that the fairies are real.

Mary Ellen Lamb, in her book The Popular Culture of Shakespeare, Spenser, and Jonson, (see Critical Texts) discusses the plot hatched by the merry wives to deal publicly with the difficult position Falstaff has put them in. I do not agree with everything Lamb says, especially her use of the term ‘sort’ to replace ‘class’, as in ‘middling sort’ and ‘lower sort’. But she takes us into a territory that is is not often discussed fully in editions of the play. Here are some of the things she says in the section “Old wives’ tales” on Merry Wives:

“As Mistress Page turns to the tale of Herne the Hunter as a means of conning Falstaff into one last assignation, she first expertly enacts the role of storyteller, and then rejects that role as she carefully delineates her social and intellectual differences from its earlier tellers:

MRS. PAGE
There is an old tale goes that Herne the hunter,
Sometime a keeper here in Windsor Forest
Doth all the winter time at still midnight
Walk round about an oak with great ragg’d horns;
And then he blasts the trees, and takes the cattle’
And makes the milch-kine yield blood, and shakes a chain
In a most hideous and dreadful manner.
You have heard of such a spirit, and well you know,
The superstitious, idle-headed eld
Received, and did deliver to our age,
This tale of Herne the Hunter for a truth. (4.4.26-36)

The first seven lines of this passage weave a spell of pleasurable terror that is the essence of ghost stories. Especially thrilling is the detail that he “makes the milch-kine yield blood.” Then, as if catching herself, she addresses the group as would a commentator or an early sociologist rather than as a participant in this oral tradition. Her description affords little respect to those who transmitted this tale: they were “eld,” and the association with “eld” and “idle-headed” suggests senility. Rather than creators, they were merely transmitters, receiving and then delivering the narrative without any inventions of their own. Most damning, they were ignorant enough to believe this tale “for a truth.” This representation implies the superiority of Mistress Page and her audience, consisting of the Pages, the Fords, and Hugh Evans. Unlike the “eld” they are youthful and modern. Rather than superstitious and idle-headed, they are rational pragmatists, their minds laboring with useful schemes, their feet firmly on the ground, and never so foolish as to believe the tale of Herne the hunter. Mistress Page’s confident knowledge that the “eld” truly believed this tale itself exposes her alienation from these traditional storytellers. Their level of credulity is impossible to determine, since conveying a sense of the veracity of ghost stories, no matter how fantastic, was a convention designed to elicit a frisson from listeners.

This supposed belief in absurd superstition is not limited to the “idle headed eld.” “Many” still act as if they accept these stories. As Mr. Page observes, “Why, yet there want not many that do fear / In deep of night to walk by this Herne’s Oak” (4.4.37-8). Who are these ignorant souls who still fear, or pretend to fear, a walk by Herne’s Oak at midnight? And who would have told this old tale to Mistress Page? Her most apparent contact with such a low narrator would have been through unnamed women of a lower sort, women such as Mistress Quickly, who could tell a tale even of the wart over Fenton’s eyebrow, and the fat woman of Brentford, who traded in superstitions and the fears they elicited. It was to these old wives to whom such superstitious tales, in their rough and unedited form, in some sense, most belonged. The source of Mistress Page’s alienation would seem then to be social as well as intellectual, directed toward a low aesthetic circulated by the allegedly ignorant poor. The unlike treatment of Mistresses Quickly and Brentford suggests conflicting relationships among the middling sort to the oral tales traditionally performed by old wives in front of a winter’s fire. While neither woman earned respect, the old woman of Brentford, in the person of Falstaff, was beaten as an outsider, while Mistress Quickly was readily absorbed into the citizen enactment of this tale as the fairy queen herself. However much she rendered herself of practical use to the citizens of Windsor, Mistress Quickly yet retained an identification with the low – as did tales of Herne the hunter and fairies.

Fairies

…..the charivari staged in Merry Wives is far removed from the boisterous event described in historical accounts. It is uniquely bourgeois. Windsor has tamed the traditionally course charivari into a children’s performance, staged before the gaze of proud and indulgent parents. There is no charivari on record that mentions any participants costumed as fairies. Children were never featured as participants. This strikingly unusual adaptation reveals not only the homogenization of popular culture, through which very different practices become mingled under one category of the “low”, but also an urge to create roles appropriate to children. The community takes their children’s achievements seriously. To sing and dance together and on cue, they must attend rehearsals conducted by their schoolmaster and parson Hugh Evans for, as Mr. Ford remarks, “The children must be / Practiced well to this, or they’ll ne’er do’t” 4.5.63-4). Just before their performance, Evans’ direction conveys his tension that they might fall short of a polished performance: “Trib, trib fairies! Come! And remember your parts.” The reluctance of the children to project their voices motivates his anxious direction to “Be bold, I pray you.” They must watch him for cues: “Follow me into the pit, and when I give the watch-ords, do as I pid you. Come, come; trib, Trib!” (5.4.1-3), This degree of stage anxiety – or indeed any stage anxiety at all – is utterly foreign to accounts of charivaris, loud and rowdy affairs conducted by adults intending to shame, not to impress. Creating rough music by banging utensils on pans did not require watching for cues from a conductor. This citizen intervention in the concept of charivari foregrounds the importance of well-trained children in the self-narratives of the middling sort. As the children burn Falstaff’s fingers with tapers and turn him about, they dance and sing in what emerges as an uncannily graceful performance of torture. As their discipline of Falstaff’s “sinful fantasy” surely impresses in their memories the absolute necessity for sexual chastity, it also subordinates his very real pain to the demands of the aesthetic. The children’s role in the charivari not only validates the imposition of physical harm on anyone, whether vagrant or knight, who violates the moral norms of Windsor; it also teaches them that this pain does not matter.”

Lamb goes on to compare this fairy performance with the kind of masque that might have been staged before an aristocratic audience. It is an interesting exploration of the distinctions in popular culture in the Elizabethan and Stuart theater. It reminds me that one of the things that Shakespeare does extraordinarily – and radically – well is to bring together the tone and method of literary drama, tragedy or comedy, with popular entertainment. And it reminds me of how well he listened to the way ordinary people spoke to each other in pairs or in groups.