CHARACTER NOTES: A dramaturge's observations
The characters we find on the page in a Shakespeare play are merely words. It is only when the actors have taken the words and clothed them in movement and gesture that they become the fully-fledged interactive beings that audiences love.
One of the privileges of being a dramaturge for this production is that I get to watch the actors - and they are a very fine bunch - grapple with the words and bring their beings to life. And as I watch - and I will continue to watch beyond the opening to the whole run - I develop and revise my ideas and observations about each character. So, I thought it might be interesting to post my developing impressions for an audience who will be familiar with some but not all of these characters. I'm not offering a fixed idea of who these characters are, because it's one of the wonderful dimensions of Shakespeare that characters change depending on the actors. And it doesn't depend on just a single character. The emergence of character is a dynamic process resulting from the interaction of several actors on the stage and the audience itself.
Kim Bromley, the Director of this production, has said, in her Program Notes: “So I chose to be faithful to time and place for this Merry Wives, although I have taken some liberties with casting and the interpretation of a few characters because I am intrigued by the gender politics of the play.” The time and location for Merry Wives are fascinating, and indeed, gender politics is one of Shakespeare’s most substantial and enduring themes, one we can find in all his plays and poems including, famously, the sonnets.
Mistress Ford and Mistress Page
These two women are quite different, of course, but one of the things they do throughout Merry Wives, to great comic effect, is to roleplay in order to set up the unwitting Falstaff. In this narrative Mistress Ford plays the gullible, somewhat wicked, somewhat naughty wife of the jealous Master Ford. She seems to enjoy the idea of naughtiness, though she is appalled by the idea of being naughty with the fat knight. Mistress Page on the other hand seems to adapt very well to the idea of the moral woman, someone who might be quite at home in an American small town, and she makes a gossip’s comments about her friend’s mock behavior for the benefit of the fat knight.
Windsor is a small town even now, quite separate in culture and demography from London even with the shared flow of tourists. In 1600 there were fewer than 2,000 residents, most of whom would have known each other. Alice Ford and Margaret (Meg) Page would have known each other extremely well, and I think we can assume that there would not have been too many women of equal intelligence and status for them to spend time with. They would have known the Hostess, though their paths do not cross during the play. And of course there’s Mistress Quickly, whom Alice Ford refers to as “that foolish carrion” (meaning “old bag”, or perhaps “old whore”), but her position is a subservient, dependent one and she lives in her own, rather different universe, stretched tight toward the upper echelons to whom she is attracted.
To be sure, Windsor is also home to the royal court, and though the court would sit only once a year and not for long, there were people employed to keep it going and there would have been a constant flow of passers-through and immigrants. Caius and Evans are among those, but so too, in a big way, is Sir John Falstaff, the outsider who disrupts their everyday life and causes them to examine their own moral and personal stability.
One of the characteristics of the women’s role-play with Falstaff is that it appears to be an exciting distraction from their everyday lives. In the beginning Falstaff’s approach is not only ludicrous and crazy but is also threatening. These women do not, they cannot, own property (they themselves, according to their husbands, are property), but what they have is their virtue, their “honesty”. But in defending their honesty all they really needed to do was to tell their husbands. Instead, they embark upon a scheme that throws down the gauntlet to their husbands as well as to Falstaff. Ford is the obvious target here with the jealousies that rattle his brain. But Mr Page, with his docile tendency to put his head in the sand, is also a target. He is altogether too complacent in thinking that no one will be interested in his wife and that she feels no desire towards others. Is it possible that one of Meg’s aims is to show him that she can still be the object of other men’s desire?
While the two wives work together for much of the play there are moments when they speak and act in their own everyday voices. Mistress Page has a tendency to be rather flighty, but also to be controlling. When she and Mistress Ford are organizing the buckbasket with the servants Robert and John, she cannot stop herself from jumping in and telling Mistress Ford what to do and how. She is also at her most controlling when she tries to get her daughter married to the utterly inappropriate Dr Caius. This may be a response to her husband’s rather button-down view of life: he thinks there is a logic in the world to which he has the key; and it’s an utterly conventional logic in which, for example, Slender’s relationship with a magistrate, however far away he might live (Gloucestershire is a hundred miles from Windsor), is reason enough to hitch his daughter to his wagon; and in which a venison pasty or a possitt is expected to do the work of a hundred diplomats. It comes as no surprise therefore that Mistress Page really gets into the role-playing with Falstaff and becomes very excited by and caught up in the narrative of Herne the Hunter. When she’s describing the revenge plot to her husbands she tells them the story of Herne using the same sensual language and excited tone that Master Ford uses when he is speaking about catching his wife in flagrante delicto, as it were, and in describing the contents of the buckbasket.
Mistress Ford, on the other hand, has an impressive line in irony in the way she thinks and speaks about the whole situation. It is she who is prepared to dissimulate both to Falstaff and her husband, and when they have created the first buckbasket scene she says: “I know not what pleases me better, that my husband is deceived, or Sir John.” It is also Alice Ford who suggests a repeat performance “to betray him to another punishment”. And incidentally it is Mistress Ford who notices that her husband is unusually focused in his jealousy this time: “I think my husband hath some special suspicion of Falstaff’s being here, for I never saw him so gross in his jealousy till now.”
Audiences have loved this character, who also appeared in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, and by report in Henry V, for centuries; it’s sometimes said that Shakespeare wrote this play because Elizabeth 1 wanted more of him. It is, incidentally, dramatic license that allows us to overlook the almost 200 years between the time of Henry IV and Elizabethan Windsor. The real issue, to me, is this: given that he’s lecherous, patriarchal in a loner’s way, presumptuous and somewhat arrogant, well past his physical prime and something of a coward to boot, I wonder what there is to love about him. He is, at the very least, engaging, even likeable. Perhaps it’s his vulnerability? Or his honest awareness of his own failings? He’s a boozer and glutton with big appetites, but he’s also something of a fool. His command of the English language is impressive, yet he often fails to live by his own meanings. Perhaps it is the mystery that keeps us wanting more. Or is it that he reminds us of tendencies and failings in ourselves and helps us to laugh at them, to share the burden of them? An important quality for me is that Falstaff tries it on with garrulous and big-hearted grandiosity; he tries to get away with jousts for which he would condemn any other man - from theft and riot to lecherous assault - but when he is caught and brought down he does not complain. Like Parolles in All’s Well That Ends Well (“If my heart were great / ‘Twould burst at this”, All’s Well 4,3,319-20), he is well aware not only of his failings but of the implications of being caught doing what he knows to be wrong: “I do perceive,” he says when he is confronted by the merry wives and their husbands, dressed as Herne the Hunter, “that I am made an ass.”
Alice’s husband is an obsessive. Until the very end of the play he has a single narrative, the possibility - which at times he thinks a certainty - that his wife is sleeping with other men. Of course, Falstaff is the main culprit for the timespan of the play, but we know from things his wife and others say that his jealousy predates the arrival of the fat knight. Who else does he suspect? Master Page? Sir Hugh? Dr Caius. It’s intriguing. So is his creation of the persona of Master Brook, in a play-within-a-play so familiar to followers of Shakespeare, who carries out the narrative that plays itself to death in Ford’s mind, soliciting Falstaff to sleep with Mistress Ford in order that Brook may do so afterwards. Brook is a stream. A ford is a crossing (as in Oxford, where the River Ox flows into the Thames). Make of that what you will. Something will flow from the play-within-a-play. And so it does. One of the problems with Master Ford is that once the narrative of cuckoldry is ended by truth and honesty, he becomes somewhat bland. And in the final scene of the play, he reinforces his view, common in Elizabethan times (and still more common than we think), that women were the property of men. Perhaps his view of women as property relates strongly to the kind of cuckold’s jealousy that lives in his mind.
A friend and neighbor of Master Ford, Page is the practical man, the mediator, the arbiter of common sense. He’s a bit slow and dull, but speaks with the authority of a man who has made money and can use money to get his way. He offers advice to everyone, from the Hostess of the Garter to the foreign combatants Evans and Caius. He believes - and his belief is sometimes voiced by his wife - that the ultimate resolution to any conflict, however strenuous or foul, is food. A pasty, some venison. Breakfast, lunch, dinner. When there is conflict, his response is to suggest that “we shall drink down all unkindness”. He also prefigures some of my favorite Jane Austen characters, wealthy men of middling status whose only true relationships are with their dogs. I think of Sir John Middleton in Sense and Sensibility and one suspects that given the choice Master Page would prefer to spend his time with dogs than with women, even men. And that perhaps is one of the reasons he likes Slender as a prospective son-in-law. When they meet along with Slender’s uncle Shallow at the beginning of the play the only thing they find to talk about is Page’s fallow greyhound: “’Tis a good dog,” Shallow says. “A cur,” Page replies.
She’s a sly one, and she makes her living being all things to all men and women: she’s a go-between who, sometimes without meaning to, plays people off against each other. She never commits to anything and makes others believe that all things are possible. And she’s well-known in the literary world for her malapropisms: she aspires to an erudite vocabulary but constantly and hilariously misses the mark. Keep an ear out for the wrong, or an absurd word to come out of her mouth. Like “canaries”, for example, which she says without realizing it, instead of “quandary”, or “fartuous” instead of “virtuous”. She makes me think of Ellen (Nelly) Dean, the housekeeper in Wuthering Heights, whose sometimes arbitrary decisions about passing on or withholding information from the main characters lead to some of the tragic events in the novel. She’s a busybody, she doesn’t get things right, and she works with her own agenda which is determined either by money or by a sentimental view of other people.
Sir Hugh Evans
Shakespeare has pulled off a remarkable feat with the lacrimose Welshman, Sir Hugh Evans. He is a stereotype from head to toe, yet he’s also a sympathetic character who gives us a sense of the playwright’s affection for the Welsh. I don’t know why he was knighted; it suggests that he has done good service for a senior member of the court. That at least would explain his presence in Windsor, where he is both a parson and a school teacher - a combination that would have been pretty common at the time. He is a supremely comic figure, the humor coming from a number of characteristics: his accent, which leads him to mispronounce a whole slew of English words; his tendency to use nouns for verbs or adjectives; his tendency to correct the grammar, diction and word-choice of others; his related tendency to offer advice from a moral universe that is small, tight, unchanging and with a seemingly endless store of little moral sayings; and his emotional sensitivity, a quality that is part of the stereotype. In the race for the hand of Mistress Anne Page he offers to work on behalf of Slender, the rather limited courtier from Gloucestershire, which brings him into direct conflict with the Frenchman, Dr Caius, who believes he is the one who is after Anne Page and challenges him to a duel with swords. Ever a man of honor, Evans follows through and while searching for Caius, who has not appeared at the place Evans thinks was appointed, he confesses his sadness and perhaps his fear. He does not share with Caius a high estimation of himself as a fighting man. I am “trempling of mind!” he tells his companion Simple. “I shall be glad if he have deceived me. How melancholies I am!” He sings a rather touching song in which “melodious birds sing madrigals,” and ends by turning to the audience and saying “I have a great dispositions to cry.”
The busy Frenchman is given to extremes, is feverish with jealousy when he thinks Sir Hugh is a rival for Anne Page, and spends half his life - as many Elizabethan or Renaissance doctors did - administering courses of action, or pronouncing on them, to no discernible effect. He is a mass of contradictions. He imagines himself a Sir Lancelot, shining and pure, but in practice he is something of a fizzle. And though tormented by his jealousy of Sir Hugh he says, while watching Master Ford play out his jealousy, “By Gar, ‘tis no the fashion of France. It is not jealous in France.” He loves the art of fencing and jumps at the chance to exhibit it when he challenges Sir Hugh. Of course we only see the charade of fencing and not the real thing since the Hostess has deceived both parties so that, as she says, “they may keep their limbs whole and hack our English.”
And hacking English is one of Caius most memorable features. He speaks what in Britain is called Franglais. It comes close to parody and would be perfectly at home in a Monty Python sketch. Of course, Caius lives with Mistress Quickly - and we are never quite sure whether her list of the things she does for him is complete - so he must spend much of his time speaking with a woman who is the epitome of malapropism and multiple ambiguity.
Effectively she has two sides to her character. On the one hand she is the sensible arbiter and counsel that Mistress Quickly would like to be but is too muddled and greedy to pull off. She mediates between the warring factions of Dr Caius and Parson Evans, pulling them to her and to each other as no one else could. She also has to deal with the sometimes rowdy hangers on of Falstaff, indeed Falstaff himself, a landlady or a barmaid appeasing the actions of people who have had too much to drink. On the other hand she lives in a turmoil of words and concepts, throwing them about like candy. Unlike Mistress Quickly, though, she gets the words right and takes delight in asking, “Did I say well?” She also has an eccentric vocabulary, and I suspect that one of her words was more or less invented by Shakespeare for this play (he did that from time to time, giving us inkhorn terms some of which we’re still using and some of which - say, “incarnadine” from Macbeth - we are not): “anthropophaginian”. Now, that’s a word that was quite possibly coined by Shakespeare for the occasion, using his knowledge of Greek and Latin: anthropos = human being; phagos = to eat. In other words, a cannibal.
Sweet Anne Paige she is called by the emerging gentleman Master Fenton, who also calls her Sweet Nan. And Slender, the clueless, almost a-sexual courtier from Gloucestershire, a county a hundred miles from Windsor, spends a great deal of time rehearsing that epithet in an effort to disguise his complete indifference to her charm. But Anne is not so sweet. She knows what she doesn’t want and knows how to say it: “I had rather be set quick i’th’ earth and bowled to death with turnips”. And she knows what she wants. When the candidate she favors falters she immediately suggests - though it might be more than a suggestion - that he firm up his stones and get on with it. We come away thinking that Mistress Anne Page will be the commanding officer in her household.
Justice Shallow, Slender and Simple
They live up to their names. The three visitors from Gloucestershire, which borders on Wales and is about 100 miles west of Windsor, are in town for the sole purpose of getting Slender married. They’re country yokels, though Shallow is a Justice of the Peace and therefore entitled to call himself Esquire. A JP in Elizabethan England, when there was no police force as such, was a voluntary position, though there was enough money made available by town councils to hire a few men to help the Justice enforce the law. Think of Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing. The attraction of Windsor of course is Mistress Anne Page, and they are fully aware of her reputed gifts (as Parson Evans calls them) which include her own money, a dowry provided by her father and, ahem, the gifts that go with “pretty virginitie”. Though the nominal future son-in-law, Slender, seems completely impervious to any of her woman’s attributes. One of the streams of hilarity in the play is the way this trio becomes involved, not by choice but by some kind of moral default, in the affairs of others. Shallow and Slender watch as the buckbasket is emptied, clueless about how to act.
There are still plenty of men like Shallow scattered through England. Members of the upper Middle Class, they tend to like dogs and other bluff men. They are in love with their own importance and have a tendency to meddle. Shallow (who also appears as a character in 2 Henry IV) tries to establish himself at the beginning of the play by accusing Falstaff of poaching his deer, breaking into his hunting lodge and assaulting his servants. He threatens to prosecute Falstaff who dares him to go ahead, and true to character he backs down and spends the rest of the play trying to persuade his nephew Slender to act like a man in need of a wife. As he wanders through other people’s lives he looks on them as sport, by which of course he means entertainment.
Slender is never really sure of what he has done, is doing or might do in the future. He seems to be slender in every way, and he is malignantly bored by life. At one point he says he wishes he had a copy of Tottel’s Miscellany to hand (the Book of Songs and Sonnets) and a short while later he talks to Simple about the Book of Riddles. When asked if he knows Anne Page he says, revealing his tiny (slender) perspective, “Mistress Anne Page? She has brown hair, and speaks small like a woman?" The word “like” is bigger than he is. And later, when he encounters her directly and she asks what is his will, he is so far from having any intentions that he thinks she means a legal will and points out that he is not yet dead. Throughout the play he grapples with ways of saying “Sweet Anne Page”, never quite able to find a tone or rhythm that would give those words any fibre.
Simple is as simple does, and like all things simple he-she isn’t, quite. She’s a cypher in many ways, her neutral energy forcing others to reveal a little of who they are. She seems, rather deceptively, not to know what’s going on but acts literally and without awareness of context or the willingness to take it into account. She is unwittingly responsible for the mounting rivalry between Caius and Evans, having given Caius the impression that Evans is wooing Anne Page himself. She also seems to feel that her role as a servant to one (or more) of her social superiors is something she was born with. So whenever she is asked or told to do something, irrespective of who asks, she does it.
He comes from family. We don’t know anything about his origins except that Master Page considers his status to be a little too high for the ordinary social logic by which he abides: “too great of birth”..... Social codes were strict enough that under normal circumstances people did not cross boundaries (they often do in literature for literary reasons). We also know that Fenton confesses to “riots past and wild societies”. In fact he shares some of his background tendencies with Falstaff, with whom he also shares a pleasure in using language poetically. Fenton, needless to say, is no Falstaff, not least because the latter is comparatively gargantuan in physique, and of course is a good deal older. But Anne appears to see promise in him, and as the play unfolds and the denouement approaches we come to suspect that in her own way she will make a man of him. In his final words to the assembled company he stands up to Anne’s father and says “You would have married her most shamefully”. That’s quite something for someone who at the beginning was as meek as a lamb.
Bardolph Nym and Pistol
Characters who have a previous history with Falstaff. They will be familiar to audiences of 1 Henry IV. They rely on Falstaff’s success as a hustler for their livelihood, being paid for a wide range of services that they don’t always enjoy. But Falstaff is currently short of money so they have to turn to alternative ways of earning money. Bardolph, for example, draws beer for the Hostess of the Garter. And Nym and Pistol act with less loyalty to the knight. When Falstaff asks them to act as Pandars (pimps) to the two wives, they feel a moral repugnance which foreshadows the way, in Henry V, Hal, who is now the putative king, turns against him. Moreover, they turn the tables on their master by telling the husbands Ford and Page about his plans. Since Falstaff is such a powerful character this rebellion on the part of his men allows Shakespeare to provide some moral ballast to offset the fat knight’s lecherous intent. One of the most interesting aspects of these characters, as so often with the comic ruffians in Shakespeare, is their use of language.
Pistol speaks in quips, little ragged homilies that manage to sum up the context in which he speaks. “ He hath studied her will,” her says of Falstaff in relation to Ford’s wife, “and translated her will, out of honesty, into English.” He’s probably the member of this little gang most likely to join a book club and, as our Director says, wear tats. My guess is that the tats would quote the 15th century French poet Rabelais, author of Gargantua et Pantagruel. A quote like this (freely translated from honest into English: tirez le rideau, la farce est jouée: draw the curtain, the farce is over. (Beethoven, on his deathbed, said something similar: plaudite amici; comedia finita est - applaud, my friends; the comedy is finished. Like Nym, Pistol has found a slender moral framework in which to live and judges others and situations accordingly.
Nym is an ill-tempered man who persists in talking about “humours”; for example, when Pistol calls Falstaff a “base Phrygian Turk”, Nym says: “I have operations which be humours of revenge.” Robert Burton’s famous Anatomy of Melancholy was not published until 1621, but there is textual evidence that Shakespeare was familiar with a precursor by Dr Timothy Bright, the Treatise of Melancholy of 1586, which draws heavily on the prevailing theories of humours which hold that emotions are governed by four fluids: blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile (the latter seen as the source of melancholy).
Bardolph, on the other hand, has a slightly ironic demeanor. He does not have many lines, not nearly as many as he had in 1 Henry IV. But he delivers them in a way that shows up something of the person - usually Falstaff - he is speaking to.
Rugby is typical of the urban English serving class before the massive seachange of WW1. He works hard, obeys his masters - in this case his master (Caius) and mistress (Quickly) and conveys at least to them the impression that he serves them faithfully and well. For this reason, in Merry Wives, they do not question or doubt him. They assume, without really thinking about it, that he will do what they ask. And Rugby carries out his duties with a cosmopolitan servant’s irony. He is aware that Dr Caius is somewhat bombastic and he goes along with it. Depending on the performance there might be a little wink to the audience or some other ironic gesture, though not something that his bosses will be aware of.
Shakespeare might well have taken Rugby’s name from the town in Warwickshire (the home county of Stratford-upon-Avon, in which case he joins the migration that was already underway from rural Britain to the major centers. I should point out that Rugby is the town that gave its name to the famous school. The game of football was not invented until the mid nineteenth century, when a boy on the soccer field grew tired of having to kick the ball and picked it up in his hands and sped toward the goal.
One of those minor but wonderful Shakespearean characters who in fact comes with a fully-formed character that reveals itself as the play moves on. He is in fact Falstaff’s pageboy, but spends much of the play with Mistress Page and Mistress Ford, a transparently double agent as it were. He speaks with the knowingness of a precocious child and sometimes his words carry the kind of double entendre that Shakespeare is well known for. Mistress Quickly is always trying to protect him from the conversation of adults (about sex) but one suspects that it is Mistress Quickly rather than the boy who is in need of protection.