HONEST WOMEN and CONY-CATCHERS
Two words that crop up in the play a few times need a little bit of explanation.
In Shakespeare’s England a cony catcher was a man or woman who appeared to ordinary people on the street or in their homes or down at the tavern and through deception and false intimacy or friendship cheated them out of money or valuables. In our play Falstaff’s followers, Nym, Pistol and Bardolph are cony-catchers. Falstaff himself? The arch cony-catcher. The 21st century cony catcher uses more explosive methods such as tax cuts or reduction in public services.
Cony-catcher is similar to the word con-artist, but they have different etymologies. The con in con-artist comes from the word confidence: the perp gains the confidence of the victim before fleecing her or him. The cony in cony-catcher comes from the Middle English word coney, a rabbit. The perp approaches a victim and through deception turns them into a fluffy tame bunny, which makes it easier to cheat them.
“Wives may be merry and yet honest too.” So says Mistress Page as she and her friend Mistress Ford embark on a second lesson in humiliation for the lecherous and entitled fat knight Jack Falstaff.
We usually take honesty to mean being truthful, or owning up. To be honest is to be free of deceit, truthful, but also, in some of its many variations, simple (it’s an honest design) or well-intentioned (it was an honest mistake).
In Elizabethan England a woman’s honesty was her reputation. The word comes from the Middle English honeste which meant (OED) ’held in or deserving of honour’, originally from the Latin honestus. It might have included such things as her reputation as a cook, a mother, a manager of servants or a gossip, but in our play its explicit meaning is sexual faithfulness. Honest wives do not sleep around. At a deeper level honesty is also about integrity. Honest women choose the people they’re merry with. Meg Page embodies that in her own actions when she and Alice Ford publicly humiliate the man who is hitting on them (who says to Ms Ford, in the dishonesty of lust, that he “would thy husband were dead”). She also learns a variation on honesty and integrity when her own daughter, Sweet Anne Page, goes against the wishes of both her parents and chooses her own partner.
The 21st century merry women (and, alas, girls) are the women who engendered and continue the #metoo movement by publicly naming (and therefore humiliating) the men who were hitting on them. It is not surprising that most of those men used their power over others to impose their sexual appetites on women rather than attracting them in any natural way. As Meg Page says to Falstaff, so might women today say to men in power:
“Why, Sir John, do you think, though we would have thrust virtue out of our hearts by the head and shoulders, and have given ourselves without scruple to hell, that ever the devil could have made you our delight?” [My emphasis on you].