The Merry Wives of Windsor
The Merry Wives of Windsor is a comedy by William Shakespeare, first published in 1602, though believed to have been written prior to 1597. The Windsor of the play's title is a reference to Windsor Castle in Berkshire, England, and though nominally set in the reign of Henry IV, the play makes no pretence to exist outside contemporary Elizabethan era English middle class life. It features the character Sir John Falstaff, the fat knight who had previously been featured in Henry IV Parts 1 and 2. It has been adapted for the opera on several occasions.
- Sir John Falstaff
- Bardolph, Pistol, Nym – followers of Falstaff.
- Robin – page to Falstaff.
- Messrs. Ford & Page – two gentlemen dwelling at Windsor.
- William Page – a boy, son to Page.
- Sir Hugh Evans – a Welsh parson
- Doctor Caius – a French physician.
- Rugby – a servant to Doctor Caius.
- Mistress Quickly – servant to Doctor Caius.
- Shallow – a Country Justice.
- Slender – cousin to Shallow.
- Simple – servant to Slender.
- Fenton – a young gentleman.
- The Host of the Garter Inn
- Mistress Ford
- Mistress Page
- Anne Page – Mistress Page's daughter, in love with Fenton.
The play is nominally set circa 1400, during the same period as the Henry IV plays featuring Falstaff, but there is only one brief reference to this period, a line in which the character Fenton is said to have been one of Prince Hal's rowdy friends (he "kept company with the wild prince and Poins"). In all other respects, the play implies a contemporary setting of the Elizabethan era, circa 1600.
Falstaff arrives in Windsor very short on money. He decides, to obtain financial advantage, that he will court two wealthy married women, Mistress Ford and Mistress Page. Falstaff decides to send the women identical love letters and asks his servants – Pistol and Nym – to deliver them to the wives. When they refuse, Falstaff sacks them, and, in revenge, the men tell Ford and Page (the husbands) of Falstaff's intentions. Page is not concerned, but the jealous Ford persuades the Host of the Garter to introduce him to Falstaff as a 'Master Brook' so that he can find out Falstaff's plans.
Meanwhile, three different men are trying to win the hand of Page's daughter, Mistress Anne Page. Mistress Page would like her daughter to marry Doctor Caius, a French physician, whereas the girl's father would like her to marry Master Slender. Anne herself is in love with Master Fenton, but Page had previously rejected Fenton as a suitor due to his having squandered his considerable fortune on high-class living. Hugh Evans, a Welsh parson, tries to enlist the help of Mistress Quickly (servant to Doctor Caius) in wooing Anne for Slender, but the doctor discovers this and challenges Evans to a duel. The Host of the Garter prevents this duel by telling both men a different meeting place, causing much amusement for himself, Justice Shallow, Page and others. Evans and Caius decide to work together to be revenged on the Host.
When the women receive the letters, each goes to tell the other, and they quickly find that the letters are almost identical. The "merry wives" are not interested in the ageing, overweight Falstaff as a suitor; however, for the sake of their own amusement and to gain revenge for his indecent assumptions towards them both, they pretend to respond to his advances.
This all results in great embarrassment for Falstaff. Mr. Ford poses as 'Mr. Brook' and says he is in love with Mistress Ford but cannot woo her as she is too virtuous. He offers to pay Falstaff to court her, saying that once she has lost her honour he will be able to tempt her himself. Falstaff cannot believe his luck, and tells 'Brook' he has already arranged to meet Mistress Ford while her husband is out. Falstaff leaves to keep his appointment and Ford soliloquises that he is right to suspect his wife and that the trusting Page is a fool.
When Falstaff arrives to meet Mistress Ford, the merry wives trick him into hiding in a laundry basket ("buck basket") full of filthy, smelly clothes awaiting laundering. When the jealous Ford returns to try and catch his wife with the knight, the wives have the basket taken away and the contents (including Falstaff) dumped into the river. Although this affects Falstaff's pride, his ego is surprisingly resilient. He is convinced that the wives are just "playing hard to get" with him, so he continues his pursuit of sexual advancement, with its attendant capital and opportunities for blackmail.
Again Falstaff goes to meet the women but Mistress Page comes back and warns Mistress Ford of her husband's approach again. They try to think of ways to hide him other than the laundry basket which he refuses to get into again. They trick him again, this time into disguising himself as Mistress Ford's maid's obese aunt, known as "the fat woman of Brentford". Ford tries once again to catch his wife with the knight but ends up beating the "old woman", whom he despises, and throwing her out of his house. Black and blue, Falstaff laments his bad luck.
Eventually the wives tell their husbands about the series of jokes they have played on Falstaff, and together they devise one last trick which ends up with the Knight being humiliated in front of the whole town. They tell Falstaff to dress as "Herne, the Hunter" and meet them by an old oak tree in Windsor Forest (now part of Windsor Great Park). They then dress several of the local children, including Anne and William Page, as fairies and get them to pinch and burn Falstaff to punish him. Page plots to dress Anne in white and tells Slender to steal her away and marry her during the revels. Mistress Page and Doctor Caius arrange to do the same, but they arrange Anne shall be dressed in green. Anne tells Fenton this, and he and the Host arrange for Anne and Fenton to be married instead.
The wives meet Falstaff, and almost immediately the "fairies" attack. Slender, Caius, and Fenton steal away their brides-to-be during the chaos, and the rest of the characters reveal their true identities to Falstaff.
Although he is embarrassed, Falstaff takes the joke surprisingly well, as he sees it was what he deserved. Ford says he must pay back the 20 pounds 'Brook' gave him and takes the Knight's horses as recompense. Slender suddenly appears and says he has been deceived – the 'girl' he took away to marry was not Anne but a young boy. Caius arrives with similar news – however, he has actually married his boy! Fenton and Anne arrive and admit that they love each other and have been married. Fenton chides the parents for trying to force Anne to marry men she did not love and the parents accept the marriage and congratulate the young pair. Eventually they all leave together and Mistress Page even invites Falstaff to come with them: "let us every one go home, and laugh this sport o'er by a country fire; Sir John and all".
Some elements of The Merry Wives of Windsor may have been adapted from Il Pecorone, a collection of stories by Ser Giovanni Fiorentino; one of these stories was included in William Painter's The Palace of Pleasure.
Date and text
The play's date of composition is unknown; it was registered for publication in 1602, but was probably several years old by that date. Textual allusions to the Order of the Garter at Windsor Castle (5.5. 69–72) suggest that the play may have been intended for performance in April 1597, prior to the installation at Windsor in May of the Knights-Elect of that order; if so, it was probably performed when Elizabeth I attended Garter Feast on 23 April. Katherine Duncan-Jones points out that this was the year Lord Hunsdon, the Lord Chamberlain, was admitted to the Order and that, as a patron of Shakespeare's playing company The Lord Chamberlain's Men he could have commissioned the play for performance that evening. The Garter theory is only speculation, but it is consistent with a story first recorded by John Dennis in 1702 and Nicholas Rowe in 1709: that Shakespeare was commanded to write the play by Queen Elizabeth, who wanted to see "Falstaff in love". However, that such a story was first recorded one hundred years later – in the same year in which Dennis had made an adaptation of Merry Wives – makes it unreliable. However, Hunsdon would have been well placed to pass on the queen's wishes to his players, which could account for the tradition.
Another possible explanation comes from the epilogue to Henry IV, Part 2, which promises to "continue the story, with Sir John in it". Sir John does not appear in Henry V, so Merry Wives could have been written to make good on the pledge.
Support for the Garter theory is divided. If it is correct, it would mean that Shakespeare wrote The Merry Wives of Windsor between Henry IV part 1 and part 2. Critics have trouble believing this because of all the inconsistencies that appear between the Henry plays and Merry Wives. For example, there are no references to any of the major events from Falstaff's fifteenth-century exploits from the history plays, such as the rebellion (Henry IV part 1 & 2), in Merry Wives.
18 January 1602 was the date the play was entered into the Register of the Stationers Company. The first quarto was published later that year, in an inferior text, by bookseller Arthur Johnson. It was published in a second quarto in 1619, as part of William Jaggard's False Folio; the superior First Folio text followed in 1623.
The title page of Q1 states that the play was acted by the Lord Chamberlain's Men, "Both before Her Majesty, and elsewhere." The earliest known performance occurred on 4 November 1604, at Whitehall Palace. The play is also known to have been performed on 15 November 1638, at the Cockpit in Court.
The play alludes to a German duke, who is generally thought to be Frederick I, Duke of Württemberg, who had visited England in 1592 and was elected to the Order of the Garter in 1597 (and who was eventually only installed in Stuttgart on 6 November 1603).
Analysis and criticism
Most critics consider Merry Wives to be one of Shakespeare's weakest plays, and the Falstaff of Merry Wives to be much inferior to the Falstaff of the two Henry IV plays. That Shakespeare would so stumble with one of his greatest creations is puzzling and a satisfactory reason for this remains to be found.
In the Fairy pageant in Act 5 Scene 5 (lines 54-75), Mistress Quickly, as the Queen of the Fairies, gives a long speech giving an elaborate description of the Order of the Garter, leading commentators starting Edmond Malone in 1790 to suggest that the play was written and performed for the Order of the Garter festival. William Green suggests that the play was drawn up when George Carey, as Lord Chamberlain and patron of Shakespeare's company, was elected Order of the Garter in April 1597.
A theatrical tradition, first recorded in 1702 by John Dennis in the prologue to his adaptation of the play, The Comical Gallant states that Queen Elisabeth herself "commanded it to be finished in fourteen days." Nicolas Rowe in 1709 adds that Elizabeth "was so well pleased with that admirable character of Falstaff, in the two parts of Henry the Fourth, that she commanded him to continue it for one play more, and to shew him in love." Scholars are often skeptical as to these claims, as they are first mentioned more than a century after the play's performance. T.W. Craik suggests that both may simply be fantasies abetted by the Quarto's title page which says of the play "As it hath diuers times Acted...Both before her Maiestie, and else-where [sic]."
Key themes of Merry Wives include love and marriage, jealousy and revenge, social class and wealth. Explored with irony, sexual innuendo, sarcasm, and stereotypical views of classes and nationalities, these themes help to give the play something closer to a modern-day view than is often found in Shakespeare's plays.
The play is centred on the class prejudices of middle-class England. The lower class is represented by characters such as Bardolph, Nym, and Pistol (Falstaff's followers), and the upper class is represented by Sir John Falstaff and Master Fenton. Shakespeare uses both Latin and misused English to represent the attitudes and differences of the people of this era. For example, much humor is derived from the exaggerated accents of Dr. Caius and Sir Hugh Evans. For example, Caius speaks in an exaggerated French dialect ; when he finds out he has married a page instead of Mistress Anne he exclaims that he has married "oon garcon", and Evans speaks in a thick Welsh accent to the point that Falstaff complains that he "makes fritters of English" (5,5,135) Much of the comedic effect of the play is derived from misunderstandings between characters.
Other scholars say that the treatment of sexual jealousy in the play differs from its treatment in others, like Othello and A Winter's Tale. The jealousy of Leontes and Othello is dangerous and deep-seated, while Ford's jealousy is something to be mocked and laughed at.
Merry Wives was one of the first Shakespearean plays to be performed once the theatres re-opened in 1660 after the Interregnum. Samuel Pepys saw the King's Company act it on 6 Dec. 1660, and again in 1661 and 1667 (though he didn't like it on any occasion). In 1702 John Dennis offered an adaptation (it has been called a "perversion") of the play, titled The Comical Gallant, or the Amours of Sir John Falstaff – which flopped. In 1824 Frederick Reynolds included Merry Wives in his series of operatic adaptations, with music by Henry Bishop. Charles Kean returned to Shakespeare's text in an 1851 production. Arthur Sullivan composed incidental music for use in Act V of an 1874 production at the Gaiety Theatre, London, which was also used in the 1889 Haymarket Theatre production.
During the period of anti-German feelings in England during World War I, many German names and titles were changed and given more English-sounding names, including the royal family's from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor. Kaiser Wilhelm II countered this by jokingly saying that he was off to see a performance of 'The Merry Wives of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha.'
Adaptations and cultural references
- The play was revised and adapted by John Dennis in 1702 as The Comical Gallant.
- The composer Antonio Salieri wrote the opera buffa Falstaff (1799), with a libretto by Carlo Prospero Defranceschi, which also adapts the main story line of The Merry Wives of Windsor for the operatic stage.
- The German composer Carl Otto Nicolai wrote an "singspiel" based on the comedy in 1849, Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor. The opera contains much German spoken dialogue, and many of the character's names have been changed (the names of the Mistresses Ford and Page are now Fluth and Reich) and there is more focus given between the romance of Fenton and Anne. It is the only adaptation to include the disguising of Falstaff as a woman.
- Giuseppe Verdi's last opera, Falstaff, with a libretto by Arrigo Boito, is based on the play. In this adaptation, the plot is kept largely as Shakespeare wrote it, but the story line is condensed and simplified, and there are several changes. For example, Anne (known as Nanetta) is now the daughter of Mistress Ford, not Mistress Page, and she is betrothed by her father to Dr. Caius alone, with Mistresses Ford and Page conspiring to aid in her elopement with Fenton. The roles of Master Page, Slender, Shallow, Sir Hugh Evans, and many others are eliminated. To flesh out Falstaff's character, librettist Arrigo Boito adds material from Shakespeare's Henry IV, Parts I and II, including the famous "honor" soliloquy found in act I scene II of Henry IV Part I. It is largely considered to be the best operatic adaptation of The Merry Wives of Windsor, as well as one of opera's greatest comic achievements.
- The English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote Sir John in Love, an opera based on this play in the years 1924–28. Much of the libretto is taken directly from Shakespeare's text, making it the most accurate of the operatic adaptations. The only version to retain all of the characters as well as the subplot of the duel between Dr. Caius and Sir Hugh Evans.
- The play was adapted to Kiswahili by Joshua Ogutu and performed at the Globe Theatre in London as part of the 2012 Globe to Globe festival.
- For the 2012 Oregon Shakespeare Festival season, Alison Carey adapted the play into a political satire called The Very Merry Wives of Windsor, Iowa.
- For the 2012 Bard on the Beach season in Vancouver, Director Johnna Wright set the play in 1968 Windsor, Ontario.
- Van Santvoord, George, editor, The Merry Wives of Windsor (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1922): 119.
- Duncan-Jones, Katherine (2001). Ungentle Shakespeare: scenes from his life. London: Arden Shakespeare. pp. 97–8. ISBN 1-903436-26-5.
- Bate, Jonathan; Rasmussen, Eric (2011). The Merry Wives of Windsor. Basingstoke, England: Macmillan. pp. 5–6. ISBN 978-0-230-28411-1.
- Craik, T. W. (ed.) (2008). "Introduction". In Shakespeare, William. The Merry Wives of Windsor. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 3. ISBN 978-0-19-953682-5.
- Green, William (1962). Shakespeare's 'Merry Wives of Windsor'. Princeton. pp. 58–59.
- Craik, T. W. (ed.) (2008). "Introduction". In Shakespeare, William. The Merry Wives of Windsor. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 4. ISBN 978-0-19-953682-5.
- Craik, T. W. (ed.) (2008). "Introduction". In Shakespeare, William. The Merry Wives of Windsor. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 4–5. ISBN 978-0-19-953682-5.
- F. E. Halliday, A Shakespeare Companion 1564–1964, Baltimore, Penguin, 1964; p. 314.
- Sullivan's incidental music to The Merry Wives of Windsor, The Gilbert and Sullivan Archive, accessed 5 January 2010
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- Royal Shakespeare Company photos and information relating to performances and background of The Merry Wives of Windsor through the years
- RSC Plot Summary and list of performances and actors
- The Merry Wives at Shakespeares Globe (Daily Mail UK)