We ran a play-reading of The Merry Wives of Windsor here last Sunday. It was one of the best play-readings we’ve run, and I think we’ve learnt quite a bit about how to run play-readings. In addition, a number of our players discovered delight in a Shakespeare play that they hadn’t known up till now. So an exciting afternoon.
A number of factors (last-minute change of play; delays in coming up with our edition of the play; lots of players away; and a heavy dose of serendipity) combined to mean that we had far fewer players than usual to read the play. We were eight, instead of the usual 12 – 14.
With less players, each player has more to do. There are 22 speaking parts in Merry Wives, so each player, on average had 3 players to play, and two of those were usually ‘significant’ parts in the play. Now, luckily, I had noticed that a lot of the humour in the play comes from the language, and the accents (French; Welsh; Cockney; West Country; even Latin), so I asked everyone to try different accents for each character they were playing. A lot of these were Scots regional accents, rather than English, but it made it easy to distinguish each of the characters each player was playing. If we have a smaller number of players, we have to find a way of differentiating the characters they are playing. Also, though I didn’t realise it at the time, the smaller number of players reduces the difference in the size of each player’s part. For example, with eight players, the range of player part sizes varies from 178 to 298 lines. With twelve players, the range widens to 81 to 280 lines.
By chance, we also had a balance of the sexes, and there were those that thought this really helped the atmosphere of the play-reading. We had 4 men and 4 women, whereas when we have say 14 players, we might have 5 men and 9 women This sex equality doesn’t mean that it’s necessary to cast the play by gender. We usually cast by lot, and ended up with male Merry Wives, and a female Falstaff. That worked well and proved rather interesting. So gender-blind play-readings work.
This made me wonder what happens in a play-reading, and how it differs from a production:
- If you attend a production as an audience member, your experience is likely of be of being moved (or not) by the story the prodcution tells.
- If you participate in a prodcution as an actor, you are likely to have a fairly clear idea of what the character(s) you play are about, and how you want to affect the audience, but may have much less of an idea about the story of the play. If you’re the director, you may have a pretty clear idea of the story you want to tell, using the script.
- In a play-reading, everyone participates in telling the story as a player, and at the same time listens to the story, as it unrolls, as told by the playwright, Shakespeare.
Whatever was going on, everyone felt much more comfortable with a smaller group, so we’ll probably try and continue with a smaller play-reading group. However, we have a lot of people who want to play-read Shakespeare plays, so we’ll have to find a way of running two or more smaller play-readings.
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The Merry Wives of Windsor does not seem to be as popular as most Shakespeare plays. In fact, many of the people I have spoken to about the play positively dislike it. Some of the conventional wisdom about the play reflects this: “Falstaff is not the same Falstaff as he is in Henry IV Part I or II”; (and nor is Justice Shallow; Mistress Quickly; Pistol; Bardolf; Nym); “The play was written in a fortnight at the request of Queen Elizabeth.”; “It’s merely a farce”. The conventional wisdom underrates the play.
Personally, I find the play the most enormous fun, and it was the second Shakespeare play I chose to direct.
Let’s explore what happens in the play to see if that can help us understand the frequent antipathy to the play.
- The fat, ageing knight Falstaff is in financial difficulty. He attempts to seduce the Merry Wives, in the hopes of relieving them of some of their money. They are appalled by his aged advances, and they decide to be revenged on him. They encourage his advances, but they lead to him being thrown into the Thames as ‘dirty washing’; and getting beaten black and blue as the Old Woman of Brentford; and finally a public shaming when his love-making is revealed to the community in Windsor Park where he wears the horns of the cuckold.
- The husbands of the Merry Wives find out about Falstaff’s plans for their wives. Page has trust in his wife. Ford is not so sure. He indulges his suspicions; they turn to jealousy and he tries to catch his wife with Sir John. Page, Dr Caius and Sir Hugh, try to persuade him his suspicious are ill-founded, but he ends up making a fool of himself with his jealousy.
- The Pages have a daughter, Anne Page, of marriageable age. She has three suitors. Her father prefers the fool Slender; her mother prefers the middle-aged Dr Caius, and Anne prefers the young Fenton. Needless to say, the path of true love finds a way: she marries Fenton: and her parents accept the marriage.
- The aged Justice Shallow and his timid and foolish coz Slender have fallen out with Falstaff and Pistol / Bardolf / Nym and are threatening to take them to court. The community (Evans, Page, and the Host of the Garter) try to resolve the dispute, ending with lunch at Page’s house..
- Dr Caius and Sir Hugh nearly fight a duel over Sir Hugh’s support for Slender as a husband for Anne Page, when Dr Caius wants to marry her. The Host, Shallow, and Page prevent the duel, and make a mockery of the duellers.
- Dr Caius and Sir Hugh get their revenge on The Host, by setting up the loss of his horses to a fictitious German Count.
Most of these sub-plots relate to conflict between the different members of the community. Justice of the Peace, Shallow, responds to conflict as follows: “If I were young again, the sword would end it.” Perhaps he is glad that he is not young again, and most of the community seem to agree with him as they struggle to avoid violence, though Falstaff, as the Witch of Brentford, does get beaten.
Shakespeare’s plays usually involve conflict, and mostly, the sword ends it, particularly in the Tragedies (Hamlet, Lear, Macbeth, and Othello) and the Histories (Richard II, Henry IV I and II, Henry Vth, etc). But even the comedies have their violence: Rosalind is banished on pain of death; Hermia is threatened with death, or life in a nunnery if she will not accept her father’s choice of husband; and even Viola is threatened with death by the man she loves, Orsino.
Could it be that this is a problem with The Merry Wives – there’s not enough violence for most people’s taste, or put more politely, perhaps the subject is not ‘serious’ enough.
But there’s a positive side to this lack of violence. In most of these sub-plots, some of the pillars of the community are struggling to prevent violence occurring, and they do this usually through the same means: shame, laughter and food. Even Sir John, at the end of the play has been shamed in front of the community, dressed in his deer’s horns and exposed as a lecher, and laughed at, is then invited to the Page’s home for a posset in front of a warm fire, with the community.
What sort of community is it that deals with conflict in this way? Shakespeare’s plays often take place in large cities or king’s palaces. But again The Merry Wives is different. It’s set in Windsor, a small market town, admittedly in the shadow of the royal residence of Windsor Castle, but it only spreads a pale shadow on the play. And Windsor, a small market town, is not unlike the Stratford in which Shakespeare grew up.
So perhaps the play shows the politics of small towns, and how the members of those communities try to resolve the conflicts that come up between the members of that community by laughter and sharing food, rather than violence.
If we’re dealing with a play about small-town politics, we might expect another difference from plays set in larger scenarios. Perhaps there would not be such ‘large’ characters. There are no kings or princes in a small-town, to go with the servants and drawers in both environments. So the characters are more equal and we might expect to see this is in the lines the main characters speak. Falstaff gives us a good way of testing this.
In Players-Shakespeare.com’s edition of Henry IV Part I, Falstaff has 18.5% of the lines (527). The three largest characters (Hotspur, Falstaff, Prince Hal) have around 55 5% of the lines in the play. In our edition of The Merry Wives of Windsor, Falstaff has less than 15% of the lines, and the three largest characters (Falstaff, Mistress Page, Ford) have less than 38% of the lines of the play.
So perhaps we can draw a tentative conclusion that The Merry Wives of Windsor is a play set in the sort of small-town that Shakespeare knew so well, having been brought up in Stratford, and having spent a lot of his adult life there. Most Shakespeare plays are not set in such an environment so it doesn’t fit in well with audience expectations. It is also a farce, one of only two farces by Shakespeare, the other being The Comedy of Errors, so again not fitting with audience expectations of a Shakespeare play.
We’ve spent a lot of time trying to explain why The Merry Wives is not so popular, but we also need to highlight what makes it so interesting:
- Staying with the small-town community, The Merry Wives of Windsor is the only Shakespeare play set in an English small town, and given his intimate knowledge of that type of community, it paints us a picture of what it looked like: how they resolved conflict; the use of go-betweens (Mistress Quickly); even communal activities like birding; and Elizabethan education of boys (William in A4S1).
- I find particularly interesting the picture it paints of Elizabethan women, not the downtrodden creatures one might have expected. Perhaps Mistress Page sums it up best, in a sentiment Queen Elizabeth would be certain to agree with:
We’ll leave proof, by that which we will do,
Wives may be merry, and yet honest too.
We do not act that often jest and laugh;
‘Tis old but true: ‘Still swine eats all the draft.’
- The final delight of the play I want to touch on, is the extraordinary playful use of language Shakespeare uses and delights in. Each character seem to have their own version of English that they use and which demonstrates their character. Nym’s humours’ Dr Caius’ French accent; Sir Hugh’s Welsh accent; the London cockney of the ruffians; the more refined rural accents of the middle-class Pages and Fords, not to forget William’s Latin and Mistress Quickly’s misconstruction of it.
If you don’t know The Merry Wives of Windsor, read it. If you know it, and if you are one of those who don’t think it’s quite Shakespeare, read it again with an open mind. If you have to watch a production, get hold of a copy of the BBCs Shakespeare Collection production, with a marvellous cast and watch it.