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The Merry Wives of Windsor – Introduction

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What sort of community is it that deals with conflict through deceit, shame, laughter and food?  Exploring the courtship of Anne Page in Shakespeare’s play, Sir John Falstaff and the Merry Wives may give us some clues.

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But before we get to Anne Page, here’s an overview of the play. It is the only Shakespeare play set in a rural English town, Windsor, near the royal residence of Windsor Castle which only spreads a pale shadow on the play. This setting is more than just the title of the play. Scenes in it make reference to places specific to Windsor: Datchet Mead; Frogmore Fields; and Windsor Park. Windsor is not unlike the Stratford in which Shakespeare grew up, where his family lived whilst he worked in London, and where he retired to, and eventually died. It is a social environment he was very familiar with.

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The play is one of two farces that Shakespeare wrote, the other being The Comedy of Errors. It was first published in a different, shorter form in 1602 as a quarto, with the play we know now first published in the First Folio. It is uncertain when it was written, but the consensus seems to be that it was written around 1597, reputedly at the request of Elizabeth I who ‘wanted to see Falstaff in love’. The play may well have originated in an entertainment written to celebrate a feast of the Order of the Garter in April 1597.

 

 

 

The three plays which have Falstaff as a main character are: Henry IV Part I; Henry IV Part II; and Sir John Falstaff and The Merry Wives of Windsor. Unlike the two Henry IVs, it is not a history play, but a comedy. It contains the classic plot element of a Shakespearean comedy – a young woman resisting male authority, often her father, to marry the man she loves. However, this is by no means the main theme of the play – the young lovers have only around 5% of the lines of the play.

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Anne Page is the daughter of Master and Mistress Page, two of the main characters in the play. She is of marriageable age and has three suitors. Her father prefers the fool Slender, who is well-off and connected to Justice Shallow, a high status character in the play. Her mother prefers the middle-aged Dr Caius, who is well-off and connected to the court. Anne prefers the young Fenton because “He capers, he dances, he has eyes of youth, he writes verses, he speaks holiday, he smells April and May.” The town matchmaker, Mistress Quickly, acts on behalf of all three suitors. Needless to say, the path of true love finds a way. Anne deceives her parents as to what colour of dress she will wear at a trick the community plans to play on Falstaff in Windsor Park, and only Fenton knows how to identify her. She runs off with him, they marry, and return to confess to her parents what they have done and her parents, perhaps reluctantly but with good grace, accept the marriage.

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It is clear that her parents see the marriage as an opportunity to build the financial and social status of the family by trying to make connections to the rich and powerful, but Anne prefers the man she loves. She wants to avoid

“A thousand irreligious cursed hours
Which forced marriage would have brought upon her.”

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She does not hesitate to deceive her parents to get her way, and they accept it with good grace:

“Well, what remedy? Fenton, heaven give thee joy,
What cannot be eschewed must be embraced.”

And

“Heaven give you many, many merry days!
Good husband, let us every one go home,
And laugh this sport o’er by a Country fire,”

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And as Page says to Falstaff, around that fire, “thou shalt eat a posset tonight at my house”.

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Deceit, laughter, and food have made an appearance. They will appear again in the stories of the other suitors.

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The first suitor we meet is Slender, and his cousin Justice Shallow.  They don’t appear as suitors. Instead they have a serious dispute with Falstaff and his cronies. Falstaff has poached Shallow’s deer, and Slender has been robbed by Pistol, Bardolf, and Nym. They are threatening to make ‘a Star Chamber matter of it’, taking it to one of the highest courts in the land. But after A1S1, we hear no more about this dispute. Page, Evans, and the Host have tried to resolve it, but probably more significant was the lunch of wine, Venison Pasty, with apples and cheese to follow, offered by Page to everyone. How can you sit down to such a fine lunch with someone and continue a dispute afterwards? Besides it is more interesting to court Anne Page, her seven hundred pounds – and prospects! Food and drink, and probably laughter, help to resolve the dispute.

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Dr Caius is not so easy to deal with. He is a bad-tempered Frenchman, a doctor at court, and he loves Anne Page. He falls out with Sir Hugh Evans when he discovers that the churchman / teacher supports Slender’s courtship of Anne, and challenges him to a duel.  The duel never happens. Why? Mine Host of the Garter, Page, and Shallow decide to prevent it. The first trick they play is to send the two duellists to different places for the duel, so they do not meet. When the duellists eventually come together, with the three pacifiers on hand, the Host tricks them into giving him their swords, so they cannot fight.  Trickery returns peace to the community.

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So deceit, food, and laughter play a part in resolving the disputes that happen in this community, and that is before we even touch upon the main theme of the play, Sir John and the Merry Wives, and Ford’s jealousy.

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The characters in the play are mostly middle-class folk (tradesmen, doctor, churchman / teacher, publican) and their servants, living in a small English town in the sixteenth-century. The play explores the politics of those small towns and in particular how they resolve conflicts.

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It is a cosmopolitan town with characters from the English regions; from Wales; from France; and from Germany. Their accents and their own idiosyncratic versions of English clash delightfully. Even Latin, and Elizabethan grammar school education, is covered in A4S1, with Sir Hugh’s testing of William’s Latin.

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It is a small town. There is not much choice in which tradesman one used. Everyone needs to get on with everyone else to get the goods and services they depend on, and to supply the town with the services they offer.

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The economic situation was much tougher then.  Each family was more dependent on the other families in the community and each member of the family more tightly embedded within it.

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In an age when it was more difficult to get on economically, marriage was seen as an alliance between two families, and each family was concerned to make the best alliance possible to improve its status and strength in the community, particularly with regards to power and money.  Love was, of course, still a driving force in human relationships and no doubt still found ways to be expressed.

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There were well-defined roles within the family. The husband related to the external world and brought back wealth. The woman looked after the internal world of the family, and manages its wealth.

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In such a community, how is one to resolve conflict? Justice of the Peace, Shallow, responds to conflict as follows: “If I were young again, the sword would end it.”  Most of the community seem to disagree with him as they go to some lengths to avoid violence. In Shakespeare’s plays, the sword ends most conflicts – in the tragedies, of course, and the Histories, 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.

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But in Merry Wives the sword – and revenge – are exchanged for deceit, shame, laughter and food. It is too important that the community survives and the sting of revenge is reduced by turning it into shame, and then further reduced by laughter and shared food.

 

 

Into this small-town community comes Falstaff and his cronies from the great city of London. Do they show any sensitivity to the social world they are entering? We get a clear answer in A1S1. Falstaff responds to Shallow’s complaints of him as follows: “I will answer it straight: I have done all this. That is now answered.”  Bardolf (“You Banbery Cheese!”), Pistol (“How now, Mephostophilus?”), and Nym (“Slice, I say! Pauca, pauca, slice, that’s my humour”) are equally insensitive to the small-town conventions.

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They all come from the city, and in the city there is more freedom – provided you have money. If you don’t like one bar, you can choose another; around every corner there is a different tradesman offering goods for sale – you are free to choose where you trade. You are not so well known and so are freer to do what you choose.  You earn money from your work, and spend it as you wish. You are an individual.

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Falstaff is perhaps the freest character in Shakespeare – though he constantly worries about money. No one is his master.  Pistol and Nym, Falstaff’s side-kicks explicitly state (A1S3) that they will not lose their freedom in order to be servants to Falstaff by delivering letters for him, as long as they wear swords:

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PISTOL
Shall I Sir Pandarus of Troy become,
And by my side wear Steel? Then Lucifer take all!

NYM.
I will run no base humour.
Here, take the humour. I will keep the ‘haviour of reputation.

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Falstaff has many of the attributes of a Fool, except that his wit is usually directed at himself. Shakespearean fools are free spirits, but not in their bodies – they have a master or mistress.  Perhaps the freest of them is Feste – and he spends a lot of time raising money.

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For an actor playing Falstaff in The Merry Wives, the Falstaff in the two Henry IV plays provides a good back-story. In all three plays there is a darkness in Falstaff that is easy to forget in our pleasure at his wit. He is a scoundrel – a witty and entertaining scoundrel no doubt, but a scoundrel, and his desire for freedom could have led him to become a tragic hero.

  • In Henry IV Part I, Falstaff  steals money on the King’s Highway, and relies on Prince Hal to save him from the law. He pretends to have killed Hotspur in the hopes of advancement. But he is witty defending himself from the charge of cowardice and lies; and attempting to persuade ‘the king’ and Hal that he is a worthy companion of Prince Hal. He is a loveable rogue, almost showing a self-interested father’s love for Hal, and competing with Henry to influence Hal. Falstaff and Hal play many scenes together, mostly for laughter.
  • In Henry IV Part II, the tone is darker, almost melancholic. Falstaff only has two major scenes with Hal. In the first Hal observes him from the loft, and makes fun of him making love to his whore. He remains a scoundrel making money out of recruiting poor soldiers – “Food for powder, food for powder”; and taking money from Justice Shallow. In his second scene with Hal, at his coronation as the new King Henry V, Falstaff’s hopes of preferment are dashed when the new king humiliatingly banishes him from his presence, whilst awarding him a small pension to keep him out of mischief:

I know thee not, old man. Fall to thy prayers.
How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!
I have long dreamed of such a kind of man,
So surfeit-swell’d, so old, and so profane;
But being awak’d I do despise my dream.
HIV P2, A5S5

  • In The Merry Wives of Windsor,  Falstaff, sometime after he’s been banished by the new king; his hopes of preferment gone; disappointed and lacking money as usual; is driven to try and extract money from the Merry Wives of Windsor. He fails. He and his freedom  are no match for the Merry Wives and the community of Windsor. The community of Windsor  shame him; they laugh at him, and invite him to their homes to share a posset and some more laughter. A humiliation for Falstaff, but not death or tragedy.

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So how does this humiliation happen? To solve his financial difficulties, Falstaff 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 trick him into thinking they are interested, but their meetings lead to him being thrown into the Thames as dirty washing, and getting beaten black and blue as the Old Woman of Brentford.

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The husbands of the Merry Wives find out about Falstaff’s plans to seduce their wives. Page trusts his wife and is not concerned. Ford is not so sure. He indulges his suspicions; tricks Falstaff into taking him into his confidence; his suspicions turn to jealousy and he tries to catch his wife with Sir John. Page, Dr Caius, and Sir Hugh Evans , try to persuade him his suspicious are ill-founded, but he ends up making a fool of himself with his jealousy, and pays them for his foolishness by offering his fellow-citizens dinner.

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Finally, the wives tell their husbands of the game they are playing with Falstaff, and the community agrees to try and play one more trick on Falstaff. Mrs Ford agrees to meet Falstaff at Herne’s Oak at midnight, provided he comes dressed with the horns of a stag. She meets him there, but so do most of the community, dressed as fairies. They pinch Falstaff, the couples reveal themselves, and that they are aware of his game; shame him, laugh at him, and invite him home with the community to share a posset and some more laughter no doubt.

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So Sir John, the free man from the city, known for his wit and ability to extract money anywhere, is outwitted by The Merry Wives and the community. Perhaps individualism is not so strong as community, at least in Windsor.

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The Merry Wives, with the help of Mistress Quickly, outwit Falstaff and outwit Ford, the jealous husband. There may be no kings or tragic heroes in this play, but it is one of the few of Shakespeare’s plays where women triumph. Perhaps Mistress Page sums it up best’

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.’
(A4s2)

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One suspects Queen Elizabeth enjoyed the play.

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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 marvelous cast including Richard Griffiths as Falstaff; Ben Kingsley as Ford; Prunella Scales as Mistress Page; and Alan Bennett as Shallow.

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Let’s Play!

Richard Forsyth
‘The Director’,
Players-Shakespeare.com
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