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the merry wives of windsor

19 january 2015

The Merry Wives of Windsor is a good silly play. One of my themes at lection is that if some of these minor Shakespearean plays had never had the name "Shakespeare" attached, nobody would pay the slightest attention to them. Certainly nobody would bring the immense forces of scholarly editing to bear on a throwaway 400-year-old battle-of-the-sexes farce if it wasn't by William Shakespeare. But such attention also doesn't hurt. Some Elizabethan plays are recension-proof.

The play is structured around the three humiliations of Falstaff. The fat knight is carried out in a washtub and dumped in the Thames; he is disguised as a woman and then beaten; and then he is decked out in a kind of reindeer costume and pinched by children pretending to be fairies. He deserves everything he gets, and he also half-expects it. He knows he's behaving badly, he suffers his comeuppance philosophically, and that's why he's a great character. Life is a joke at Falstaff's expense, and he's in on it.

In and around the Falstaff antics, there are subplots concerning the jealousy of husbands and the irrepressibility of wives; the course of young love not running very smooth, and various other quarrels, "humors," and sketch-like interludes. (One of the better-known scenes is a parody of a grammar lesson.) There are good parts for men – Falstaff, naturally, but also Ford, where the actor gets to play both the foolishly jealous husband and "Brook," a supposed rival for his wife's affections. But as the title suggests, the best roles are for women: the tricksterish Mistress Ford and Mistress Page, and the go-between Mistress Quickly, a precursor to Sheridan's Mrs. Malaprop.

Comic dialogue has a shelf-life, but some of Shakespeare's here is still pretty funny after 400 years. In part this is because, like verbal comedians from the Marx Brothers to Steven Wright, he has a way of half-hearing the English language and rendering it back again in all its bizarreness. This is most evident when Mistress Quickly gives a running commentary on the grammar lesson (Act 4, Scene 1) – though there the humor comes in part from hearing Latin through the filter of English. The Welsh clergyman Evans, the French doctor Caius, the overly-literal pages and servants, and the hyperverbal Falstaff all participate in this aggressive misprision.

As a result, the language of Merry Wives can sound oddly hip in 2015 – perhaps partly because Shakespeare has a way of reinsinuating himself into hip discourse since his writing still circulates with so much authority. When Mistress Page says of a suitor for her daughter Anne's hand

That Slender, though well landed, is an idiot (Act 4, Scene 4)
she sounds absolutely contemporary. The progress of marriage rights since the turn of this century has given a new cast to Ford's line about the merry wives in Act 3, scene 2:
I think if your husbands were dead you two would marry.
But it's not entirely anachronism that gives it its energy: it's also Ford's verbal extravagance and sense of the incongruous.

Merry Wives can be enjoyed in "the study" if you take it more as a true script – an outline for live theater – rather than a verbal icon. Its situations provide an endless supply of farcical business. There are a few great Shakespearean lines:

Why then, the world's mine oyster,
Which I with sword will open. (Pistol in Act 2, Scene 2)

In the shape of man, Master Brook, I fear not Goliath with a weaver's beam, because I know also life is a shuttle. (Falstaff in Act 5, Scene 2)
and my favorite, Anne Page's reaction to the prospect of marrying Dr. Caius:
I had rather be set quick i'th'earth,
And bowled to death with turnips. (Act 3, Scene 4)
And though the play is not exactly feminist, the women do run rings around the men for the most part. Anne eventually marries neither the doctor nor the idiot, but Fenton, the man she actually loves.

The 1989 Oxford edition by T.W. Craik was perhaps old-fashioned even 26 years ago. It is text-centric, seeming to think that dramatic authors c1600 consulted libraries and concordances in the same way as 20th-century critics; it is positivist, seeking to arrive at strict answers to questions of dating and stemmatics, and it relies on the Oxford English Dictionary in a way that Zachary Lesser and others now point to as somewhat circular (since so much of the OED is a tissue of Shakespearean citations). But Craik's work is brisk, sensible, exhaustively glossed, and handsome to look at and hold in the hand.

UPDATE 06.14.2021: Since writing this entry in 2015, I have seen and heard Verdi's opera Falstaff several times, and am finally getting around to a few thoughts on it. As good a play as Merry Wives is, Falstaff is better; there have been many adaptations of many Shakespeare plays but none enhances the original more than Falstaff.

The much-praised libretto by Arrigo Boito reduces the three humiliations to two (dumping in the river and pinching in the woods). Boito and Verdi also pared down the character list, though Falstaff is still pretty well-populated and still features the Anne (here Nannetta) / Fenton subplot.

Falstaff doesn't say "We have heard the chimes at midnight" in Merry Wives; it's from Henry IV, Part 2. Boito imports the line and Verdi gives it wonderful elaboration in the third act, as the setting for the pinching scene; the merry wives invoke the chimes, and later on they ring. Falstaff counts them and exclaims "Mezzanotte!" before his comeuppance. Another time-related phrase. "Dalle due alle tre," is the verbal motif of the second act: the hour when Master Ford is supposed to be away from home and Falstaff can have his rendezvous with his wife (here called Alice).

The hurrying progress of time is always in the background for Verdi's Falstaff, who is conscious of his quick aging, conscious that his aging has not diminished his desires any more than it's slimmed his belly. Much better than in Shakespeare, partly because of Boito's narrative economies but more because of the marvelous textures and echoes in the music, the desire between Fenton and Nannetta plays in dramatic counterpoint to Falstaff's desire for Alice, the false desire he imagines she feels in return, and the gut-level jealousy that Master Ford feels at the thought that his wife is cuckolding him.

Some operas go out with a whimper – several of the most famous with the soprano collapsing from general inanition. Happier ones sometimes end with a happy chorus. In Falstaff, Sir John steps out of the frame and announces "Un coro e terminiam la scena": a chorus and our play will be over. It is one of the greatest choruses in any opera: "Tutto nel mondo é burla … Tutti gabbati!" Everything in the world is a joke; we are all fooled. The theme builds through a fugue to a huge crescendo; then a sudden silence; and then Falstaff repeats: Tutti gabbati. Another crescendo, the curtain falls – and those are the last notes that Verdi ever wrote.

Shakespeare, William. The Merry Wives of Windsor. 1602, 1623. Edited by T.W. Craik. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989. [The Oxford Shakespeare] PR 2826 .A2C7