Shakespeare Unbard, Episode 17: Is "The Merry Wives of Windsor" a prequel to the Henriad or just Shakespearian fan fiction?
If anyone in Elizabethan times wrote Shakespearian fan fiction, it probably looks a lot like The Merry Wives of Windsor. Although half its cast has been stolen from the Henriad, the story doesn't quite fit within the chronology of those two plays, making it feel as if Shakespeare plucked his characters out of one universe and dropped them into another. Had he done this for the sake of a great play, all would be forgiven. Sadly, this is not the case.
In this episode you'll hear clips and excerpts from:
- Brill, Clive. dir. The Merry Wives of Windsor. Arkangel Shakespeare.
- Shakespeare, William. Henry IV Part One. (The Riverside Shakespeare). Houghton and Mifflin, 1974.
Other Productions / Adaptations:
- Jones, David. The Merry Wives of Windsor, BBC. 1982
- Luscombe, Christopher. The Merry Wives of Windsor. Globe Theatre, 2010.
- Verdi, Giuseppe and Arrigo Boito. Falstaff. (Opera)
- Other operas written by Antonio Salieri, Michael William Balfe, Carl Otto Niccolai, and Ralph Vaughan Williams.
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ONE MINUTE SUMMARY
All is rotten in the state of Windsor. The fat knight Sir John Falstaff, in need of money, plots to woo two married women, Mistress Ford and Mistress Page. He sends them identical letters, a ruse which is quickly discovered, and the two women agree to humiliate him. Meanwhile, Mistress Ford's husband also learns what Falstaff intends, but he is so jealous that he thinks his wife might prefer Falstaff to him. Disgusing himself as Master Brook, he ingratitates himself with Falstaff so he can learn the knight's plans. In a separate plot, Anne, Mistress Page's daughter is being wooed by three separate men - one she loves, one her mother wants her to love, and one her father wants her to marry. Falstaff visits Mistress Ford, only to be interrupted by the arrival of Mistress Page who pretends that their assignation has been discovered. Falstaff escapes in a laundry basket. The next day, he does it all over again and they repeat the ruse. The wives let their husbands in on the joke, they all plot to humiliate Falstaff during a celebration in Windsor Forest, during which Anne Page runs off and marries the man she loves. Falstaff learns he's been tricked, forgives them all, and everyone goes off to celebrate Anne's marriage.
Popular lore has it that The Merry Wives of Windsor was written in fourteen days after the Queen remarked she'd like to watch a play about Sir John Falstaff in love. While the play definitely reads like something written in a couple of weeks, I don't quite buy the second half of the story. The plot of The Merry Wives of Windsor has nothing to do with Falstaff in love. At the most, it's a play about Falstaff in lust. Yet even this makes the play sound a lot more exciting than it is. There are those who suggest Shakespeare adapted certain plot points from an Italian named Giovanni Fiorentino (see the Riverside Shakespare, Yale University Press edition or others), but few, if any, seem to note that he also may have taken a few hints from Chaucer, namely "The Miller's Tale" in "The Canterbury Tales". The story there involves a carpenter who becomes a cuckold after his wife begins to have an affair. Here, the carpenter is Master Ford, who clearly knows the tale of the cuckolded carpenter, given how afraid he is of being the subject of the story's sequel:
Cuckold! Wittol!--Cuckold! the devil himself hath
not such a name. Page is an ass, a secure ass: he
will trust his wife; he will not be jealous. I will rather trust a Fleming with my butter, Parson Hugh the Welshman with my cheese, an Irishman with my aqua-vitae bottle, or a thief to walk my ambling gelding, than my wife with herself; then she plots,then she ruminates, then she devises; and what they think in their hearts they may effect, they will break their hearts but they will effect. God be praised for my jealousy! Eleven o'clock the hour.I will prevent this, detect my wife, be revenged on Falstaff, and laugh at Page. I will about it; better three hours too soon than a minute too late. Fie, fie, fie! cuckold! cuckold! cuckold! (II.ii)
Chaucer is our earliest source for the word "cuckold" - it comes from the fact that the cuckoo bird often lays its eggs in other nests - and his story makes the cuckold the butt of the joke. Shakespeare does the inverse: in puritanical fashion, it is Falstaff, the would-be adulterer, who is humiliated. This probably isn't too surprising given the fact the play was written for the Queen - the morals of the day would never have permitted a comedy in which an adulterous couple walks away scot free. It would be going too far to say that The Merry Wives of Windsor is an adaptation of Chaucer, but Shakespeare may have been paying homage to it when he devised this play.
Even so, Chaucer is far dirtier than Shakespeare ever was. In Chaucer, the adultery is real while here it never transpires at all. This is the primary problem with the play. Chaucer gives us an adulterous couple who go through comedic lengths to keep their affair a secret; Shakespeare, on the other hand, gives us a man who tries to seduce two women who in turn are plotting to embarrass him. What's at stake if they succeed? What's at stake if they lose? Remember the opening scene of The Comedy of Errors, one of the silliest plays Shakespeare ever wrote? There, we are told that people from Syracuse are sentenced to death if they appear in Ephesus. Egeus is already condemned; Antipholes of Syracuse will meet a similar fate if he's discovered. Yes, the play is a wild and silly farce. But for the characters, they are risking something dear.
None of this is the case of Falstaff, who will lose the most worthless thing he has: his honor, which is something only he thinks he has. Banal is the only word I can think of when discussing this play: it is harmless, mildly diverting, and utterly immemorable in the end. Shakespeare, in need of an ending, goes back to the same well he went to for Love's Labour's Lost and which he'll go to again for A Midsummer Night's Dream: with the action of the play essentially concluded by the end of Act IV, the plot gives way to a pageant produced by amateurs. It's not a bad play, merely a boring one, and if not for the curious question as to its relationship to Henry IV, I doubt we'd be giving it much attention at all.
To summarize the mystery that is The Merry Wives of Windsor: it's main character, Sir John Falstaff also appears in Henry IV Part One and Two, along with his entourage of Mistress Quickley, Bardolph, Nym, and Pistol. These last characters also appear in Henry V. In Henry IV, Mistress Quickly runs the bawdy house where Falstaff and Prince Hal drink their days away; but in Merry Wives of Windsor, she works for Doctor Caius. Bardolph is a servant at the inn, while Nym and Pistol bear little relation to their counterparts as seen in Henry IV and Henry V. A boy named Robin is running around, who is reminiscent of Falstaff's page from Henry IV Part Two; and there is a single, cryptic reference in Act III to the fact that Fenton has been spending time with Prince Hal and Ned Poins. The Prince and Poins, who we know from Henry IV Part One, are never mentioned again. That none of the characters seem to already know each other makes it impossible to say the events of the play happened after either Henry IV Part One or its sequel; the only conjecture left is that this is a prequel, of sorts: here is the Adventures of Falstaff and his band of rogues before they eventually go off to corrupt Prince Hal. This is the only thing that makes sense, although I haven't seen any critic suggest it; in any case, Shakespeare doesn't care enough to suggest it at all.
This is all thoroughly academic, of course, and of no interest to the average audience, most of whom won't care that The Merry Wives of Windsor doesn't fit neatly into the chronology established by Richard II, Henry IV, and Henry V. Their only concern is whether they're watching an entertaining play. I'll admit that it certainly can be, when put in the right hands. People have definitely been attracted to elements of the plot for centuries, since The Merry Wives of Windsor has inspired at least five operas, the most famous of which is Verdi's Falstaff, which streamlines the plot, eliminates a lot of characters, and in doing so wrote one of his greatest achievements.
It is true that there are some genuinely comedic scenes in The Merry Wives of Windsor, such as when the scheming women trick Falstaff into hiding in a laundry basket:
What shall I do? There is a gentleman my dear
friend; and I fear not mine own shame so much as his peril: I had rather than a thousand pound he were out of the house.
For shame! never stand 'you had rather' and 'you
had rather:' your husband's here at hand, bethink
you of some conveyance: in the house you cannot
hide him. O, how have you deceived me! Look, here
is a basket: if he be of any reasonable stature, he may creep in here; and throw foul linen upon him, as if it were going to bucking: or--it is whiting-time --send him by your two men to Datchet-mead.
He's too big to go in there. What shall I do?
[Coming forward] Let me see't, let me see't, O, let me see't! I'll in, I'll in. Follow your friend's counsel. I'll in.
What, Sir John Falstaff! Are these your letters, knight?
I love thee. Help me away. Let me creep in here.
Comedic scenes like these are amusing but they do little to improve the play overall. If the play has a high point, it's the fact that it contains several decent roles for women, all of whom spend the play being the smartest people on stage. The Merry Wives of Windsor also has an impressive ensemble, much in the vein of Love's Labour's Lost: here is a comedy whose main character is, well, everyone. As much as Shakespeare loved writing plays with strong central figures - see Richard III, Hamlet, etc. - he was also part of an acting troupe and throughout the canon we see his various efforts to write plays that gave all the actors something to do. There are several plays that, I suspect, were written to be showpieces for his troupe: many of his plays, like As You Like It and Twelfth Night, fit this mold, but in those plays the plotting is stronger and the minor characters more expertly woven into the story. Given that Shakespeare has already written some of his best plays - Richard II and Henry IV Part One, to name but two - it's easy to forget that we're still in the early stage of his career. Written in haste, Shakespeare didn't have time to develop the play into anything meaningful; perhaps in later years he'd be able to whip up a work of genius in a limited amount of time, but here, such talents were still beyond his grasp.
The only other high point of the play is Master Ford, the jealous husband who rails against women and marriage - and in doing so serves as an early prototype for the themes that Shakespeare would explore in much greater depth in another play about jealousy and a certain Moor of Venice. Master Ford is, like Chaucer's cuckolded carpenter, a great fool, which is yet one more way that Shakespeare undermines any potential tension in the play. If Ford had been more like Othello, we might actually fear for Mistress Ford. Part of the great tension in Othello is the fact that Othello is a real threat. Suspicious of his wife, he becomes cold and calculating until he smothers her in his sleep; Ford, on the other hand, is too inept to ever be more than a comic trope. And yet Ford and Othello share the same streak of jealousy that nearly drives them mad.
Of all the characters in The Merry Wives of Windsor, Ford is the only one I truly care for, which is unfortunate, since he's a secondary character. The rest of the characters are largely forgettable, including Falstaff himself, for here he is portrayed as a buffoon with none of the pathos that mark him in Henry IV Part One and Part Two. Since this is the last time we'll see Falstaff in Shakespeare's canon, it's regrettable that he should have such a miserable swan song. Perhaps Shakespeare was already planning to be rid of him. In any case, The Merry Wives of Windsor remains a comedy that has a good title, a few good moments, and little else to recommend it. It's a play for diehard bardolters or curious scholars; as for everyone else, I'd recommend seeing the opera instead.