Merry Wives Of Windsor (The)

By William Shakespeare
June 1 1993
directed by Tom Markus

Sir John Falstaff and his band of ne'er-do-well followers, Pistol , Bardolph and Nym, have taken up residence in the peaceful village of Windsor. Out of pocket but long on guile, the four disrupt the peace of the village by poaching on the private grounds of Justice Shallow. Later, Falstaff complains to the Host of the Garter Inn that he is short of funds and he plots to make love to Mistresses Page and Ford, thereby gaining access to their husbands' wealth. Falstaff dismisses Pistol and Nym for refusing to fall in with his plans, and they plot to thwart Falstaff's plan by informing the husbands of the impending seductions.

Date Time
Tuesday June 1 12:00 am
Closed

The Merry Wives of Windsor has drawn enthusiastic audiences to the theatre for almost 400 years. Her Majesty Elizabeth I saw a performance, probably its first, prior to its publication in 1602. James I saw it in 1604, and Charles I attended a performance in 1638. It was one of the first plays revived at the beginning of the Restoration. It was revived again in an "improved" or adapted version in 1704 and 1708, and was played frequently in England during the 18th and 19th centuries in abridged versions.

Sir John Falstaff and his band of ne'er-do-well followers, Pistol , Bardolph and Nym, have taken up residence in the peaceful village of Windsor. Out of pocket but long on guile, the four disrupt the peace of the village by poaching on the private grounds of Justice Shallow. Later, Falstaff complains to the Host of the Garter Inn that he is short of funds and he plots to make love to Mistresses Page and Ford, thereby gaining access to their husbands' wealth. Falstaff dismisses Pistol and Nym for refusing to fall in with his plans, and they plot to thwart Falstaff's plan by informing the husbands of the impending seductions.

One popular legend reports that Shakespeare wrote The Merry Wives of Windsor at the express command of Elizabeth I. His sovereign was so taken with Sir John Falstaff of the Henry IV plays that she wanted to see more of him. Specifically she wanted to see the witty, wily knight "in love." Another legend reports that Shakespeare was commissioned by his patron George Carey, Baron Hunsdon, to write the play for the 1597 ceremonies of the Knights of the Garter. Hunsdon had recently been appointed Lord Chamberlain and was to be installed as a Knight of the Garter at Windsor Castle. Topical references in the play, including a thinly disguised encomium to Elizabeth I in Act V, support both these claims. Its first American productions were in Philadelphia in 1770, and in New York in 1773. It has been popular during the 20th century around the world, and during the 1980's it received several productions in America as well as in Finland, Canada, Britain, Sweden, Germany, Australia and China. At least nine musical adaptations of The Merry Wives of Windsor exist. Among them are Giuseppe Verdi's opera Falstaff, Otto Nicolai's opera Merry Wives of Windsor, and Vaughn Williams' opera Sir John in Love. At least six versions of the play have been recorded on film, three by the BBC, two by American companies and one in Germany. Orson Welles also adapted material from The Merry Wives of Windsor for his play Chimes at Midnight and its film version, Falstaff. The Merry Wives of Windsor was popular at the time of writing for a variety of reasons. First, it revived the very popular character of Sir John Falstaff from the Henry IV plays. Second, it stands out as unique in Shakespeare's canon as his only "English" comedy; it is set entirely in England, rather than in Italy, France, Athens or some other ancient or exotic locale. The immediacy of the action is constantly reiterated in references to such familiar places as Windsor Castle, Datchet Mead, Frogmore and Herne's Oak. Moreover, it is Shakespeare's only comedy to deal exclusively with middle- class citizens; an innkeeper, a parson, a country justice, a doctor. This bourgeois milieu is sustained by the language. The play is almost entirely in prose vernacular, with verse appearing only in the wooing scene and in the fairy masque in Act V. Thus, the play and the playwright give a respectful nod, not only to Elizabeth I, but to the burgeoning middle class whose rise to power she had overseen. The Merry Wives of Windsor remains popular today because it is a play about revenge revolving around the conventional theme of "the biter bit;" the author of the hoax finds himself tricked in return. There are at least eleven revenge plots going on, to which the audience is privy but some characters are not. This gives the audience a decided advantage as the plot unfolds and each revenge is worked out. Furthermore, the characters of the play are highly individualized versions of long-established types running from the Greek comedy,to the Italian commedia dell'arte, through English popular comedy, to the contemporary television sit-com. The jealous husband, the blustering soldier, the impecunious parasite, the foolish pedant, the garrulous go-between and the bumpkin country cousin are all represented. The Merry Wives of Windsor appeals to audiences of all ages because of its robust comedy. Some scholars describe it as pure farce. Its incidents are funny and aggressive, occasionally uproarious and violent, and the play benefits from bustling action and broad treatment. Funnier and even more gratifying is the gap perceived by the audience between what the characters know and what is actually happening, the delightful irony with which the audience at once sympathizes with, and feels superior to, the character who is being duped. Finally, the play has a romantic core and a benevolent conclusion, for in the midst of the plotting and hoaxing are Fenton and Anne Page, who thwart her parents' plans and steal away to be married. Innocence and young love triumph, as do common sense and middle class moral values, as Falstaff is forgiven and accepted into the community. Sir Hugh, the Welsh parson, embarks on a plot to marry Shallow's nephew, Slender, to Anne Page. He dispatches a note to Mistress Quickly, the local matchmaker, instructing her to speak to Anne on Slender's behalf. Two more suitors enlist Mistress Quickly's aid; Quickly's master, Dr. Caius, and Fenton, a penniless but noble youth who has captured Anne's heart. The pursuit of Anne is not without its complications. Slender is Master Page's choice, Dr. Caius is Mistress Page's, and Fenton is Anne's. Dr. Caius, meanwhile, intercepts the note from Sir Hugh conveying Slender's love to Anne. Anxious to preserve his honor, he challenges Sir Hugh to a duel. The Host of the Garter Inn prevents this duel by misdirecting the participants. Mistresses Page and Ford, meanwhile, have compared the identical letters they have received from Falstaff. Bemused and appalled at Falstaff's audacity, and repelled at the size of his girth, they declare revenge upon the unsuspecting knight. They will agree to a tryst, encourage his attentions, and precipitate his eventual humiliation. Ford, pricked to suspicion and jealousy by Pistol and Nym, disguises himself as Master Brook and hires Falstaff to woo Mistress Ford on his behalf. He hopes to catch Mistress Ford in flagrante delicto. Twice the Mistresses Page and Ford humiliate Falstaff, and Ford is exposed as a jealous, rampaging fool. The merry wives confess their pranks on Falstaff to their husbands. All agree that Falstaff deserves further punishment; in Windsor Park, near Hernes Oak, Falstaff is to disguise himself as the legendary Herne the Hunter, complete with furry pelt and enormous horns on his head. There he is confronted by the entire population of Windsor, and Falstaff collapses in confusion and terror, his humiliation complete. Each of the Pages depends on the darkness, disguises and noise for Slender or Dr. Cause to elope with Anne. Anne elopes instead with Fenton. Falstaff repents, the Pages relent, Anne gets her man, and all join in the general revelry. And "Brook," of course, takes advantage of the auspicious occasion to "lie with Mistress Ford."

RECONCILIATION IN THE MERRY WIVES The central theme of the major plot of The Merry Wives of Windsor is spoken by Page at the end of Act V: "That which cannot be eschewed must be embraced." The "thing" which cannot be eschewed or avoided is the "natural order of things" as evidence by the peace and harmony of the village of Windsor. Director Tom Markus remarks that the play proposes that "people are happiest when they live in accordance with the common-sense laws of nature, particularly when those laws are echoed in the civic laws and mores of the society." Falstaff is an outsider who comes to Windsor from the court in London, and presumes to disrupt the social fabric of this complacent, bourgeois society by outsmarting the men and seducing the women. It is necessary that the society, in the persons of Mistress Ford and Mistress Page, educate or correct the interloper so he may fit in, so that he may brought "home [to] laugh and sport o'er . by the country fire," so that the natural order of domesticity and its implied creative process may prevail. Falstaff learns that money is not as important as friends. The second plot underscores the first. The true lovers, Anne and Fenton, outwit the parents. Nature prevails, the inappropriate suitors are defeated, and Master and Mistress Page are thwarted in their attempts to manipulate the natural course of love. Fenton, like Falstaff, an outsider by virtue of his class and urban origins, learns that money is not as important as true love. These themes are underscored in this production by setting the action in Tudor England. This location is its natural home and the source of familiar iconography. The Merry Wives of Windsor is middle class, rural, domestic, warm and forgiving, and its themes are grounded in the laws of nature which are the source of civic order and the rules of appropriate behavior. These qualities are reflected in the setting and costumesof this production. The costumes of the citizens of Windsor are simple in line and fabric, warm and autumnal in color. The outsiders, Fenton and Falstaff (and his cohorts), are made obvious by the alien, more urban look of their clothing. However all of the costumes exaggerate the universal qualities of each character so that the type is easily recognizable. The setting has the qualities of a story-book, for more than any of Shakespeare's plays The Merry Wives of Windsor has the feel of a folk-tale, with its rural origins, cautionary structure, mock-mystical fleecing of the scapegoat, and homely moral. The set presents a Tudor village as it might be represented in a picture-book, not in its entirety or in three- dimensions, but in line, color and two dimensions suggesting the architecture of the period. The set pieces are cut-outs in natural organic shapes, 3/4 life size to further suggest a storybook, and painted or drawn as if by hand, to represent the natural textures of wood, stone and thatch. The overall effect is warm, civilized, simple and benign, a place where all strangers are welcome provided they play be the rules.

Craik, T.W. The Merry Wives of Windsor. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989. Green, William. Shakespeare's "Merry Wives of Windsor. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1962. Hibberd, G.R., ed The Merry Wives of Windsor. London: Penguin Books, 1973. Oliver, H.J., ed. The Merry Wives of Windsor. London: Routledge, 1971. Stoll, Elmer Edgar. Falstaff. Philadelphia: Folcroft Press, Inc., 191