Merry Wives Of Windsor (The)

By William Shakespeare
June 1 1999
directed by Robin McKee

Impoverished Sir John Falstaff, a visitor to the town of Windsor, sends letters to Mistresses Page and Ford in the hope of wooing them and tapping into their husbands’ fortunes. The women discover his intention and, enlisting Mistress Quickly as their messenger, set a trap. Tipped off to Falstaff’s scheme by Nym and Pistol, Master Page trusts in his wife’s fidelity but Master Ford responds with jealous anger. Disguised as Master Brook, he gains Falstaff’s confidence and learns his plans. Meanwhile, young Anne Page has attracted the amorous attentions of Doctor Caius, Slender and Fenton. She wants to wed the latter but her mother favors Caius and her father Slender. Each suitor hires Mistress Quickly to advance his cause for matrimony. Caius challenges Hugh Evans, one of Slender’s supporters, to a duel but the Host leads the antagonists astray until they are reconciled. Mistress Ford lures Falstaff to her home where, just as he is pressing his charms, Mistress Page bursts in with the news of Master Ford’s approach. Frightened, the fat seducer hides and is indecorously disposed of. The women entice the gullible Falstaff to return again with similar result: Master Ford enters in a rage and the bumbling wooer escapes at the expense of his pride and comfort. The Mistresses finally inform their husbands of Falstaff’s lechery and together they hatch a plot to teach him a lesson that collides with the Pages’ attempts to marry off Anne and her scheme to elope with Fenton.

Date Time
Tuesday June 1 12:00 am
Closed

Impoverished Sir John Falstaff, a visitor to the town of Windsor, sends letters to Mistresses Page and Ford in the hope of wooing them and tapping into their husbands’ fortunes. The women discover his intention and, enlisting Mistress Quickly as their messenger, set a trap. Tipped off to Falstaff’s scheme by Nym and Pistol, Master Page trusts in his wife’s fidelity but Master Ford responds with jealous anger. Disguised as Master Brook, he gains Falstaff’s confidence and learns his plans. Meanwhile, young Anne Page has attracted the amorous attentions of Doctor Caius, Slender and Fenton. She wants to wed the latter but her mother favors Caius and her father Slender. Each suitor hires Mistress Quickly to advance his cause for matrimony. Caius challenges Hugh Evans, one of Slender’s supporters, to a duel but the Host leads the antagonists astray until they are reconciled. Mistress Ford lures Falstaff to her home where, just as he is pressing his charms, Mistress Page bursts in with the news of Master Ford’s approach. Frightened, the fat seducer hides and is indecorously disposed of. The women entice the gullible Falstaff to return again with similar result: Master Ford enters in a rage and the bumbling wooer escapes at the expense of his pride and comfort. The Mistresses finally inform their husbands of Falstaff’s lechery and together they hatch a plot to teach him a lesson that collides with the Pages’ attempts to marry off Anne and her scheme to elope with Fenton.

History repeats itself! Upon re-reading this comedy, I was reminded of a place in American history with similar social groups and situations. The world-views that collide to wonderfully comic effect in Merry Wives include: the wealthy merchant class (the Pages and the Fords); the social-climbing “foreigners” (the Doctor, Parson and even the Justice) and the bedraggled group of tavern-dwellers with their “knight,” Falstaff, the wit of the ne’er-do-wells. Qualities that resonate are playful innocence, comic discontent, bold pandering, joyful ambition, absurd jealousy, lawless quarrelsomeness, pitiful ignorance, intellectualized crudity, hilarious lust, blind love. The place and time evoked for me was San Francisco circa 1852, a few years after gold was discovered in California in 1848. The physical world of San Francisco in the years following “gold fever” included deserted ships rotting at anchor in the Bay, tent homes along the hills and constant landfilling to claim territory from the sea. Opportunities of this period brought wealth to merchants with the foresight to become provisioners to would-be miners, introduced tens of thousands of foreign nationals to California, and produced lawless taverns housing down-on-their-luck “49ers.” Circa 1852 the Fords and Pages embody the well-to-do merchant class, the Doctor, Parson and the Justice represent the foreigners and opportunists, and Falstaff and his cronies move from being Shakespeare’s socially-reduced “knights” to penniless 49ers who are left without means of passage home. The social atmosphere and actions producing guileless, though at times borderline disastrous, fun at one another’s expense suggested to me that Shakespeare’s Merry Wives’ world had a “sister” period in the mid-1850s California Gold Rush. One aspect of Merry Wives that I find distinctly different from other Shakespeare texts is that the “merry wives” are the puppeteers of the action. They make fools of the men at almost every turn. While in other of Shakespeare’s plays women and men go head-to-head, in no other text do women drive the action so completely. Even Falstaff, the “wit,” is out-witted by two women who seek to prove that they can be merry as well as virtuous. Interestingly, women of this production’s period forged their own “gold rush” by being extraordinarily direct about personal ambitions. Some were direct enough to take out newspaper ads that read curiously like contemporary personal ads, complete with details as to what favors will be given to share in a mining claim producing X amount of gold per week. Western women of this American period were also extremely liberal and self-sufficient in their merrymaking, as were the miners often starved for female attention. In short, open and playful expressions of lust, ambition and community frolic characterize both Shakespeare's time and 1852 California. In this unique version of Merry Wives I trust that the comic results of Falstaff’s love-schemes, the wives’ playful vengeance, and the clashing ignorance and laughable intellect of all of the characters will produce a happy evening for you.

Out of Place in Windsor Shakespeare wrote Merry Wives of Windsor around 1600 at the request of Queen Elizabeth who wanted to see Falstaff in love. This character was popular at the time, having appeared previously in the Henry IV plays as the irreverent master of a rollicking tavern world. The Falstaff of Merry Wives, however, is different. Rather than the joke-maker, he is continually the butt of everyone’s jokes, the catalyst that triggers the play’s humor. An “out-of-towner” down on his luck, Falstaff conceives a plan to get his hands on some much needed cash at the expense of two local couples, the Pages and the Fords. He contrives to woo the women and gain access to their husbands’ purses, thereby setting the main plot in motion. However, he quickly finds himself at the mercy of his own scheme. His faithful followers, Pistol and Nym, less than reputable individuals themselves, refuse to be parties to his “base humor” and betray him to the potential cuckolds. Deserted by his cronies, Falstaff faces the witty Mistresses’ plans for teaching him a lesson alone. They employ the town busybody, Mistress Quickly, to twice entice him into viciously humorous scenarios planned at his expense. In addition, he is duped into thinking he has an ally in the disguised and jealous Master Ford. And he proves to be gullible yet a third time when he is drawn into the joke of the final scene of the play. Falstaff’s deluded sense of himself as a trickster and a lover causes him continually to fall victim to others’ plots. An aging man who by his own admission is “in the waist two yards about,” he fancies himself to be quite a romantic catch. Broke and without allies, he seems destined foolishly to continue to be putty in the hands of the clever wives. The result is a play in which the women have the upper hand. Mistresses Page and Ford are more amused than appalled by the idea of being seduced by a fat lover “well-nigh worn to pieces” with age, and it is with an eye toward “entertainment” that they turn the tables on him. Woe to the man who ever tries to seduce them again! No match for these virtuous yet fun-loving women, the would-be seducer learns the painful lesson that he cannot control the people of middle class Windsor as he could the rowdies of his carefree tavern days. The wives and provincial Windsor prove resolute in the face of the conniving trickster from out of town. This Falstaff lacks the control and assurance he is so well known for in the Henry IV plays. Merry Wives is a comedy replete with farcical elements fashioned at the expense of his physical comfort. From beginning to end, Falstaff proves to be a clumsy, silly figure hopelessly caught up in the alien, witty world of Windsor.