A Study Guide
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.......The Merry Wives of Windsor is a comedy, or farce. It resembles The Comedy of Errors in that it relies heavily on mix-ups and slapstick to win the guffaws of the audience. In this respect, the play resembles an American television staple, the situation comedy. It even has the types of characters that appear in American TV sitcoms: everyday middle-class folks. There are no kings and queens, no dukes and duchesses, no earls and barons.
.......Shakespeare's farcical plot of tricking the trickster can be traced to the Roman playwright Titus Maccius Plautus (254-184 B.C.)in particular, to his 205 BC play Miles Gloriosus (Latin pronunciation: ME lez Glor e OH sus). This play, written in Latin, is about a boastful but stupid Greek soldier, Pyrgopolynices, who is tricked by slaves.
Antagonists: The Wives
Sir John Falstaff: A fat knight with a robust appetite for food, drink, women and their money, and mischief. Falstaff is also a character in Henry IV Part I and Henry IV Part II and an offstage presence in Henry V.
Mistress Ford, Mistress Page: Merry wives wooed by Falstaff.
Shallow: A country justice whom Falstaff and his comrades victimize by killing his deer, beating his men, and breaking into his lodge. Shallow may have been a caricature of Sir Thomas Lucy (1532-1600), a Stratford-born justice of the peace, member of Parliament, and tracker of English Catholics who refused to recognize the Church of England. According to an undocumented account, Lucy prosecuted Shakespeare for stealing a deer from his land.
Slender: Cousin of Shallow who accuses Falstaff's friend, Pistol, of picking his pocket.
Ford: Husband of Mistress Ford.
Page: Husband of Mistress Page.
William Page: Son of Mr. Page.
Anne Page: Daughter of Mistress Page.
Fenton: A gentleman who loves Anne Page.
Sir Hugh Evans: A Welsh parson.
Doctor Caius: A French physician.
Host of the Garter Inn
Bardolph, Pistol, Nym: Troublemaking friends of Falstaff
Robin: Page of Falstaff.
Simple: Servant of Slender.
Rugby: Servant of Doctor Caius.
Mistress Quickly: Servant of Doctor Caius.
Minor Characters: Other servants.
Fie on lust and luxury!
Lust is but a bloody fire,
Kindled with unchaste desire,
Fed in heart, whose flames aspire
As thoughts do blow them, higher and higher.
Pinch him, fairies, mutually;
Pinch him for his villainy;
Pinch him, and burn him, and turn him about,
Till candles and starlight and moonshine be out. (5.5.71) Mistress Page then reveals the hoax to Falstaff. Ford gloats, saying Now, sir, whos a cuckold now? (5.5.80). Falstaff says, I do begin to perceive that I am made an ass (5.5.82). And who gets Anne Page? Slender and Doctor Caius think they do when they each steal away with one of the disguised night creatures. But it is Fenton who winds up with comely Anne. They have run off and married. All ends happily, with no hard feelings, as Mistress Page invites everyone to her home to sit by the fireplace and have a good laugh.
.......The climax of the play takes place in the final act when Falstaff becomes the brunt of an elaborate practical joke and admits, "I do perceive that I am made an ass."
Women can hold their own against menand the dictates of custom. The Merry Wives of Windsor takes place in an age when males often regarded females as playthings and when parents often chose the suitors for their daughters. But it is the women who win the day in this comedy. Two ordinary housewives, Mrs. Page and Mrs. Ford, get the better of a gold-digging philanderer, Falstaff. And Anne Page goes against the wishes of her parents when she runs off with Fenton. The outcome of the play must have pleased the women in Shakespeare's audience. One of them was Queen Elizabeth I, according to evidence indicating that the play was first performed before her at Windsor Castle. It is interesting to note, though, that the women who make a fool of Falstaff, a knight, are members of the middle class, not the nobility or aristocracy. If the queen indeed delighted in the victory of the merry wives, her enjoyment may have been tempered by this factor so one may speculate.
All things are not as they seem. Falstaff first deceives the wives. The wives then deceive Falstaff and their husbands. Mr. Ford and Mistress Quickly also deceive Falstaff. Falstaff deceives himself.
Insincerity breeds trouble. Falstaff gets into trouble because he is insincere, pretending to be lovestruck when he is really money-struck.
Turnabout is fair play. The wives turn the tables on Falstaff, and he gets his just desert.More Prose Than Verse
.......The Merry Wives of Windsor is unusual in that Shakespeare wrote most of it in prose instead of verse or poetry. Pistol is the only character who speaks most of his lines in verse. The reason for his high-flown speech may be Shakespeare's attempt to poke fun at a prominent Elizabethan actor who worked for a company that competed with Shakespeare's acting company. G.B. Harrison explains: "Pistol was created to be a walking parody of the great actor Edward Alleyn, chief of the rival company, the Lord Admiral's Men. Alleyn was the chief exponent of the older style of heavy, robustious rant" (G.B. Harrison, ed. Shakespeare: The Complete Works. New York: Harcourt, 1952, Page 939).Satire in the Play
.......In Shakespeare's time, aristocrats considered it fashionable to place their health care in the hands of a physician from another country. To have a doctor from the European continent was rather like having a BMW or a Mercedes-Benz in the driveway in the modern world. Shakespeare mocks these foreign physicians through his characterization of Doctor Caius. Caius is proud and overbearing, fancies himself an outstanding fencer, and believes Anne Page is in love with him. He speaks in broken English that sometimes goes very far awry, as in the following unintentional pun he utters after Mr. Page invites Mr. Ford, Sir Hugh Evans, and Caius to breakfast. After Ford and Evans accept the invitation, Caius says: "If dere [there] be one or two, I shall make-a the turd" (End of Act II).
.......Shakespeare wrote most of the The Merry Wives in the prose of everyday speech. Pistol is the only character who speaks all his linesexcept very short onesin verse. Consequently, the play contains fewer elegant figures of speech than his other plays, written mostly in verse. Nevertheless, the play does feature memorable tropes, including the following:Sometimes the beam of her view gilded my foot, sometimes my portly belly. (1.3.32)
In a metaphor, Falstaff compares the gaze of Mistress Page to a golden ray of light.
Why, then the worlds mine oyster.
Hang no more about me; I am no gibbet. (2.2.9)
He shall not knit a knot in his fortunes with the finger of my substance. (2.2.29)
Have I lived to be carried in a basket, and to be thrown in the Thames like a barrow of butchers offal? Well, if I be served such another trick, Ill have my brains taen out, and buttered, and give them to a dog for a new years gift. The rogues slighted me into the river with as little remorse as they would have [if they] drowned a blind bitchs
puppies, fifteen i the litter; and you may know by my size that I have a kind of alacrity in sinking . . . . (3.5.5)
1. In an argumentative essay, take a stand on whether Shakespeare intended The Merry Wives of Windsor as a statement in favor of womens rights. In your essay, you may wish to take into account the treatment of women in other Shakespeare plays.
Sir Hugh Evans Ay, and her father is make her a petter [better] penny.
Justice Shallow I know the young gentlewoman; she has good gifts.
Sir Hugh Evans Seven hundred pounds and possibilities is goot [good] gifts. (1.1.23-26) Plays on DVD (or VHS)
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