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
Written: Probably between 1597 and 1599.
Performance: There is evidence that the play may have debuted before
Queen Elizabeth I at Windsor Castle on April 23, 1599.
Printing: Pirated quarto, 1602, published with misquoted passages and
omissions of entire scenes; 1623 as part of the First Folio, the first
authorized collection of Shakespeare's plays.
farcical plot of tricking the trickster can be traced to the Roman playwright
Titus Maccius Plautus (254-184 B.C.)~ez_ndash~in particular, to his 205 BC play
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.
is believed that Shakespeare wrote The Merry Wives at the request
of Queen Elizabeth I and debuted it before her in 1599. Supposedly, she
so enjoyed the character of Falstaff in Henry IV Part I and
IV Part II that she asked Shakespeare to write
another play featuring FaIstaff, according to John Dennis, author of a
1702 play based on TheMerry Wives.
the dedication of his play, Dennis wrote that "This comedy was written
at [Queen Elizabeth I's] command, and by her direction, and she was so
eager to see it acted that she commanded it to be finished in fourteen
days . . ." (Quoted in
Shakespeare: The Complete Works, edited by
G.B. Harrison. New York: Harcourt, 1952, page 937).
it is true that Shakespeare wrote the play in just two weeks, he must have
burnt many midnight candles. But he was young, in his mid-thirties, and
had an agile mind that could keep his quill in constant motion.
action takes place in Windsor in Berkshire County, England, during the
Elizabethan Age. Windsor, a few miles west of London, is the site of Windsor
Castle, a royal residence from the time of William the Conqueror, who reigned
as king from 1066 to 1087. The play was said to have debuted at Windsor
Castle before Queen Elizabeth I.
Protagonist: Sir John
Falstaff 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
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:
Fie on sinful fantasy!
Fie on lust and luxury!
Lust is but a bloody fire,
Kindled with unchaste desire,
Fed in heart, whose flames
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 ~ez_ldquo~Now, sir, who~ez_rsquo~s a cuckold now?~ez_rdquo~
(5.5.80). Falstaff says, ~ez_ldquo~I do begin to perceive that I am made an ass~ez_rdquo~
(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. .
.Climax . .......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." . Themes . Women
can hold their own against men~ez_ndash~and the dictates of custom.
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 fact~ez_ndash~or 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
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).
in the Play
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).
wrote most of the The Merry Wives in the prose of everyday speech.
Pistol is the only character who speaks all his lines~ez_ndash~except very short
ones~ez_ndash~in 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 world~ez_rsquo~s mine
Which I with sword will
In a metaphor, Pistol compares the
world to an oyster. The line also contains alliteration (why, world~ez_rsquo~s,
which, with, and will.)
Hang no more about me; I
am no gibbet. (2.2.9)
Falstaff~ez_rsquo~s metaphor compares himself
to a gallows.
He shall not knit a knot
in his fortunes with the finger of my substance. (2.2.29)
Page uses alliteration (not,
and knot; of fortunes and finger) (s
sounds in substance). The lines also contain metaphors comparing
accumulating money to knitting, money itself to a knot, and a finger to
Have I lived to be carried
in a basket, and to be thrown in the Thames like a barrow of butcher~ez_rsquo~s
offal? Well, if I be served such another trick, I~ez_rsquo~ll have my brains ta~ez_rsquo~en
out, and buttered, and give them to a dog for a new year~ez_rsquo~s gift. The rogues
slighted me into the river with as little remorse as they would have [if
they] drowned a blind bitch~ez_rsquo~s puppies, fifteen i~ez_rsquo~ the litter; and you may
know by my size that I have a kind of alacrity in sinking . . . . (3.5.5)
Falstaff uses the following figures
of speech: simile (thrown in the Thames like a barrow of butcher~ez_rsquo~s offal),
hyperbole (I~ez_rsquo~ll have my brains ta~ez_rsquo~en out, and buttered, and give them
to a dog for a new year~ez_rsquo~s gift), simile (The rogues slighted me
into the river with as little remorse as they would have [if they had]
a blind bitch~ez_rsquo~s puppies), and alliteration (kind, alacrity,
Questions and Essay Topics
1. In an argumentative essay,
take a stand on whether Shakespeare intended The Merry Wives of Windsor
as a statement in favor of women~ez_rsquo~s rights. In your essay, you may wish
to take into account the treatment of women in other Shakespeare plays.
2. The Merry Wives of
Windsor is entirely different from other Shakespeare plays in that
it focuses on the everyday life of middle-class people. (Other plays center
on kings, queens, emperors, nobles, wealthy aristocrats, etc.) Does this
difference manifest itself in the dialogue of the play~ez_ndash~or in any other
aspect of the play?
3. What was life like for
middle-class Englishmen in Shakespeare~ez_rsquo~s time?
4. In an essay, compare
and contrast the Falstaff of Henry IV Part I with the Falstaff of The Merry
5. To what extent does The
Merry Wives poke fun at the love of money? In researching your answer,
you may wish to start with these lines:
Did her grandsire leave her seven hundred pound?
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)