Friday, September 1, 2017

The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare

Yes, yes, I really do mean to get back into Shakespeare's history plays next week, this time with Henry VI, Part 1. But...all the time I was reading my way through Shakespeare's Henriad, and enjoying the antics of Sir John Falstaff, I couldn't help remembering how long it'd been since I'd read The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Yes, I had read it, all those years ago while my brother and I were working our way through our massive Complete Works of Shakespeare, ticking off each play as we came to it. I remembered thinking it was hilarious, and thought that this might be the right time to revisit this purely comedic spin-off to what I'm affectionately calling the English-History Theatrical Universe.

That's right, Sir John Falstaff was such a hit in Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 that Shakespeare decided to capitalise on him with a spin-off comedy. No civil strife, battle scenes, or doom-laden meditations on kingship here: The Merry Wives of Windsor is pure farce, containing some of the wackiest humour you'll find in a Shakespeare play outside Love's Labour's Lost or The Taming of the Shrew

As always, Sir John Falstaff is short on money and willing to do anything, no matter how low, in order to get it. In this play he decides to get at the coffers of wealthy Windsor gentlemen Ford and Page, by seducing their wives. Mistress Ford (whose husband is insanely jealous) and Mistress Page (whose husband is oblivious) are highly amused to receive matching love letters from the corpulent old reprobate, and decide the opportunity for a bit of revenge is too good to miss. 

Meanwhile, Falstaff's old drinking-companion Justice Shallow is in town with comedy Welsh priest Sir Hugh Evans and his nephew Slender, who Shallow and Evans encourage to marry the Pages' pretty and wealthy young daughter Anne. Unfortunately for the diffident Slender, Anne has other suitors - Dr Caius, the comedy French doctor, and the reformed playboy Fenton. Maybe one of them would have a chance with her - if only the doctor's quick-witted maid Mistress Quickly could decide which of them to help.

The Merry Wives of Windsor isn't seen as one of Shakespeare's stronger efforts. Critics point out, rather justly, the fact that the subplot (although it has at least two hilarious punchlines, like the scene where the doctor and the priest attempt to fight a duel over Anne Page - as other characters note, one is a healer of bodies and the other is a healer of souls) has very little to do with the main plot. Perhaps the most serious shortcoming is that the Sir John Falstaff in this play is not quite what he was in Henry IV Part 1 and 2 - fat, yes, cunning, yes, but somehow toothless. Falstaff does not seem quite himself without doom hanging over his unvenerable old head, or if he's not attacking honourable corpses in a bald-faced attempt to get credit for killing them, or meditating on honour's inability to keep him fed or clothed. Shifted into a pure farce, Falstaff has become a purely comedic character, but that undercurrent of tragedy was part of what made him such a memorable character. 

But despite this play's shortcomings, I have to admit I loved it just as much as ever this time around. It may not be a great Falstaff play, but it's a) legitimately hilarious and b) rather unique among Shakespeare's plays.

Yes, the play really is this zany. Go watch it. Now.
The most memorable character in this play isn't Falstaff: it's Master Ford. Shakespeare has enormous fun with all the characters in this play, and the effect is like nothing so much as an episode of Fawlty Towers, with Basil Fawlty himself played by Master Ford. Ford is manic, irrational, and obsessive - basically, comedy gold. I suspect that this comedy might have also had something of the same cringe factor for Elizabethans that Fawlty Towers has, though time has softened its effect - although Ford winds up redeeming himself and keeping more of his dignity than Basil ever does.

But let's take a moment to appreciate possibly my favourite thing in this play, which is the central characters of Mistress Ford and Mistress Page. These ladies are the best ever. When was the last time you read a story with two such attractive middle-aged female protagonists? The Merry Wives themselves are the smartest, funniest, most joyous people in this play and possibly even the whole Complete Works (with the possible exception of the French ladies in Love's Labours Lost). Unlike just about any other Shakespeare protagonists, or any protagonists at all from the time period, they're just ordinary middle-class matrons, neither noble enough nor young enough to be obvious heroines. And then, unlike just about any middle-class matron protagonist in twentieth-century lit, they're clearly contented, fulfilled, and utterly on top of things. 

The Merry Wives of Windsor is a play in which virtue triumphs over villainy, and does it while being smarter, funnier, and more adorable than anyone else. With features like that, I don't really care if it has shortcomings elsewhere!

I read The Merry Wives of Windsor along with an excellent performance recording from YouTube. Take two hours to listen to it--it's a delight! 

Find The Merry Wives of Windsor on Amazon, the Book Depository, or Project Gutenberg.


Hamlette (Rachel) said...

I read this like twenty years ago, in high school, and clearly it is high time I revisit it! Bookmarking that performance recording too. Thanks!

Suzannah said...

Yay! I hope you share your thoughts when you're done :)

Joseph J said...

No death, no fantastic creatures, is this even Shakespeare? I've never imagined people of his time sitting down to watch a sitcom. It makes them more relatable. Can't wait to read, but it must be more even fun to watch.

Suzannah said...

Shakespeare wrote heaps of plays without death and fantastic creatures! They tend to be my favourites. Definitely try to watch it! :)


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