1/ Apparently the thing most often said about The Merry Wives of Windsor is that it’s a disappointment, for fans of Falstaff. It’s not hard to see why—Falstaff of the Henry IV plays is one of the finest creations in Shakespeare, and in literature in general, whereas Falstaff of The Merry Wives of Windsor barely has any of the charm or wit. But it’s still a very funny play. Perhaps the key to enjoy it is to pretend that this Falstaff is a different character altogether.
There are two plots.
The sub-plot mainly involves Anne Page and her three suitors (Slender, the French doctor Caius, and Fenton). That makes me think of Bianca and her three suitors in The Taming of the Shrew.
The main plot mostly involves Falstaff, the merry wives of Windsor (Mrs Ford and Mrs Page), and their husbands (Ford and Page). Falstaff is the butt of the jokes, but the plot is more interesting for the jealousy theme.
2/ Some funny bits in the play:
“CAIUS […] By gar, I vill cut all his two stones; by gar, he shall not have a stone to trow at his dog.”
(Act 1 scene 4)
Stones are testicles, if you’re wondering.
“MRS FORD […] What tempest, I trow, threw this whale, with so many turns of oil in his belly, ashore at Windsor? How shall I be revenged on him? I think the best way were to entertain him with hope till the wicked fire of lust have melted him in his own grease…”
(Act 2 scene 1)
That whale is later thrown into the Thames.
“PISTOL He woos both high and low, both rich and poor,
Both young and old, one with another, Ford.
He loves the gallimaufry. Ford, perpend.”
I don’t like the eye dialect very much—Shakespeare makes fun of the French and Welsh accents—but this line makes up for it:
“CAIUS If dere be one, or two, I shall make-a de turd.”
(Act 3 scene 3)
Sometimes a line amuses me greatly but I can’t say why, like what Ford says to Mrs Page about her and his wife:
“FORD […] I think if your husbands were dead, you two would marry.”
(Act 3 scene 2)
And this is probably the funniest speech in the play:
“FALSTAFF […] I suffered the pangs of three several deaths: first, an intolerable fright to be detected with a jealous rotten bellwether; next, to be compassed like a good bilbo in the circumference of a peck, hilt to point, heel to head; and then, to be stopped in, like a strong distillation, with stinking clothes that fretted in their own grease. Think of that, a man of my kidney—think of that—that am as subject to heat as butter; a man of continual dissolution and thaw. It was a miracle to ‘scape suffocation. And in the height of this bath, when I was more than half stewed in grease, like a Dutch dish, to be thrown into the Thames, and cooled, glowing hot, in that surge, like a horseshoe. Think of that—hissing hot—think of that, Master Brooke!”
(Act 3 scene 5)
Again, if you think of Falstaff of the Henry IV plays, this seems out of character—the real Falstaff always paints himself to be greater, braver, more glorious, not such a laughingstock. But this is a different Falstaff, and the speech is so hilarious and the images are so colourful that it doesn’t matter.
Tony Tanner thinks differently. With the same speech, he argues:
“The accounts he gives of his misadventures […] are not the words of a broken man. He can be funnier about his own body than anybody else. With his rich elaborations, he transforms what was pure knock-about farce into something of grander proportions and resonances—mock epic perhaps, but the epic note is there.” (Introduction)
Maybe I should think about that some more. But whatever we think about Falstaff (and the question “Is this the same Falstaff as in the Henry IV plays?”), some of the funniest lines in The Merry Wives of Windsor are said by Falstaff.
“FALSTAFF […] If it should come to the ear of the court how I have been transformed, and how my transformation hath been washed and cudgeled, they would melt me out of my fat drop by drop, and liquor fishermen’s boots with me. I warrant they would whip me with their fine wits till I were as crestfall’n as a dried pear…”
(Act 4 scene 5)
“QUICKLY […] Mistress Ford, good heart, is beaten black and blue that you cannot see a white spot about her.
FALSTAFF What tell’st thou me of black and blue? I was beaten myself into all the colors of the rainbow…”
3/ I haven’t read all of Shakespeare (I’ll get there), but The Merry Wives of Windsor again confirms my suspicion that every single one of Shakespeare’s plays has some sort of disguise, some form of acting or pretending. The device is present in both plots.
The play also has the jealousy theme, which is clearly one of Shakespeare’s obsessions. Everything works out in the end because the play is in comic mode, but it could easily turn into something tragic, like Othello.
The thing that interests me more in the jealousy plot is the idea of “seeming”, or appearance versus reality, one of the themes that keep recurring in Shakespeare’s plays. Ford is undeniably jealous and unjust to his wife, but if you look at it from his perspective, everything appears to be what he thinks is happening, every detail fits. In his mind, he is reasonable and right.
4/ Some people may like the play and find it hilarious; some may find it slight, not witty like Much Ado About Nothing, not lyrical like Twelfth Night or A Midsummer Night’s Dream; some others may even find it a disappointment because of Falstaff, but I think everyone would agree that the highlight of the play is the merry wives. They’re the smart ones in the play, the men are dumb.
“MRS PAGE […] We’ll leave a proof by that which we will do,
Wives may be merry, and yet honest too.
We do not act that often jest and laugh;
‘Tis old but true, ‘Still swine eats all the draff’.”
(Act 4 scene 2)
The point of all the staging and playing pranks on Falstaff is not only to punish Falstaff but also to educate a man, Ford.
(In the sub-plot, we have a smart girl, with her guy, outwitting her parents and two men, and escaping a forced marriage).
It’s interesting to see how Page reacts when Ford apologises to his wife however:
“FORD Pardon me, wife. Henceforth do what thou wilt.
I rather will suspect the sun with cold
Than thee with wantonness. Now doth thy honor stand
In him that was of late an heretic.
As firm as faith.
PAGE ‘Tis well, ‘tis well; no more.
Be not as extreme in submission as in offense.
But let out plot go forward…”
(Act 4 scene 4)
That’s very good. Out of context, the line doesn’t look like much, but in context, it is said by a man who from the beginning has been calm and secure about his wife, who fully trusts her and pays no heed to hearsay. He’s chill throughout. In his eyes, Ford seems to swing from one extreme to another.
Tony Tanner writes about Ford:
“If his jealousy is ‘in the round’, then he is anticipating Othello and we suffer with him and sympathize. If he is a ‘humour’ figure, he could easily appear in a Ben Jonson satire and we should laugh at him and condemn. I suppose you take your pick. It is very hard for Shakespeare not to humanize what he touches, and he does not offer the skeletally thinned-down humour-figures of a Ben Jonson. On the other hand, given the manifest virtue and probity of his wife, and the attitude of his fellow citizens—‘the lunatic is at it again’—I think he is more of an amplified humour than an inchoate Othello. Still, jealousy is a phenomenon which can always generate tragedy, and in this comedy, it has to be very thoroughly defused. Shakespeare has just the verb for it; they have to ‘scrape the figures out of [his] brains’ (IV, ii, 212, my italics). By the end, we are to take it that they have succeeded.” (Introduction)
5/ I’ve also watched the 1982 BBC production of The Merry Wives of Windsor, directed by David Hugh Jones (credited as David Jones).
In both text and performance, the play takes some time to set up, and the second half is much funnier than the first half. The Merry Wives of Windsor is perhaps also funnier in performance, partly because of the accents (I don’t really like eye dialect) and partly because of the farce (especially the scene of Ford beating up Falstaff in women’s clothes). Richard Griffiths is good as Falstaff, I like Judy Davis and Prunella Scales as the merry wives, but most surprising is Ben Kingsley as Ford—I didn’t know he could be so hilarious.
I also like the warmth of the ending.