Merry Wives of Windsor (1573, 1597)

James Durno, Scene in ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’; Sir John Soane’s Museum;

In 1602 The Merry Wives of Windsor was published under the pseudonym of “William Shakespeare”, but was entered into the Stationer’s Office on the 18th January by John Busby. The quarto states that the play “Hath been divers times Acted by the Honourable my Lord Chamberlain’s servants, both before her Majesty and elswhere”. In the same year when All’s Well That Ends Well is written and a year later printed in quarto. Subsequently the Earl of Oxford combines Worcester’s Men with his own drama group and is authorised to perform at the Boar’s Head. No specific textual source is cited for the play Merrie Wives of Windsor except themes emanating from the Italian Renaissance Commedia d’elle Arte at least from the point of characterisation, not from the plot or narrative sequence. Judging from the two original quartos available (a promptbook and a copy of the original manuscript) it was probably written while Shakespeare was also writing Henry IVth, Part 2 around 1596-7.  Changes or differences in the quartos may derive from one being laid out for royal performances at court and those later revised for the popular theatre. Charlton Ogburn suggests that an early version of this play was written by Edward de Vere as early as October 1573 on the birth of his illegitimate son, Henry Wriothesley (later the Earl of Southampton).The play is often referred to euphemistically as “Falstaff in Love”, a theme which was supposedly commissioned by Queen Elizabeth I. Nicholas Rowe wrote in his 1709 edition that: “She was so well pleased with that admirable character in the two parts of Henry IVth that she commanded him to continue it for one play more, and to show him in love”. This assertion by Nicolas Rowe is rather fanciful since Falstaff was portrayed by “Shakespeare” as a lecherous lout and Never in Love! Another Shakespearean myth associated with this play is that it was first performed in April 23rd at the 1597 Garter Feast, when knights were elected to serve the following month. That year saw Sir George Carey, Lord Hunsdon and patron of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men elected to the Order. This order of knights was first instituted in England by Edward III (1348) along with the legend that the Countess of Salisbury dropped her garter at a court ball which was then found and picked up by the King. The onlookers seeing the King with the blue garter assumed he was having an affair with the Countess. Anyway, the King then attached the garter on his own leg saying: “Honi soit qui mal y pense” meaning that evil comes to those who think evil of it. Much later the garter became associated with Edward’s order of Knights and the Latin phrase became the motto for the coat of arms of the Prince of Wales. At that time the order was confined to the sovereign and his family with 24 Knights companions. The order remains to this day as a bit of an anachronism. The most famous statesman to be appointed or received into the order being Sir Winston Churchill.

The character of Falstaff is considered to have been based on the real heretical Sir John Oldcastle, the High Sheriff of Herefordshire, a member of John Wycliffe’s religious order known as the Lollards who was executed for treason at the Tower of London in 1417. Apparently, when Shakespeare first wrote the play Henry IVth he called Falstaff Sir John Oldcastle but Lord Cobham, (Lord Chamberlain 1596-97) and his actual descendants protested at the use of the family name. Although considered a fanatic and a traitor by many, Sir John Oldcastle, a Lollard by religion served Henry IVth in France and was mentioned as a martyr in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. The name of Falstaff was derived from a certain “Fastolf” (1378-1459) a cowardly glutton who fought for Henry VIth in France. Supposedly written in haste or duress depending on accounts, this is one of the few plays in the Shakespeare canon with little or no background literary sources. It is largely allegorical as well as comic, playful, chaste, witty, and farcical in its depiction of the antics and attitudes of the burgeoning middle-class in Shakespeare’s time. The two heroines Mistress Page and Mistress Ford endeavour to thwart the sexual advances of the scurrilous Falstaff who seems little changed in character from his previous role in King Henry IVth. Its domestic setting is unusual for Shakespearean drama but the plot itself may derive from the plot of Pecorone (1558), by an Italian writer, Giovanni Fiorentino. Set in the urban and suburban dominions of Windsor the base of the Garter Knights, it has very few aristocratic or royal persons in the cast but the entirety of the players are a royal court in miniature for all the differing classes in the kingdom.

The Daughters of the Celestial Firmament

An artist’s impression of Elizabethan Theatre

Falstaff, along with his crew Bardolph, Pistol and Nym while staying at the Garter Inn at Windsor are accused by the local magistrate, Shallow of a grievous wrong. The landlord of the Inn, a Welsh parson by the name of Hugh Evans, and a reputable citizen George Page intend to provide testimonials defending their character. Meanwhile, the magistrate persuades his cousin Slender to woo Page’s daughter Anne, although she is also being approached by a certain Dr. Caius, a French physician and a young gentleman called Fenton. Falstaff, now short of money sends Pistol and Nym to deliver letters of proposal to Mrs. Page and her friend Mrs. Ford in an attempt to fleece them. However, they refuse and instead decide to inform the husbands of Falstaff’s devious plans. Slender’s servant, a chap called Simple is found hiding in a cupboard by the physician after he has been directed by Hugh Evans to Mrs. Quickly, the housekeeper at Dr. Caius’ residence. Simple is then directed to deliver a challenge to Hugh Evans to forward a reasonable explanation. As Mrs. Ford and Mrs. Page each receive Falstaff’s letters, and seeing through the deception decide to play a trick on the old fool by encouraging him further. Meanwhile, Caius and Hugh are engaged in a duel, to which Pistol and Nym invite the gentlemen Mr. Ford and Mr. Page to attend. The former being more suspicious of his wife decides to visit Falstaff and determine personally the truth of the mater. He then offers Falstaff a sum of money if he will desist from showering his affections on his wife. Falstaff joyously assents to the offer thereby bitterly reassuring Mr. Ford of his suspicions. The parson does not attend the arranged duel, so he is sought out by a host who reveals that that have both been misled and should now shake hands, make the peace and drink to each other’s good health. When Falstaff goes a-courting Mrs. Ford and when news of her husband’s return is announced he hides in a laundry basket which is promptly secured, carried off and dumped in a ditch near the Thames. The wives then plan to send Mrs. Quickly to Falstaff, to apologise for the misunderstanding and invite his approach again. Meanwhile Fenton’s courtship of Anne Page is thwarted by her parents who consider him a wastrel and ally of Prince Hal. When Falstaff goes a-courting Mrs. Ford again the same news arrives but on this occasion he dons a woman’s garb and is promptly dismissed by Mr. Ford who thinks she is a maiden aunt, long since forbidden access there. Ford then asks his wife’s forgiveness for his false suspicions, and the wives then plot another prank on poor Falstaff. They arrange for him to travel to Herne’s Oak where they will meet him in secret. Anne Page, with a retinue dressed as fairies then encircle him, taunting and pinching the untrue knight. Another elopement is arranged between Slender and Anne by her father while Mrs. Page has decided finally to run away with Dr. Caius. Both plans are thwarted again when Anne decides to elope with Fenton and arrange for a priest to marry them at a nearby church. Meanwhile, Falstaff, now disguised as instructed as Herne the Hunter, complete with horns meets with Mrs. Ford. They are then joined by Mrs. Page, Hugh Evans disguised as a satyr, Pistol as a hobgoblin, and Mistress Quickly as the Faerie Queen. Then Dr. Caius and Fenton lead off with two of cunningly selected fairies (Mrs. Ford and Anne), thus revealing the deception.

The links to my publications “Shakespeare’s Qaballah”, a Companion to Shakespeare Studies and my anthology of poetry, “Parthenogenesis” are as follows:


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