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


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