I wasn’t 100% sure how I felt when my wife announced she thought we should see a Shakespeare on the one night we’d had without our toddler for I don’t know exactly how long. Moreover, it was a play I wasn’t overly familiar with, except at second-hand: the now-little-performed Merry Wives of Windsor.
What with the hail-fire of puns, metaphors, figures and tropes that was sure to come, I wondered whether a viewing of one of the bard’s offerings would be the best R&R for two baby-addled brains.
But my hands were tied. The good woman had already bought the tickets.
An unlikely plot
So I did “what one does,” these days, and consulted the internet for a plot refresher. As it turns out, the people at “Nothing but roaring”, who stage the pretty spectacle at “Fortyfive downstairs” in the Melbourne CBD, tell browsers everything you need to know:
Two women. Two respectable women. Two respectable, married women. Two respectable, married, mischievous and merry women. One man. One fat, old man. One fat, old, down-on-his-luck man. One fat, old, down-on-his-luck, mischievous and merry man. BOOM! …
Sir John Falstaff is down on his luck. Plan A: seduce two married women who are BFFs [note to self: this means “best friends”]. Suffice to say, things do not quite go to plan. Well, not Falstaff’s anyway… See the incorrigible rogue with his pants down and his bottom very soundly spanked (he wishes).
A run-of-the-mill scenario, I suppose, in Elizabethan or Jacobean town life. The bard’s comedy nevertheless makes the hi-jinx of The Real Housewives of Melbourne look tame, especially when you throw Merry Wives’ second plot into the mix. Said plot involves three suitors for the eligible “Anne Page”, the daughter of one of the two “respectable woman” Sir John sets out to seduce by sending identical, badly-written love letters.
Both of the play’s plots end naturally enough, in something like a witches’ coven beneath a blasted oak at midnight in Windsor park. Falstaff is spectacularly, ritually humiliated, pinched half to death by avenging fairies in the guise of the woodland deity “Herne”, a “horny” (antlered) buck.
Mistress Page delivers the coup de grace to our hero:
A question without notice
All this, I have to say, was played out with such relish by the team from “Nothing but roaring” that they truly received from their audience almost nothing but roaring laughter. The only exceptions were the two young gallants picked out, half-unwillingly, from the audience to play a couple of the fairies.
Nevertheless: while you can take the husband out of the classroom …
Try as I might, I couldn’t stop asking myself as I savoured memories of the play (our first sleep in in months): what was the intention behind this “farce of lust, love and jealousy”—the one comedy of the bard’s set in his beloved England that nevertheless ends up almost as fantastical as The Midsummer Night’s Dream?
And: since the play is running in Melbourne “as part of the world-wide celebrations of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death”, what if anything might it speak to us today, once the laughter stops?
Sisters, doing it for themselves
The first meaning of the play which resonates today, truly, is a bit of old-fashioned “girl power”. The husband Ford, who doubts his wife’s fidelity, is ruthlessly parodied, although not cuckolded, as Falstaff promises. Sir John himself, as we have said, gets everything that was coming to him, and then some more for good measure:
Mistress Page: Hang him, dishonest varlet! we cannot misuse him enough. / We’ll leave a proof, by that which we will do, / Wives may be merry, and yet honest too …
Story has it that the play originated in Queen Elizabeth’s request to the playwright to show “Falstaff in love”. Her Royal Eminence had greatly enjoyed the comic relief this lecherous, drunken, enormous fool provides to the serious business of the historical plays, Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2.
She gave the playwright two weeks to come up with something matching this brief, evidently enjoying the prerogative that comes from being married only to England and otherwise unencumbered, even by probabilities.
Merry Wives, at least as “Quarto’d” in 1602 and 1619, is the seeming product of Shakespeare’s labours.
A real pig: Falstaff in love?
The 1623 first Folio version of Merry Wives, intriguingly, is much longer. It includes the famous scene where one “William” (William Page) is led pointlessly out onto the stage only to have his “small Latin” ruthlessly shown up by the pedant, Sir Hugh Evans. The matter is what articles owe to pronouns:
Sir Hugh Nominativo, hig, hag, hog; pray you, mark: / genitivo, hujus. Well, what is your accusative case? William Accusativo, hinc. Sir Hugh I pray you, have your remembrance, child, / accusative, hung, hang, hog. Mistress Quickly ‘Hang-hog’ is latten for bacon, I warrant you. Sir Hugh Leave your prabbles, ‘oman …
The “Falstaff in love” interpretation is then itself somewhat “merry”—remembering that, in the bard’s day, this adjective carried a sense of things unusual, queer or weird. For the obscene old mountain of flesh seems only to be in love with “coin” and “sack” (wine), as well as the physical act of love—not the women whose merry dispositions he sets out to exploit so as to fill his purse.
The problem is that if these are Sir John’s loves, the two Henry IV’s had amply shown him enjoying their pursuit, as the “Faerie Queen” herself would well have known.
So other game must be afoot, whether sow or fowl.
Inventing the modern world?
One of the clichés that sound about whenever Shakespeare is discussed declaim that he “invented the modern world” or “created the modern self”, and so on. I confess I have becoming increasingly distrustful of these kinds of grandiose declarations. Like the flattering nothings lovers whisper when they woo, they usually simplify, distort and misrepresent as much as they convey, however seductive they may be, especially when we are young.
When it comes to Merry Wives of Windsor, however, there seems some truth to the clichés. It is not that the play offers particularly penetrating, in-depth analyses of new depths of the modern self, anticipating Freud, the romantics, Nietzsche, etc.
On the contrary, as in any good comedy, the characters are presented in all that glorious, ridiculous shallowness that characterizes most of social life. Each is wholly caught up in their own loves, hates, jealousies, intrigues and designs. We learn next to nothing else about any of them.
No: but one question I asked myself about the play—particularly when you include its second, background plot concerning that little “Dia Anna”, Anne Page, finally cornered in the forest—was who else, apart from Falstaff, gets their comeuppance in the bard’s Merry Wives? Who else loses out, that is, as the merry wives win, and things are put to rights in Windsor?
And what might this profile of winners and losers suggest about Shakespeare’s views concerning social forms, manners and life in merry old England?
For the answer is, pretty simply, that any male in Merry Wives who has an established title, office, or wealth gets hilariously satirized, sported with, and shown up.
The band of fools is bested in folly by Falstaff, whose every word and action makes a mockery of anything like the code of honour associated with Knighthood—let alone that elevated “Order of the Garter”, based at Windsor, which the play severally evokes.
But vying for honours in absurdity is the landed and moneyed, comically cognitively challenged “Master Slender”. Favoured by Anne’s father for his property and purse, he can barely parse a sentence, and his unwitting malapropisms provide many laughs. (“That Slender, though well landed, is an idiot,” as Mistress Page concludes.)
Then there is the Welsh-hating French Doctor Caius who the same Mistress favours for her Anne, since he “is well money’d, and his friends/ potent at court”. The Doctor—possibly based on a namesake who caused some upheavals at Cambridge some decades before—is as vain as he is quarrelsome. He also struggles with his English, and gets nowhere near the pretty prize.
Then there is the pedant Sir Hugh Evans, some of whose botched “hog Latin” we sampled above. But he too has an unusual way with the English tongue.
Finally, there is the “Justice” who underwrites his cousin Slender’s comically inept attempts at wooing Anne, and whose sirname “Shallow” says it all about Shakespeare’s opinion of the man’s wit and person.
The real movers and shakers of the play are the various man- and women-servants, led by the aptly-named “Mistress Quickly”, who also gets some of the best lines. From go to woe, they run a lively black market in buying, selling, and counterfeiting information from and between the credentialed fools.
As for Anne, she ends up choosing for her husband the untitled, cash-strapped Master Fenton, who has pursued her “against all cheques, rebukes and manners.”
“Nothing but Roaring” crown the honest lad with blond dreadlocks, and dress him in a yellow singlet and board-shorts to emphasize his inauspicious worldly creds, which see him scorned equally by both Anne’s parents.
When Anne is asked by her mum why she finally chooses Fenton to wife, Fenton jumps in and answers in the following terms. His declaration announces the advent of our modern concept of romantic love, and of marriage as something freely chosen by the young, rather than organized on their behalf by their parents:
You do amaze her: hear the truth of it. /You would have married her most shamefully, /Where there was no proportion held in love. /The truth is, she and I, long since contracted,/ Are now so sure that nothing can dissolve us. / The offence is holy that she hath committed; /And this deceit loses the name of craft, / Of disobedience, or unduteous title, /Since therein she doth evitate and shun /A thousand irreligious cursed hours, /Which forced marriage would have brought upon her …
Go and see
So I don’t know whether Shakespeare “invented the modern world”. I even doubt it very much. One thing the modern intellectual world was founded on, around the same time as the bard was writing plays, are a series of checks against generalizing too fast on too few cases, however striking they may be.
But I do think The Merry Wives of Windsor, all on its own, suggests an author observantly critical of many of the enshrined assumptions of the passing, aristocratic and courtly culture of his day: prejudices that took place, power and money for merit, and bound marriage—if not desire—to families’ trucking and trading in these social goods, at least amongst the privileged classes.
And I do know that “Nothing but Roaring”’s production of the underrated Shakespearian comedy in Melbourne was well, well worth the seeing—even if your own familial, working or amorous commitments are so tiring that you doubt whether seeing a Shakespeare is the best way you might spend a free night.
This weekend’s experience indeed also suggested something I should have learnt long ago, and that the bard’s Merry Wives of Windsor still teaches all who read or go to see it: that men are very often fools to doubt their better halves' judgements, especially since honest wives can be merry too.
Authors: The Conversation Contributor