The Merry Wives of Windsor

Why This Play?:

Two reasons.  1) After both the Henry IV plays, it was nice to round out the Falstaff saga.  Now I can dust my hands of the man!  2) My MOOC on Shakespeare was diving into this play last week, so it all aligned nicely. 

Merry Wives is a wholly underestimated work.  It doesn’t receive enough credit for the trope of “strong females” when Shakespeare’s heroines are discussed and analyzed in literary criticism and lectures.  This is also the play that is the most…well, normal, in its premise.  The one that’s most similar to the lives of Shakespeare’s actual audience in the London theatres (as opposed to royal viewers at court).  No royalty, no wars, no Italy, no murder, no magic.  Just married folks in a quiet English town, ready to throw down the nasty varlet who arrives to upheave their steady lives for his own gain.

Plenty of critics call it boring, but The Merry Wives of Windsor may just give the stamp of approval on being content with a simple life.  Does that really have to be so boring?

So What Happens?:

 Yup, English villages are pretty darn cute.

Yup, English villages are pretty darn cute.

In the English town of Windsor, Justice Shallow is complaining to his cousin Slender and a Welsh parson, Hugh Evans, about their new visitor Sir John Falstaff.  Apparently Falstaff is poaching his deer and generally just being an ill-mannered guest.  They head to the Page household, where Falstaff is having dinner.  Evans, the ultimate meddler, attempts to soothe Shallow’s irritation.  Slender apparently wants to marry Page’s daughter Anne, and he gets all nervous around her. Evans decides to insert himself even more into the business of others by sending his servant Simple to Mistress Quickly (a friend of Anne’s) to ask her to champion on behalf of Slender.

Falstaff is staying at a local inn with his entourage.  He reveals his plan to try to woo two married women, Mistresses Ford and Page, in attempt to get money from them.  He’s written love letters to them, but his buddies Nym and Pistol refuse to do his dirty work in delivering them.  He blows them off, so the pair decide to exact revenge by revealing his plot to Frank Ford and George Page (the husbands).  Meanwhile, Simple is at Dr. Caius’s home to speak with Mistress Quickly.  She hides him away in a closet before the French doctor finds him, since Dr. Caius has his eye on Anne Page as well.  But the hot-headed doctor finds the servant, gets irate over Slender’s suit to Anne and Evans’s support of it, and he sends Simple off with a letter to Evans that challenges him to a duel.  Once Mistress Quickly is alone again, a party boy named Fenton arrives to ask for her help in courting Anne Page.  This is an insane amount of fluffy plot for one act.  To sum up: three guys dig Anne Page, Falstaff has his sights on two married ladies, Welsh pastors are Type-A control freaks, and French doctors are generally angry at the wrong people.

Mistress Page reads her love letter from Falstaff and is livid.  Rage reaches new heights when her gal pal Mistress Ford arrives with the exact same letter from Falstaff.  Their honor is at stake here, so they’re out for revenge.  Falstaff’s former cronies tell Ford and Page about Falstaff’s intentions on their wives.  Page trusts his wife, so he laughs off the warning.  Ford has a jealous streak, so he immediately jumps into action, planning to disguise himself as “Brook” to set up a simultaneous trap for Falstaff and test of his wife’s fidelity.  Mistress Quickly (acting at wives’ request) tells Falstaff that he is invited to visit Mistress Ford while her husband is out, and that Mistress Page also has the hots for him.  “Brook” makes an offer to Falstaff: he wants to pay Sir F to woo Mistress Ford (with some bogus story about how once her honor is broken down if she already has an affair, then “Brook” can swoop in to claim her).  Falstaff giddily tells “Brook” that he’s already on his way to meet with Mistress Ford.  Once he leaves for his date, Ford is beyond pissed. 

The duel between Caius and Evans never happens because they were each told to meet in different places.  Each assumes the other is a coward who ducked out on the fight.  Many stereotypical French jokes (and Welsh ones that I don’t really understand) are tossed around.  But they do finally run into one another, along with Page – Ford sees them and invites them all to his house to hunt “a monster”.  He wants to smoke out Falstaff, who’s there on his clandestine visit to Mistress Ford.  The wives are readying for the visit, instructing the servants to get a large basket of laundry to dump in the river. Mistress Page pops in to gossip that Ford is on his way home, and a nervous Falstaff hides in the laundry basket.  The servants carry him out just as Ford and company arrive.  Ford tears through the house looking for Falstaff, but he can’t find him.  He apologizes for his suspicion, but is not yet at ease with his wife.

Falstaff in the Washbasket, by Johann Heinrich Fussli circa 1792.  

Over in the boring B story of Anne Page’s love life, Fenton confesses to Anne that he initially pursued her for her dowry.  But he really loves her now, so they should get married.  Anne’s cool with this.  Falstaff arrives back at the Inn fresh from being dumped in the river.  He gets over it when Mistress Quickly informs him of his next appointment to meet Mistress Ford.  “Brook” comes by to see how their date went, and Falstaff relays all the horrors of riding around in stinky laundry and surviving a toss into the river.  He mentions his next meeting with Mistress Ford, much to “Brook’s” chagrin.

Falstaff shows up at the Ford house for his date, and Mistress Page again brings news of Ford heading home early.  The ladies get Falstaff upstairs to disguise him as “The Fat Woman of Brentford”.  Ford’s already not a fan of the real lady of Brentford, so even though he’s deceived by the costume, he still beats “The Fat Woman” out of his home.  The wives’ plans to humiliate Falstaff (and show Ford there’s no cause for jealousy) could not have gone better.  The ladies fill their husbands in on their plotting, and Ford swears to trust his wife hereafter.  Everyone comes together for a final trick on Falstaff.  There’s a legend that Herne the Hunter haunts a local oak tree – they will invite Sir F there for a meeting that night and have Anne Page and the neighbor kids (posing as fairies) attack him.  The two Pages each have a suitor chosen for their daughter, and secretly arrange to have their respective choices (Slender and Caius) steal away with her that evening to marry.  Fenton gets wind of this, and makes his own plans to elope with Anne.

Falstaff arrives at the oak that night, dressed as Herne the Hunter.  He’s stoked to see the wives waiting for him…but elation turns to horror when the “fairies” swoop in and start pinching and poking him.  Slender and Caius each leave the ruckus with a “fairy” that they believe to be Anne Page.  Unbeknownst to them, the real Anne Page leaves with Fenton.  The wives fill Falstaff in on all their tricks, and he is chastened.  There’s some talk about Falstaff giving up his debauchery (but we the audience know better).  Slender and Caius return without their mutual love, although Caius apparently went as far as to marry his “fairy”, who is actually a boy, while believing him to be Anne.  The newlyweds Fenton and Anne return, and the Pages decide to embrace Fenton as their son-in-law.  Family values restored!

Check This Out:

Yes, you are recognizing character names from Henry IV, Part II (and I)!  But take that with a grain of salt.  Shakespeare obviously didn’t care about continuity in this case and sort of threw The Merry Wives of Windsor into the mix of his existing London world in Henry IV.  So Justice Shallow is there, but he is more annoyed by Falstaff than fondly considering him an old buddy.  Mistress Quickly is there, but she doesn’t run a tavern and doesn’t seem to know Falstaff.

Here’s a relatively accurate and semi-funny list of Types of Women in Shakespeare’s Plays.  Both Mistresses Ford and Page defy every category.  They scheme, but neither is the Scheming Femme Fatale who is punished for deceiving a man.  Mistress Ford is a borderline Woman Accused of Adultery, but defies that type by not suffering over the accusation.  These two ladies are surely a category all their own: perhaps Bemused Ladies Who Take Crap from No One.  I think the problem overall is that Mistresses Page and Ford aren’t viewed critically as heroines, simply because they are not young, unmarried, or tragic figures at the mercy of their husbands.

I started the 1982 BBC version of The Merry Wives of Windsor, in which the amazing Richard Griffiths (that's Uncle Vernon Dudley to you younger US readers) plays Falstaff.  But I wasn’t feeling it and abandoned 30 minutes in.   Great folks in the cast (Ben Kingsley as Ford!!), but some of the delivery was too dry and naturalistic for a comedy that has such silliness about it.  I don’t need flash or a gimmick in a Shakespeare performance, but it was coming across as straight reading of the text with very little joy in it (aside from Slender and Shallow).

I did see this play staged in Los Angeles back in 2003.  It was done in the style of a 1950’s American sitcom, complete with “commercials” to promote their corporate sponsors.  It was cheeky, entertaining, and a good fit for a suburban story about an attempt to disrupt family values.  

Thoughts and Themes:

Falstaff, in all his appearances in Shakespeare’s works, has always been a force of lust, gluttony, and sloth.  While he himself may not be very seductive (ewwww, *shudder*), the lifestyle that he lives can be.  A life of lazy, constant play and shirking responsibility, being beholden to no one else?  I think everyone has had, at minimum, a fleeting daydream of living that life for a day or two.  There is a very real desire to blow off our everyday drudgery, even if we never do. 

The wives are certainly never tempted to succumb to Falstaff – they’re both repulsed by him, the idea he would try to seduce married women, and his very manner of wooing.  Quoth Mistress Ford: “What tempest, I trow, threw this whale, with so many tuns of oil in his belly, ashore at Windsor?” (2.1).  But what I love about this play, about these two women, is that they’re not about to just reject and be done with it.  Middle-class wives in a small English town had many pressing responsibilities every day (as evidenced here).   If anyone deserves a little fun, it’s these ladies – but not at the expense of their reputations.  What better way to break up the monotony than to enjoy a little revenge on the very man who insists their lives need to be livened up?

Ok, so maybe I’m getting into circular logic.  I’ll try to simplify.  Falstaff is gross, but his decision to blow off all honor and duty is a little tempting.  He thinks he can lure the wives into affairs simply by offering a change from their standard everyday existence (“'Sup, ladies!  Bored of being married and tied down?  Shake things up with me!”).  The wives are tempted neither by him nor by the thought of cuckolding their husbands.  But this idea of changing up their everyday is intriguing – provided it’s done entirely on their own terms.  Thus, the tricks played on the man who dares question their honor – and Mistress Ford uses the same opportunity to better her marriage by curing her husband of his unfounded jealousy. These ladies are brilliant.  They maintain their marriages and reputations (their simple, everyday lives) while injecting some fun into the whole affair. 

I personally approach the play from the perspective of being an actual suburban housewife (for want of a better term).   I’ve only been doing this gig (the full-time staying at home deal) since quitting my job this past June.  The summer was filled with the trials and tribulations of keeping my 5 and 2 year olds entertained and well-mannered, my house (semi) clean, and myself relatively sane.  I am still working on finding my groove.  There are parts of this path that I love and parts that try my patience everyday.  One of the things that I struggle with is that I love change, but my day revolves around the very set routines of two small kids.  And boy, do kids like their routine.  Hell, I’ve spent the greater part of this morning trying to convince my son to leave the house (library outing = a change of scenery, chance to get books, AND interaction with other people!) simply because I was tired of being stuck in the house.  I can get stir-crazy, and I sometimes wistfully remember working in beautiful San Francisco (but then I remember the icky commute), lunch breaks with friends (but most often spent holed up in my office over my computer), and adding to the household income (most of which went straight back to daycare to allow me the “privilege” to work!).  I look at this smaller life that I have purposefully chosen, and I recall the stress levels that led me to downsize – rightfully so.

My two monsters.  As tiring as they and our home can occasionally be, I am pretty satisfied with our little life.  

I can understand the occasional bored or restless periods in a quiet life.  Anyone who’s ever been married (even to an amazing partner) is flat out lying if they claim to have never experienced that.  The lesson I take from Mistress Page and Mistress Ford?  Realize you have a good thing (marriage, home, family, position in community) and be content with that.  That temptation (in the form of a fat, old knight, or maybe just random adventure) may come your way, but you can’t let that disrupt your family and integrity.  That having a good time and playing with your friends is important, but not ever at the expense of giving up the good thing you already have going on. 

With that said, I am so so ready for the sleepy suburban date night Hubs and I have planned this weekend.  Kids at an evening play group, and the adults grab dinner and a beer at our local gastropub.  It’s the simple things, right?