Authors: William Shakespeare
The RSC Shakespeare
Edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen
Chief Associate Editors: Jan Sewell and Will Sharpe
Associate Editors: Trey Jansen, Eleanor Lowe, Lucy Munro,
Dee Anna Phares, Héloïse Sénéchal
The Merry Wives of Windsor
Textual editing: Eric Rasmussen
Introduction and Shakespeare’s Career in the Theater: Jonathan Bate
Commentary: Héloïse Sénéchal
Scene-by-Scene Analysis: Esme Miskimmin
In Performance: Clare Smout (RSC stagings) and Peter Kirwan (overview)
The Director’s Cut (interviews by Jonathan Bate and Kevin Wright):
Bill Alexander and Rachel Kavanaugh
Playing Falstaff: Simon Callow
Editorial Advisory Board
Gregory Doran, Chief Associate Director,
Royal Shakespeare Company
Jim Davis, Professor of Theatre Studies, University of Warwick, UK
Charles Edelman, Senior Lecturer, Edith Cowan University,
Lukas Erne, Professor of Modern English Literature,
Université de Genève, Switzerland
Jacqui O’Hanlon, Director of Education, Royal Shakespeare Company
Akiko Kusunoki, Tokyo Woman’s Christian University, Japan
Ron Rosenbaum, author and journalist, New York, USA
James Shapiro, Professor of English and Comparative Literature,
Columbia University, USA
Tiffany Stern, Professor and Tutor in English, University of Oxford, UK
2011 Modern Library Paperback Edition
Copyright © 2007, 2011 by The Royal Shakespeare Company
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Modern Library, an imprint of
The Random House Publishing Group, a division of
Random House, Inc., New York.
and the T
Design are registered trademarks
of Random House, Inc.
“Royal Shakespeare Company,” “RSC,” and the RSC logo are trademarks
or registered trademarks of The Royal Shakespeare Company
The version of
The Merry Wives of Windsor
and the corresponding footnotes
that appear in this volume were originally published in
, edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen, published
in 2007 by Modern Library, an imprint of The Random House
Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.
Cover design: Gabrielle Bordwin
Cover photograph: © Comstock Images/age fotostock
In 1702 the poet and critic John Dennis rewrote
The Merry Wives of Windsor
with the title
The Comical Gallant: or, the Amours of Sir John Falstaff
. Dennis claimed that the original Shakespearean play was a particular favorite of Queen Elizabeth. Indeed, he reported, “This comedy was written at her command, and by her direction, and she was so eager to see it acted that she commanded it to be finished in fourteen days; and was afterward, as tradition tells us, very well pleased at the representation.” A few years later, the story was elaborated in the biography appended to Nicholas Rowe’s edition of Shakespeare: the Queen was so well pleased “with that admirable character of Falstaff in the two parts of Henry the Fourth” that she commanded Shakespeare “to continue it for one play more, and to show him in love.”
We do not know whether the story is true, but there is great appeal in the idea of Falstaff reincarnated by royal command and transposed from tavern and battlefield to lady’s chamber and linen basket. There is no doubt that the play’s popularity on the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century stage owed much to its status as a vehicle for Falstaff. And at the end of the nineteenth century, the drama underwent another transposition as it was re-created in perhaps the greatest of all Shakespearean operas, Verdi and Boito’s
. This afterlife, together with the sheer comic energy of the fat knight, means that it tends to be thought of as “his” play. So it is often forgotten that this is the only First Folio work named for its women. Or, to be more exact, the only one in which the women have the title to themselves: Juliet, Cleopatra, and Cressida have to share a billing with their lovers, while
is identified as object rather than subject (
The Taming of
clearly implies a tamer).
The play first appeared in print in a quarto-format text printed in 1602, with a title page listing a full roster of characters for promotional
A most pleasant and excellent conceited Comedy of Sir John Falstaff and the Merry Wives of Windsor. Intermixed with sundry variable and pleasing humours of Sir Hugh the Welsh Knight, Justice Shallow and his wise Cousin Master Slender. With the swaggering vein of Ancient Pistol and Corporal Nim. By William Shakespeare. As it hath been divers times acted by the right honourable my Lord Chamberlain’s servants. Both before her Majesty and elsewhere
(the description of Slender as “wise” is a rare instance of wholesale irony on a title page). A payment to the King’s Men for a 1613 court performance of “Sir John Falstaff” probably refers to the play, but in the First Folio ten years later the “Merry Wives” stood alone at the head of the text.
In 1656 an educational theorist called Philip King complained that it was ridiculous to suggest that “the condition of all our English women may be drawn out of Shakespeare’s merry wives of Windsor.” Eight years later, the leading English female intellectual of the age, Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, singled out those wives as particularly strong examples of Shakespeare’s gift for representing women: “who could describe Cleopatra better than he hath done, and many other females to his own creating, as Nan Page, Mrs Page, Mrs Ford, the Doctor’s Maid, Beatrice, Mrs Quickly, Doll Tearsheet, and others, too many to relate?” Though King disapproved and the duchess approved, they clearly agreed that
The Merry Wives
was one of Shakespeare’s best plays for women.
Whereas Shakespeare’s other comedies are courtship dramas that end with weddings or the promise of them,
The Merry Wives of Windsor
is more interested in how it is witty wives who sustain society. There is a courtship plot in which a handsome, if opportunistic, young gentleman named Master Fenton wins his girl, Anne Page, while his rivals, two comic suitors—the irascible French physician Dr. Caius and the country gentleman Master Abraham Slender, whose name reflects both his girth and his IQ—are tricked into eloping with boys. But the main focus is upon the girl’s worldly-wise mother and her equally knowing friend Mistress Alice Ford, who has the misfortune to be married to a man of pathological jealousy. In later plays—
The Winter’s Tale
sexual insecurity has catastrophic consequences for the wife, but here Alice knows exactly how to deploy her hand.
The play is Shakespeare’s nearest approach to farce or sitcom. People are forever rushing in and out of doors. One moment Falstaff is bundled into a stinking laundry basket and dunked in the Thames; the next he is dressed up as the old fat woman of Brentford, in whose garb he is heartily beaten. As a final indignity, he is persuaded to wear a pair of horns, and he finds himself pinched black and blue by a gaggle of children. The play tells some simple home truths about male jealousy (Ford’s false fears) and vanity (Falstaff’s ludicrous expectation that he will make his way into Alice’s bed).
“The Merry Wives” indicates that this is a play in which the women will be on top. “Of Windsor” promises a comedy of English town life. This is in sharp contrast to Shakespeare’s other comedies of the late 1590s and early 1600s, with their courtly, continental, and often pastoral settings. Indeed, with the exception of the Eastcheap scenes in the
plays, Windsor is the closest Shakespeare comes to the one major dramatic genre of the age which he did not attempt: the comedy of London life. City comedy was the forte of the group of slightly younger dramatists who came onto the theater scene around the turn of the century—Ben Jonson, Thomas Dekker, and Thomas Middleton.
But Windsor is not London. Though the play includes several types familiar from city comedy—the jealous husband, the marriageable citizen’s daughter, the simpleton up from the country—the setting is more provincial town than buzzing metropolis. The dramatist’s own experience of life in Stratford-upon-Avon was probably a more formative influence on the creation of this play than any literary source of the kind that inspired most of his other comedies. The scene in which a cheeky boy called William is drilled in Latin grammar feels as close to autobiographical reminiscence as anything in Shakespeare.
Nor is Windsor a generic English town. The castle and the royal
park made it synonymous with the monarchy. During the closing nocturnal scene in the park, Mistress Quickly in the role of Queen of the Fairies offers a good luck charm to Queen Elizabeth, whom the poet Edmund Spenser had immortalized a few years before under the guise of England’s
Search Windsor Castle, elves, within and out.
Strew good luck, oafs, on every sacred room,
That it may stand till the perpetual doom,
In state as wholesome as in state ’tis fit,
Worthy the owner and the owner it.
Quickly’s speech goes on to make a series of very specific allusions to the Knights of the Garter, the most senior and oldest Order of English knighthood. Founded by Edward III in 1348, the Order of the Garter was reserved as the highest reward for loyalty and military merit. Membership was confined to the monarch and twenty-five knights; the founders had all served against the French at the battle of Crécy. The emblem of the Order was a blue garter. The story of its origin was that when King Edward was dancing with either his queen or the Countess of Salisbury (with whom he was in love), her garter slipped to the floor and he retrieved it and tied it to his own leg. In response to those watching, the King said
“Honi soit qui mal y pense”
(“Shame on him who thinks this evil”), which became the motto of the Order. Through such spectacles as her Accession Day tilts, Queen Elizabeth had revived many of Edward III’s chivalric rites as a way of bolstering the cult of the monarchy. During the 1590s, particular emphasis was placed on the Order of the Garter. Its spiritual home was the Chapel of St. George in Windsor.
Many scholars suppose that
The Merry Wives of Windsor
was especially written for a Garter ceremony, perhaps in 1597. Whether or not that was the case, there is no doubt that the equation of Windsor and the Garter made for a strong allusion to the idea of true English knighthood and absolute loyalty to the crown. That one of the main locations of the play is the Garter Inn only highlights the connection. The offstage Knights of the Garter evoked by Fairy Queen
Quickly are clearly intended as an extreme contrast to the onstage figure of the debased and humiliated knight Sir John Falstaff.