Mistress Quickly (or ‘Quick-lay’ as her name might imply) is one of Shakespeare’s most vibrant comic energies and appears in four plays. When treated well in performance, Mistress Quickly’s stage presence can conjure up a whole world of past sentiment and longing which can suddenly change into something much more tough-edged and brave.
She makes her first appearance as the hostess in the tavern world of Eastcheap in Henry IV Part One, with the line ‘O Jesu, my lord the Prince!’, words which proclaim her to be both irreverent and overwhelmed by her royal visitor. She is soon identified as an easy foil for Sir John Oldcastle (or Falstaff), and in her next scene is tricked into replying to him with sexual innuendo: ‘Thou or any man knows where to have me, thou knave thou.’ In Dominic Dromgoole’s 2010 Shakespeare’s Globe production of Henry IV Part One, there is even a sighting of Mr Quickly, who sits long-suffering and silently, slowly drinking ale in the upper playing space. He is referred to in passing, just once, eventually, to great comic effect.
Mistress Quickly is amplified in Henry IV Part Two and stands as a fine an example of Shakespeare’s naturalistic, absurd, and perhaps melancholy-tinged prose. In act two, a much closer relationship with Sir John is implied than might have previously been thought: ‘thou didst swear to me upon a parcel-gilt goblet, sitting in my Dolphin chamber, at the round table, by a sea-coal fire, upon Wednesday in Wheeson week’ she says to remind him of his promise to marry her and the money she gave him (where is Mr Quickly now?). Later, when Sir John is leaving to prepare for battle, we learn that she has known him ‘these twenty-nine years come peas cod-time, but an honester and truer-hearted man – well, fare thee well’. How far Mistress Quickly’s sentiments here are actually are tinged with sadness will depend on the performance. She could, after all, speak the lines with a sudden realization of indifference after many years, and imply that Sir John is neither honest nor true-hearted. But Shakespeare also gives her the lines about the death of Sir John in Henry V – a time to mourn – a moment beautifully portrayed by Dame Judi Dench in Kenneth Branagh’s film version.
Shakespeare gives her a companion in Henry IV Part Two, Doll Tearsheet (her sheets perhaps stained with her tears, as well as torn in sexual excitement). In Michael Attenborough’s warm-hearted 2000 RSC production, Doll responded to Mistress Quickly’s ‘How do you now?’ by promptly throwing up and then replying ‘Better than I was. – Hem!’. The canaries Doll has been drinking is, we learn, ‘a marvellous searching wine’. The humour of the moment was compounded by the realization that the actor playing Doll had had to enter the stage and retain the fake sick in her mouth for seven whole lines before she was allowed to speak.
In The Merry Wives of Windsor, Mistress Quickly seems hardly to know Falstaff, so perhaps we are supposed to think of the play as a prequel to Henry IV Part One. Or, perhaps I am trying to read a consistency in characterization where, for Shakespeare, none existed.
A good Mistress Quickly in a finely balanced production of The Merry Wives of Windsor can easily steal the show, as Herbert Farejohn tells us Dame Edith Evans did in 1923: ‘The honours of the performance fell to Miss Edith Evans. She is that rare thing, an actress with both breadth and subtlety. She is that equally rare thing, an actress who can bring out the full literary flavour of every word. To those who know their Shakespeare before they see him on the stage, how maddening it is to find word after word misunderstood, slurred over, debased, diminished, or subjected to the ignominy of substitution by the performers. But Miss Evans quickens every syllable, recognizes in a choice epithet something as three-dimensional as a living being, reveals new wonders unsuspected and never to be forgotten.’ That’s the way I think you need to be able to speak Shakespeare’s words in order to play this exceptionally vivacious and gossipy role.