The Plays We Overlook: The Merry Wives of Windsor
By James Cappio
Overshadowed by the two parts of Henry IV, The Merry Wives of Windsor starts off unpromisingly. Writers’ manuals always warn fledgling writers not to represent speakers’ accents phonetically. Merry Wives demonstrates that even Shakespeare should heed this advice. His Welsh character, Parson Evans, and his French character, Doctor Caius, are painful to read and can be excruciating to watch if the actors succumb to the powerful temptation to go over the top. But perhaps the accents are a necessary evil; farce rests on miscommunication, and fractured language contributes prominently to the humor, from Mistress Quickly’s malapropisms to the Merry Wives’ double entendre to the Latin lesson, worthy of Holofernes in Love’s Labour’s Lost, that Evans administers to the hapless boy William Page.
And make no mistake, Merry Wives is Shakespeare’s purest farce, his only comedy without a dark side. Even The Comedy of Errors has the nominal threat that Egeon will be executed, but here the humor at Falstaff’s expense is good-natured, hardly rising (or sinking) to the level of bullying (though “bully” is the Host of the Garter Inn’s favorite expression).
Ah, but this is Falstaff we’re talking about! Why would Shakespeare subject the greatest character in world literature to a “scabrous exercise in sadomasochism,” in Harold Bloom’s phrase? As A.C. Bradley put it in his rather brilliant “The Rejection of Falstaff” (from which Bloom’s bombast derives), he is “baffled, duped, treated like dirty linen, beaten, burnt, pricked, mocked, insulted, and, worst of all, repentant and didactic. It is horrible.” It is also funny, as Falstaff himself would be the first to recognize. Bradley’s own thesis, in part, is that Falstaff takes everything in life as a source of humor; but this (after the initial embarrassment) includes his multiple humiliations at the hands of the Merry Wives. Thus, by contrast with a certain other play, Falstaff is welcomed at the end into the families’ company by Mistress Page (“Good husband, let us every one go home / And laugh this sport o’er by a country fire / Sir John and all” [5.5.235-37]). That Ford then delivers the final topper, acquainting Falstaff with his deception (“To Master Brook you yet shall hold your word / For he tonight shall lie with Mistress Ford” [5.5.238-39]) doesn’t change this fact.
Ask yourself how you’d rather bid farewell to Falstaff: genially conspiring to bed other men’s wives and then eat their roasts, or incoherently “babbling of green fields.” I for one am glad Shakespeare gave us the former option, as well as a good deal of laughter, in the Merry Wives.
The views expressed in this post are the author’s own.