Continuing my series on Shakespeare’s sources we turn our attention to one of Shakespeare more original plays, The Merry Wives of Windsor. This story in which the fat knight Falstaff woos two married ladies simultaneously, gets discovered by them and subsequently punished is the only one of Shakespeare’s plays to be set in contemporary England. The play is set in Windsor and makes flattering references to Windsor Castle.
It is said, though by no means proven, that Shakespeare was commissioned to write this play for Queen Elizabeth I who having enjoyed the character of Falstaff in Henry IV part II asked Shakespeare to write a story about Falstaff in love. (apparently she demanded it finished within a fortnight)
The play, and character of Falstaff, original as they are, are not however without their literary antecedents. There are several stories telling of over hopeful lovers being tricked by the multiple women they attempt to woo. One of these is William Painter’s Palace of Pleasure, published at London in 1566. Painter’s story is itself an adaptation of a couple of older Italian stories.
In painter’s story the hopeful lover is a young scholar of “graceful and amiable parts” an amusing contrast to the fat and rather grotesque Falstaff. He may be a rather more desirable lover than Falstaff but his punishment at the hands of the young ladies is possibly worse. In one episode of the tale he is made to hide amongst thorns and is pricked all over…
Scarcely had Filenio taken off his clothes to go to bed when Messer Lamberto was heard without, and hereupon the lady, feigning to be at her wits’ end where she should hide her lover, bade him get under the bed. Filenio, seeing how great the danger was, both to the lady and to himself, made haste to betake himself thither, without putting on any more clothes than the shirt he wore, and was in consequence so grievously pricked by the thorns prepared for him that there was no part of his body, from the crown of his head to the sole of his foot, which was not running with blood.
Ouch! I think I prefer Falstaff’s infinitely more humorous fate of being carried out with the dirty laundry and dumped steaming and stinking into the river Thames. So whilst Shakespeare was perhaps influenced in a way by a number of literary sources in which over zealous lovers get tricked by their ladies – Shakespeare as ever makes the play his own with the unique character of Falstaff and the punishments inflicted upon him.