The Merry Wives of Windsor
Neither among the best nor among the worst of Shakespeare’s comedies, The Merry Wives of Windsor has enjoyed a fairly steady popularity since it was written in 1597, largely due to the fact that its principal character is Sir John Falstaff, who is chiefly known for the part he plays in the Henry IV plays and (offstage) in Henry V. Falstaff was a great favorite with theater-goers during Shakespeare’s lifetime, and the audiences apparently clamored incessantly for more material involving the portly and somewhat scandalous knight. Here his function is purely comic and somewhat bawdy: his agenda is to make back his lost fortunes by seducing various of the wealthy wives of Windsor. He encounters one setback after another, and eventually it becomes clear that the women have outmaneuvered him in every particular. Some parental caution is probably advisable here.
Things to consider while reading The Merry Wives of Windsor
If you have read Henry IV, Part 1 or Henry IV, Part 2, what do you make of the reappearance of the character here?
Here is the Royal Shakespeare Company’s page on selected past performances of The Merry Wives of Windsor.
Here is the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s page of performances of The Merry Wives of Windsor over the last century and more.
Here’s a summary of The Merry Wives of Windsor on film.
The Merry Wives of Windsor and what has come before
- The plot of The Merry Wives of Windsor turns almost entirely on character — specifically the character of Sir John himself. How does this compare with the other comedies we have encountered — specifically The Comedy of Errors and The Winter’s Tale?
- If you have read any of the other plays in which Falstaff appears, what do you make of the figure he cuts here? How is he like the Falstaff of those plays? How does he differ?
Shakespeare’s Sources and Later Adaptations
- As far as we can tell, there is no external source for the plot of this story, unlike most of Shakespeare’s other plays. He seems to have derived almost all of it from the character of Sir John that he had already developed in the Henry IV cycle. Falstaff himself was an actual historical figure, but his character as presented here is almost entirely a fabrication of Shakespeare’s.
- The setting of the story is perhaps the most identifiable of those in all Shakespeare’s plays — The Garter Inn, Windsor Park, and Frogmore are all well-known locations.
- Some have speculated that the plot of the play is remotely derivative of some of the stories contained in the Decameron of Boccaccio (14th-century Italian). Certainly the bawdy element, and the theme of the scoundrel getting his comeuppance is well established there.
- Mozart’s contemporary Antonio Salieri wrote an opera entitled Falstaff in 1798.
- Giuseppe Verdi’s last opera, Falstaff, is based largely on this play as well.
- The Broadway musical Lone Star Love is a transposition of this play to the Old West.
Themes that emerge in the play (only a few of the many)
- One can certainly read this play as a kind of feminist tract, inasmuch as it offers a pair of wily women outthinking and outmaneuvering not only the vain and gullible Falstaff but their husbands as well.
- Is there a final moral message to this play? If so, what is it?
- The play makes more use of dialect than perhaps any other play Shakespeare wrote. There are many regional English variations, and Dr. Caius lapses intermittently into his native French.
- In formal terms, The Merry Wives of Windsor is every inch a comedy: the bulk of the play (more than 80%) is in prose, rather than in verse. What does this do to your experience as a reader?
Symmetries in the play
- Would the play have worked as well without the pair of MIstress Ford and Mistress Page?
- What is the role of MIstress Quickly in balancing all the elements?
Problems in the play
- The play is fairly straightforward, and offers few problems for the reader or viewer. One might question whether the balance of bawdry and the (actual) moral uprightness of the two wives creates a certain moral tension, however. How do you find it?
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