Falstaff is a hoot of a character. He’s well known and loved for his role in the Henry IV plays, but in The Merry Wives of Windsor he’s given his own singular outing. His fun starts when he arrives in Windsor but is predictably short on money. In order to remedy this he decides to court two rich but very married women, and does so via identical letters which he asks his pages to send. When the pages refuse he fires them and in revenge they decide to tell the husbands of Falstaff’s plans, and eventually the wives too find out about Fallstaff’s deception.
A parallel plot unfurls concerning one of the Mistresses’ daughters, Anne, and who she might marry. She herself is in love with Fenton, whilst her mother and father both want her to marry different people entirely. As can be expected in Shakespeare, after a series of funny twists and turns, all ends up for the better.
The Falstaff that appears in the play is a Falstaff with arguably less depth than we are used to in the Henry IV plays. He is the butt of the joke several times, but takes it in good humour. He is full of self awareness, but less sharp about it than we have seen otherwise:
I have writ me here a letter to her: and here another to Page’s wife, who even now gave me good eyes too, examined my parts with most judicious oeillades; sometimes the beam of her view gilded my foot, sometimes my portly belly.
The portrayal of Falstaff aside, there are as still overlying themes in The Marry Wives that feature in many other Shakespeare plays. There is much to be said by way of love, courtship, women in society, money and presumption. The expectations of the different characters provide a window through which we can see this.
Shakespeare also well blurrs the lines between the classes. Sir John Falstaff might technically be a member of the upper classes, but that is not to say his behaviour is any more ‘noble’. In fact, as we also see in the Henry IV plays, he associates with people and pursuits he enjoys – in The Merry Wives he tries to come to money by way of deceit. Master Fenton may have wasted away some of his money, but his love for Anne is deeper than say, that of Master Slender. Class does not convey everything.
Despite this, I do find The Merry Wives of Windsor to be one of Shakespeare’s less riveting comedies. It does not grab the reader (or watcher) in the same way that his greatest comedies. There are no discerning breakout characters that are beloved (save Falstaff) from the play, and even its plotline is not overly memorable. In terms of Shakespeare writing about the trials and tribulations of love and relationships, he has done far better.
That being said, I appreciate The Merry Wives of Windsor for what came out of it: namely the operas by Salieri, Verdi and Vaughan Williams. The Verdi adaptation might be the best known, whilst the Vaughan Williams is the one that sticks most tightly to the script. All three are very enjoyable, and it stands testament to how popular the character and his personality are. Reading or watching The Merry Wives of Windsor might not come as easy to the eye as Much Ado, but stick on some of Verdi’s Falstaff, really get stuck into the material, and I believe it can still be enjoyed.
Up next week, get reacquainted with the tragedies via a play that is very dear to my heart: Othello.
(photo credit: thelondonist)