The Merry Wives of Windsor
Abbreviations: Ado = Much Ado about Nothing; AYL = As You Like It; Ham. = Hamlet; H4 = Henry IV; 2H4 = Henry IV, Part 2; H5 = Henry V; MND = A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Rom. = Romeo and Juliet; Wiv. = The Merry Wives of Windsor
Brown, Pam Allen. “Near Neighbors, Women’s Wars, and ‘Merry Wives.’ ” In her Better a Shrew Than a Sheep: Women, Drama, and the Culture of the Jest in Early Modern England, pp. 33–55. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003.
Brown detects in the “jesting women” of early modern drama a keen awareness that being the object of any sexual overture puts them on trial before a jury of neighbors and relatives. The “undercover women’s war” waged by the Windsor wives against slander, sexual assault, and jealousy is designed to appeal to female audiences by demonstrating that when faced with sexual aggressors and unwanted seducers, women, if they were to cope in the “court of neighborhood,” would need to form good alliances and to acquire performance skills. Although there is no actual adultery in the play, the wives’ willingness to endanger their reputations and their obvious delight in secrecy and merry deceit call into question the prevailing view that Wiv. is an uncomplicated celebration of innocent female mirth.
Cotton, Nancy. “Castrating (W)itches: Impotence and Magic in The Merry Wives of Windsor.” Shakespeare Quarterly 38 (1987): 321–26.
Citing the widely held belief in the early modern era that witches had the power to castrate, Cotton examines Shakespeare’s emphasis in Wiv. on images relating to impotence and magic. She uses this causally connected imagery to read the play as a projection of a masculine view that regards any woman “as a potential witch, or Mother Prat, because of her power to reject and/or deceive any man who desires her.” The main plot is governed by Ford’s dual obsession with cuckoldry and witchcraft, phobias that can be traced to his “unconscious sense of failure” at not producing an heir. Cotton interprets all three tricks perpetrated against Falstaff “as forms of emasculation.” She discusses the final scene at length since it offers not only the most dramatic of “symbolic castrations” inflicted on Falstaff and the failed suitors of Anne Page but also the “most vivid . . . stage image . . . of the women as witches”: the wives’ action figures a witches’ sabbath, and the fairy disguise of Mistress Quickly and Anne furthers the link between women and magical power. The masculine association of impotence with female sorcery is finally dismissed when the wives use their female “craft” in support of their husbands’ power, “metamorphosing deceit into merriment.”
Erickson, Peter. “The Order of the Garter, the Cult of Elizabeth, and Class–Gender Tension in The Merry Wives of Windsor.” In Shakespeare Reproduced: The Text in History and Ideology, edited by Jean Howard and Marion F. O’Connor, pp. 116–40. New York: Methuen, 1987.
In his examination of the class–gender dynamic in Wiv., Erickson draws on such contextual materials as the garter ceremony, Elizabeth I’s Petrarchan politics, and Elizabethan uses of pastoral. Instead of reading the play as a positive celebration of female, middle-class power, he contends that both class and gender are “strongly marked by a conservative valence: neither supports an enlightened egalitarian image of the play.” Central to his argument is the figure of Fenton, whose marriage to Anne redistributes wealth upward (hence revitalizing the aristocratic class) and qualifies the power of the wives (Mrs. Page being beaten at her own game). Of the two ideological components, however, the treatment of gender is ultimately more complicated than that of class. Like the Queen at court, the Windsor wives display superior wit and exercise controlling power, thereby arousing male uneasiness; and, as their constant insistence on marital chastity attests, they, like the Virgin Queen, clearly operate within a male-centered universe. Displaying an ironic and troubled ratification of female power, Wiv. reveals a patriarchal ideology that is not “monolithic but multivalent.”
Evans, Bertrand. “For the Love of Mockery: Approach to the Summit.” In his Shakespeare’s Comedies, pp. 68–117, esp. 98–117. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1960.
Evans focuses on Shakespeare’s manipulation of “discrepant awarenesses”—i.e., the gaps between the levels of awareness of the characters in the play and the audience outside it—to argue for a complexity not usually attributed to Wiv. Between the apex of awarenesses in Mistress Quickly (the play’s “nearest equivalent” to the all-knowing Portia and Rosalind) and the “nether depth” of Falstaff range the other major figures whose practices and counterpractices (Evans counts eleven in all) provide the comic action. With all the characters being both deceivers and victims of deception, and with discrepancies furthering plot development and arising not only from an ignorance of tricks but also from character traits (e.g., the natural folly of Sir Hugh and Doctor Caius and the jealous nature of Master Ford), the play emerges as a worthy forerunner to the brilliance of Ado and AYL. The surprise substitution of Mistress Quickly for Anne Page as the queen of fairies in 5.5 is a departure from Shakespeare’s usual practice of permitting the audience to know everything.
Freedman, Barbara. “Shakespearean Chronology, Ideological Complicity, and Floating Texts: Something Is Rotten in Windsor.” Shakespeare Quarterly 45 (1994): 190–201.
Freedman uses the plethora of topical references found in Wiv. to argue against the currently held view that it is an occasionalist play, the occasion being the election of Lord Hunsdon to the Order of the Garter in April 1597. The question is not whether Garter references exist but how to read them. Freedman’s objections to the 1597 date include (1) the lack of proof that theatrical events were ever commissioned for Garter ceremonies; (2) the difficulty in imagining how a queen, reportedly concerned about her own age and fading beauty, would have been flattered by the performance of a play with overt references to age and fading attractiveness; and (3) the nagging question of why Lord Hunsdon (or the Queen), on the occasion of his election to the Garter after many failed attempts, would commission a play that lampoons him in the vain and pompous character of Falstaff. Freedman finds entirely plausible both a date of 1598 and a public audience well acquainted with the Garter ceremony. She concludes that the play’s “free-floating topicality” and the “unabashed presence” of two variant conclusions in the Quarto and Folio texts lend credence to recent arguments “for a revisionist Shakespeare whose topicality was more inclusive than exclusive.”
Gurr, Andrew. “Intertextuality at Windsor.” Shakespeare Quarterly 38 (1987): 189–200.
Gurr explores the rivalry between Henslowe’s Admiral’s company and the Lord Chamberlain’s Players (Shakespeare’s company) in the period between May 1594 and 1600, when they were the only companies competing for London playgoing audiences. The rivalry, at first simply imitative (i.e., the repertories offered plays different but of the same type), gradually grew more complex, especially in plays dealing with sex and marriage, which is where Wiv. becomes “a peculiarly interesting test case.” A comparison of Shakespeare’s play with Henry Porter’s The Two Angry Women of Abingdon, possibly on the playbills early in 1597 and thus precipitating Wiv., illustrates how Shakespeare “deliberately altered the priorities between love and marriage as Porter and the other plays in the rival repertory offered them.” In contrast to the triumph of the fathers’ wishes over the mothers’ regarding the marital prospects of their children in the Porter play, young love prevails in Shakespeare’s sub-plot involving the marriage of Anne Page to Fenton, Anne triumphing over the wishes of both of her parents. This difference in the treatment of generational conflict where romantic desire and parental authority collide becomes a “real divergence” between the two companies around the turn of the century, when theatrical groups proliferated and prompted a rivalry radically different in kind. Gurr’s discovery “hint[s] at some of the intertextual influences at work in the drama of Shakespeare and others in the last years of the 16th century.”
Helgerson, Richard. “The Buck Basket, the Witch, and the Queen of Fairies.” In his Adulterous Alliances: Home, State, and History in Early Modern European Drama and Painting, pp. 57–76. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000. (An earlier version of the chapter, titled “The Buck Basket, the Witch, and the Queen of Fairies: The Women’s World of Shakespeare’s Windsor,” appeared in Renaissance Culture and the Everyday, edited by Patricia Fumerton and Simon Hunt [Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999], pp. 162–82.)
Helgerson is concerned with the prehistory of a cultural shift from aristocracy to a cult of domesticity. His New Historicist reading of Wiv. views Shakespeare’s Windsor as providing “not simply . . . an adjunct of state power but . . . an alternative to it” in the “expression of a local and domestic and female authority that stood for a significantly different England than the one based on patriarchy and royal dynastic succession.” The three devices used by the Windsor wives to defeat the aristocratic sexual predator who invades their specifically middle-class and female domestic space “situate . . . the local and domestic differently”: the laundry basket shows the autonomy of the female-controlled household, the disguise of Falstaff as the witch of Brentford suggests “a regional network of subversive female gossips,” and the masque of the fairies (especially in the person of the Fairy Queen) implies a covert connection between the Windsor women and Elizabeth I. The wives prevail against one prodigal courtier, Falstaff, but not against his “younger doppelganger,” Fenton, who acquires Windsor’s wealth through marriage to a Windsor woman. With its final resolution of class tensions favoring the aristocracy, Wiv. can be seen as a comedy focused on “the intersection of home, state, and history, a comedy in which the home’s marginality is both questioned and reaffirmed.”
Kegl, Rosemary. “ ‘The adoption of abominable terms’: Middle Class, Merry Wives, and the Insults That Shape Windsor.” In her The Rhetoric of Concealment: Figuring Gender and Class in Renaissance Literature, pp. 77–125. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994. (For a shorter version of the essay, titled “ ‘The adoption of abominable terms’: The Insults That Shape Windsor’s Middle Class,” see ELH 61 : 253–78.)
Focusing on passages of abuse in Wiv., Kegl concludes that insults are “central to the process of naming the relationships among Windsor’s inhabitants.” An examination of Robert Shallow and Sir Hugh Evans—a justice of the peace and a parson—of the history of Windsor and of its castle, and of early modern struggles over the nature of women’s activity enables her to locate Wiv.’s network of insults within a larger social process that generated “shifting authority relations” among state, local, and ecclesiastical officials on the public level, and among husbands, wives, and children in the domestic sphere. The play’s “abominable terms” (2.2.302) establish political alliances and reinforce categories (e.g., “townsmen” and “gentlemen”) through which the various groups of characters “experience their political identities” and pursue their “multiple and often contradictory short- and long-term interests.”
Korda, Natasha. “ ‘Judicious oeillades’: Supervising Marital Property in The Merry Wives of Windsor.” In her Shakespeare’s Domestic Economies: Gender and Property in Early Modern England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002. (The chapter originally appeared under the same title in Marxist Shakespeares, edited by Jean Howard and Scott Cutler Shershow [London: Routledge, 2001], pp. 82–103.)
Korda’s materialist-feminist reading of Wiv. relates the play to the rise of a consumer culture that “distinguished the household-as-container from the stuff it contained,” i.e., goods or movable properties requiring efficient management. With the redefinition of household, early modern housewives emerged as more than “passive objects of exchange between men to assume a more active role as ‘keepers’ of household properties.” Such supervisory power, however, as noted in treatises like Robert Cleaver’s A Godlie Forme of Householde Government (1598), could breed “much disquieteness” if perceived as a threat to the husband’s authority. In Wiv., Korda argues, “the ‘disquietnesse’ surrounding the housewife’s supervisory role with respect to marital property is fully explored, and ultimately dispelled, by the wives’ self-discipline.” Through a literal act of housekeeping (throwing Falstaff out of the house with the dirty linens), the wives punish the invader, exhibit managerial skills, and safeguard their sexual modesty, thereby assuaging male anxiety. The public punishment of Falstaff entrusted to them by their husbands in Act 5 stands as a culmination of the wives’ diligent domestic supervision.
Leggatt, Alexander. “The Comedy of Intrigue: Adultery.” In his Citizen Comedy in the Age of Shakespeare, pp. 125–49, esp. 146–49. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1973.
Popular between 1585 and 1625, “citizen comedy,” as defined by Leggatt, is set in England within a predominantly middle-class milieu; at its core are social issues, class awareness, sexual and financial intrigue, and domestic locations. Courtship and romance, if present at all, operate in a world of hard economic bargaining. While Ford and Page are not given specific occupations such as shopkeeper, merchant, or craftsman, they appear to occupy a middle station on the social scale, between the court and aristocracy at one end and the lowest class of laborers, servants, and vagabonds at the other. Noting how the intrigue of adultery is a major feature of this type of comedy, Leggatt singles out Wiv. as one of the more ambitious of citizen comedies in its combination of “moral and social commentary with the amoral fun of trickery.” He praises the balanced treatment of both Falstaff and Ford, both of whom are put in their places but in a lighthearted manner. “Even in a genre he touched only once Shakespeare set standards that his contemporaries found hard to match”: in Wiv. chastity is asserted without preaching and the game of sex is treated as “amusing, judicious, and humane.”
Parker, Patricia. “Interpreting through Wordplay: The Merry Wives of Windsor.” In Teaching with Shakespeare: Critics in the Classroom, edited by Bruce McIver and Ruth Stevenson, pp. 166–204. Newark: University of Delaware Press; London: Associated University Presses, 1994. (The essay is a pedagogic reworking of Parker’s earlier article titled “The Merry Wives of Windsor and Shakespearean Translation,” Modern Language Quarterly 52 : 225–61.)
Contrary to those who find the Latin grammar scene (4.1) expendable, Parker contends that the episode is “implicated in a larger discursive network” having to do with the literal sense of “translation” as “a transporting or carrying away.” Her focus on wordplay reveals the intersection between the carrying away of words from their “proper” meaning and the carrying away of property, whether through commercial exchange or through theft—the latter constituting Wiv.’s major type of conveyance. The essay includes separate sections on pages and porters (who carry things from here to there and back), the cozening Germans who appear out of nowhere in 4.3 to steal the Host’s horses, the translating of plots, and a series of translations implicating women as “secondary and accessory, . . . conveyed and cozening.” Moving beyond the wordplay that shapes the dramatic action of Wiv. to scenes involving transfer and conveyance in other canonical texts, Parker concludes that “translation . . . is everywhere in Shakespeare.”
Pittenger, Elizabeth. “Dispatch Quickly: The Mechanical Reproduction of Pages.” Shakespeare Quarterly 42 (1991): 389–408.
Pittenger uses the phrase “mechanical reproduction” to describe the mechanism through which textual, sexual, and social hierarchies are reproduced. The scene depicting the wives’ reading of Falstaff’s letters (2.1) illustrates perfectly the relationships between sexual and textual economies as represented in Wiv. Like Falstaff’s duplicate copies of the same letter to Mistress Ford and Mistress Page (see especially lines 69–79), the play itself as a literary text exists in multiple transmissions: the Quarto version and the Folio Wiv., nearly twice as long. The “misreproduction of meaning” and the mechanical repetitions found in the Latin language lesson (4.1) serve to demonstrate how resistances to the ideal of pure or unmediated transmission can be read as gendered, sexual, social, and nationalistic. On the basis of her analysis of 2.1 and 4.1, Pittenger suggests extending the idea of “mechanical reproduction” to four cultural domains: (1) the training and pedagogical practices through which the young male subject is formed and reproduced; (2) the patriarchal economy of the play through which heirs are generated as copies; (3) the principle of desire through which (in Freudian terms) impulses and fantasies are constantly “reprinted afresh” in “new editions,” with only the names changing (e.g., Falstaff’s reduction of the Windsor wives into “virtually interchangeable units”); and (4) the material world of print through which texts are reproduced by the machinery of the printing press and by the manual labor of “mechanical” operators (compositors, pressmen, proofreaders). “In this play about a family of Pages and about the circulation of pages—both letters and boys,” it is appropriate that the emphasis on material pages should assume “thematic and reflexive density.”
Roberts, Jeanne Addison. Shakespeare’s English Comedy: “The Merry Wives of Windsor” in Context. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1979.
In her reevaluation of Wiv., Roberts concludes that it is “not aberrant, trivial, essentially Italianate, nor predominantly farcical.” The first four chapters address the play’s textual history, date of composition, sources, and generic classification. In chapter 5, a detailed critical reception of the “Windsor” Falstaff, Roberts argues that the character is “essentially the same man” as the Falstaff in the H4 plays; in fact, she advocates reading Wiv. in conjunction with those plays, since the incapacitating and scapegoating of Falstaff in the final scene foreshadow his political rejection by Hal at the end of 2H4. The play’s support of social values and institutions, its hopeful outlook on life, and its respect for the logic of cause-and-effect relations firmly establish it as comedy rather than farce. Falstaff may be “festively rejected” in the ritual masque of Act 5, but his ultimate social inclusion in an atmosphere of reconciliation and harmony suggests that Wiv. is ultimately a “comedy of forgiveness.” Fixing the play’s date of composition in 1597, Roberts describes Wiv. “as an experimental and transitional drama, growing out of the histories and early comedies (especially those written between 1594 and 1597) and leading into the new freedom and complexity of the later plays.”
Vickers, Brian. The Artistry of Shakespeare’s Prose. London: Methuen, 1968. [See esp. pp. 141–56.]
In the chapter titled “The World of Falstaff,” Vickers devotes the third section to Shakespeare’s “virtuoso control of styles” in Wiv. Mistress Page and Mistress Ford are distinguished from other characters by virtue of their superior wit and use of imagery; the minor characters achieve a striking degree of individuation through particular verbal idiosyncrasies; and in the character of Ford, for the first time (excepting a few of Shylock’s speeches) prose is used for a character and situation of some seriousness (Ford being comic but not a clown). Vickers pays special attention to the imagery and the rambling, disjointed syntax in Ford’s soliloquy in 2.2.294–321; the use of prose to express such an “intense and realistically developed emotional state” is the play’s major achievement. Among the individuating verbal “tics” singled out for discussion are Shallow’s constant repetitions, Mistress Quickly’s malapropisms, Nym’s fondness for catchphrases (especially the word “humor”), and the Host’s favorite word “bully” and his excessively clipped phrases.
Wall, Wendy. “Needles and Birches: Pedagogy, Domesticity, and the Advent of English Comedy,” and “Why Does Puck Sweep? Shakespearean Fairies and the Politics of Cleaning.” In her Staging Domesticity: Household Work and English Identity in Early Modern Drama, pp. 59–93 (esp. 90–93) and 94–126 (esp. 112–26). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. (The first chapter originally appeared as “ ‘Household stuff’: The Sexual Politics of Domesticity and the Advent of English Comedy,” ELH 65 : 1–45; the second as “Why Does Puck Sweep? Fairylore, Merry Wives, and Social Struggle,” Shakespeare Quarterly 52 : 67–106.)
Wall examines the staging of domesticity in Wiv. to illustrate her thesis that representations of household practices in the early modern period “helped to forge crucial conceptions of national identity.” In the first chapter, where the focus is on vernacular nationalism, she claims that the Latin language lesson (4.1) embraids Englishness into the play’s domestic themes. The linguistic pitting of Mistress Quickly’s bawdy female puns and malapropisms against an academy “thoroughly infected by foreign (mis)speakers” vividly exposes the limits of a humanist pedagogy for a middle-class citizenry. Emerging from the “discursive connections among Latin, academia, and domesticity,” as they relate to gender, speech, sexuality, and community, is a vision of nationhood based on the “ ‘everyday’ language of the home.”
In the second chapter, where the emphasis shifts to the class politics of popular myth, Wall suggests that the domestic components of fairylore underpin the “middling” ideology of Windsor’s citizenry. Unlike the fairies of MND, who protect the procreation and status of the aristocracy, the fairies of Wiv. “dabble with those further down the food chain: they seek to safeguard the property and authority of citizens from encroachment by the upper classes.” Because the play revolves around commerce, industry, and work, the fairies’ concern for “full-scale cleansing” functions as the culmination of the drama, thereby demonstrating the fusion of popular folklore with the desires of a wealthy village citizenry, especially with the middle-class ideal of housewifery. In contrast to Erickson and Helgerson, who read 5.5 as privileging aristocratic interests, Wall argues that the final scene—“campy, stylized, and clearly over the top”—parodies courtly values. The collaboration of “demystified” fairies and triumphant housewives foregrounds the play’s concern with the “governing power of everydayness” to provide a conception of England not “defined within the province of the court.”
Werstine, Paul. “A Century of ‘Bad’ Shakespeare Quartos.” Shakespeare Quarterly 50 (1999): 310–33, esp. pp. 310–17, 330.
Werstine disputes “the power of memorial reconstruction to provide a full account of the origin[s]” of the so-called bad quartos of Wiv. (1602), Ham. (1603), H5 (1600), and Rom. (1597). Wiv. is central to his argument because twentieth-century textual scholars have extended the hypothesis across these four texts by “constructing questionable analogies” between Q Wiv. and the others and, “then, by substituting murkily quantitative statistical analyses for the sharply defined qualitative differences” noted by W. W. Greg in his seminal work on Q Wiv. Werstine’s examination of corresponding passages between Q and F Wiv. exposes problems with Greg’s assertion that the Q text was composed from memory by the actor playing the part of the Host. While Q Wiv. evinces “occasional sudden improvements” that coincide with the Host’s entrances, there are numerous instances where Q and F do not match even though the Host is present, and times where they show remarkable correlation despite his being absent. Werstine does not deny “the theory’s partial explanatory power within” Q Wiv., but finds no evidence to “characterize the origin of Q as a whole as memorial.”