I will find you twenty lascivious turtles ere one chaste man
Sandwiched between the two parts of Henry IV is a fairly pointless comedy featuring Sir John Falstaff, in a different but nonetheless recognisable guise of lecherous old knight fancying himself a bit of ladies’ man. Falstaff has arrived in Windsor, where he’s making himself a nuisance by poaching, breaking and entering, thieving, drinking etc. He seems to bet getting away with it all out of sheer cheek. The secondary plot concerns the daughter of the the Pages, Anne. She has inherited a lot of money from her grandfather, and stands to receive a substantian dowry from her father, making her an extremely desirable marriage prospect.
Falstaff has dinner in the house of Page, and leaves it under the impression that both Mistress Page and Mistress Ford fancy him; he knows that both of them are married to wealthy men and decided to woo them in order to get access to their husbands’ money. He writes them both an almost identical love letter; the two women of course find that out and, having no desire to be courted by Falstaff, the “greasy knight”, set out to revenge such insult together. They both pretend to be interested in Falstaff, and much hilarity ensues.
Mistress Ford’s husband is a jealous man, and the mere suggestion that Falstaff is wooing his wife sets him off. He disguises himself and goes to Falstaff, tasking him with the seduction of Mistress Ford. Page is more trusting of his wife.
If he should intend this voyage
towards my wife, I would turn her loose to him; and
what he gets more of her than sharp words, let it
lie on my head.
The first tryst between Mistress Ford and Falstaff ends in him being thrown in the Thames in a laundry basket, the second in him being hastily dressed up as an old woman. Ford is put out of his misery by the two women revealing the plot to him, and the two couples coming up together with a plan to meet Falstaff in the Windsor Great Park for one final showdown – he is to dress himself as Herne the Hunter (after a folk tale) and wait for Mistress Ford. Then local children, dressed up as fairies and spirits, as well as Mistress Quickly and the rest of the cast, drag him out and condemn his greedy, adulterous ways; in the end the two couples appear and force him to admit his defeat.
In the meantime, Anne Page has been courted by four men – Abraham Slender, favoured by her father; Dr Caius the French physician, favoured by her mother, and Sir Hugh Evans, favoured by himself. These three bros have been busy arguing and duelling (or trying to) among themselves, while Master Fenton wins the favour of Anne herself by the shockingly simple method of actually talking to her; the two announce in the end that they will get married, regardless of her parents’ disapproval, which of course melts away before the true love.
The Merry Wives is often listed as one of the worst of Shakespeare’s plays; it can be very entertaining, I’m sure, but it is essentially pointless and its comedy feels often forced. In a way it turns the table on The Taming of the Shrew; this time it is the women teaching the men “to know turtles from jays”. Falstaff gets to be the butt of the joke, and the jealous Ford learns his lesson, as do the rivaling suitors of Anne. This play also has something of a rarity for Shakespeare: two mature women as main characters. In Shakespeare’s time – as we all know, thanks to Shakespeare in Love – women characters were played by men as acting was seen as an indecent profession for a woman. I have sometimes thought that this maybe was partly the reason why he wrote so few older women in his plays; while young boys could play young women just about believably, and there was an undeniably comic element in certain old women being played by old men (Shakespeare in Love plays this to the full effect with Jim Carter as the Nurse), it would have been harder to cast actors to play strong, mature women in serious roles. Mistresses Page and Ford are certainly women of certain age, at least by the Elizabethan standards, but Shakespeare also manages to present them as not being quite past it yet – Falstaff is smitten enough to continue to the hopeless pursuit of Mistress Ford, and Ford himself in the last line lets us know that she is getting lucky tonight.
Is it any good?
I think it can be entertaining in performance, in a slapstick sort of way, but on the page it doesn’t exactly sing.
No less than five operas are based on this play, the most famous being Falstaff by Verdi.
What say thou?
The Merry wifes of Windsor has given us one commonly used expression: “the world is my oyster” (original form “the world ’s mine oyster”). Otherwise it’s eloquent but uninspired. My favourite passage will be discussed below, but I’ll give an honourable mention to Host’s description of Master Fenton’s A game:
What say you to young Master Fenton? he capers, he
dances, he has eyes of youth, he writes verses, he
speaks holiday, he smells April and May: he will
carry’t, he will carry’t; ’tis in his buttons; he
Mistress Page and Mistress Ford together. When I saw Eileen Atkins’ play about Ellen Terry, Mistress Page was given as a proof of how thoroughly English Shakespeare is. Atkins in the guise of Ellen Terry reads the speech of Mistress Page…
What, have I scaped love-letters in the holiday-
time of my beauty, and am I now a subject for them?
Let me see.
‘Ask me no reason why I love you; for though
Love use Reason for his physician, he admits him
not for his counsellor. You are not young, no more
am I; go to then, there’s sympathy: you are merry,
so am I; ha, ha! then there’s more sympathy: you
love sack, and so do I; would you desire better
sympathy? Let it suffice thee, Mistress Page,–at
the least, if the love of soldier can suffice,–
that I love thee. I will not say, pity me; ’tis
not a soldier-like phrase: but I say, love me. By me,
Thine own true knight,
By day or night,
Or any kind of light,
With all his might
For thee to fight, JOHN FALSTAFF’
What a Herod of Jewry is this! O wicked
world! One that is well-nigh worn to pieces with
age to show himself a young gallant! What an
unweighed behavior hath this Flemish drunkard
picked–with the devil’s name!–out of my
conversation, that he dares in this manner assay me?
Why, he hath not been thrice in my company! What
should I say to him? I was then frugal of my
mirth: Heaven forgive me! Why, I’ll exhibit a bill
in the parliament for the putting down of men. How
shall I be revenged on him? for revenged I will be,
as sure as his guts are made of puddings.
…and asks if these are not the words of a true, no nonsense Englishwoman with her head on the right place?! and she’s right of course.
None. I completely forgot to get one. That’s what being on holiday does to a person.