Shakespeare the Playwright: A Companion to the Complete Tragedies, Histories, Comedies, and Romances

By Victor L. Cahn | Go to book overview

THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR

Tradition has it that this work was composed in two weeks after a request from Queen Elizabeth, who wished to see a play about Falstaff in love. It is the only comedy of Shakespeare set in an English setting, here Windsor, and it is his only portrait of contemporary, middle-class English life. More important, it is his only pure farce and consequently has less character development than any of his other plays. Yet even as farce the play poses problems. Its charm comes from its generally sunny tone. But for many audiences, that lightness, in combination with the two-dimensional characters, robs the play of interest. Still, the story, which has no known literary source, is sufficiently involving and attractive that it has been adapted successfully into opera, notably by Verdi as Falstaff and by Vaughan Williams as Sir John in Love.

The key element of the play, and for some the key difficulty, is the character of Falstaff. He is a far cry from the great knight of Henry IV. That figure is a brilliant wit, a worthy companion to a future king, and, above all, a man of dignity. His intellect is sharper than any other on stage, and when characters laugh at him, Falstaff is always aware of the joke and able to take it steps further. In sum, whatever his points of vulnerability, such as his girth, capacity for drink, cowardice, and general lecherousness, the Falstaff of the history plays is a man of substance, greater than his world.

In The Merry Wives of Windsor that Falstaff is no longer present. His weight remains enormous and he does enjoy a good jest, but his stature has faded. In addition, many of Falstaff's companions from the history plays, including Bardolph, Pistol, and Nym, appear here as fun-loving but essentially harmless rogues. And their sanitizing, as it were, takes away part of the threat in this play. Even in farce, no matter how light, someone must pose a danger to someone else. The audience needs to feel substantial pressure or conflict. In this play that threat is so mild that we are kept at a distance, watching rather than worrying.

For instance, at the start we learn that Justice Shallow, another figure from the history plays, has a grievance against Falstaff and wants him punished (I, i, 1-4). This claim brings to mind the fat knight's adventures in Henry IV, but

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Shakespeare the Playwright: A Companion to the Complete Tragedies, Histories, Comedies, and Romances
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • The Tragedies 1
  • Titus Andronicus 5
  • Romeo and Juliet 23
  • Julius Caesar 47
  • Hamlet 69
  • Othello 105
  • King Lear 137
  • Macbeth 179
  • Antony and Cleopatra 209
  • Coriolanus 241
  • Timon of Athens 267
  • The Histories 283
  • The First Tetralogy 287
  • King John 381
  • The Second Tetralogy 399
  • The Comedies 525
  • The Comedy of Errors 529
  • The Taming of the Shrew 541
  • Two - Gentlemen of Verona 555
  • Love''s Labor''s Lost 569
  • A Midsummer Night''s Dream 583
  • The Merchant of Venice 599
  • The Merry Wives of Windsor 619
  • Much Ado about Nothing 629
  • As You like It 647
  • Twelfth Night, or What You Will 665
  • Troilus and Cressida 683
  • All''s Well That Ends Well 703
  • Measure for Measure 721
  • The Romances 743
  • Pericles 745
  • Cymbeline 757
  • The Winter''s Tale 779
  • The Tempest 803
  • Appendix 1 - The Two Noble Kinsmen 823
  • Suggestions for Further Reading 826
  • Appendix 2 - The Royal Figures from the History Tetralogies 827
  • Select Bibliography 831
  • Character Index 833
  • Index 847
  • About the Author *
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