Academic journal article Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England

Revising Jealousy in the Merry Wives of Windsor

Academic journal article Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England

Revising Jealousy in the Merry Wives of Windsor

Article excerpt

THE problem of jealousy is a major theme in Shakespeare's later plays, but the comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor (1599-1600), written in the middle of Shakespeare's career, also provides an extended look at a husband's unfounded jealousy and how it comes to be abated. In the later plays, Shake-speare's jealous husbands are murderers in the making: sexual jealousy turns fatal in Othello, and threatens to do the same in Cymbeline and The Winter's Tale. Overcome by their "zealous love," as jealousy was sometimes called in the period, Othello, Posthumus, and Leontes sentence their wives to death with a celerity they later regret. (1) In the romances, however, tragedy is subverted by disguise, hiding, and pretense of death on the part of the unfairly accused wife: in Cymbeline, Immogen's potential killer, hired by her husband Posthumus, cannot go through with the act and helps her to reinvent herself as the page Fidele; and The Winter's Tale's Hermione, declared dead by Paulina, is reintroduced as a statue to her husband sixteen years later. These plays suggest that if a seemingly loving husband can suddenly succumb to violent jealousy, carefully plotted and collectively orchestrated schemes can effectively counteract its impending threat. To avert disaster, both Immogen and Hermione "die," to reemerge, in altered form, once their husbands' jealousies have subsided. The wives' transformations demand that the formerly paranoid husbands literally see them differently, and leave audiences with the sense that the marriages can go forward with a clean slate.

Like Othello, Posthumus, and Leontes, Mr. Ford is an irrational and increasingly desperate jealous husband who eventually regrets distrusting his wife. Yet in The Merry Wives of Windsor, it is not the accused wife who must hide, disguise herself, or otherwise suffer humiliation in order to escape her husband's wrath; rather, such degradation is inflicted on Mrs. Ford's would-be seducer, Falstaff. In the course of the play, Falstaff is hidden in a buck basket and dumped into the river Thames; cross-dressed as the witch of Brainford and pitilessly attacked; and finally publicly embarrassed when he appears before the community dressed as Herne the Hunter and his lechery is revealed to all. It is Falstaff, and not Mistress Ford, who is presented to her husband and other characters anew at the end of the play. Rather than stage a reunion between a once-jealous husband and a wife whose "death" he had a hand in, The Merry Wives of Windsor ultimately reconciles Falstaff with the larger community. Although the play's gender reversal is indicative of the wives' celebrated resourcefulness and their shrewd supervision of the domestic realm, it thus diverges from Shakespeare's larger pattern of representing jealousy and its cure. (2)

The jealous husband plot in The Merry Wives of Windsor has received little critical attention, but it is a particularly interesting example of Shakespearean jealousy because it includes elements that are less humorous in Much Ado About Nothing, Othello, Cymbeline, and The Winter's Tale. In The Merry Wives of Windsor the jealous husband makes an exaggerated effort, as Othello does, to find what we could call "ocular proof" Like Leontes' jealousy, Mr. Ford's is self-ignited: rather than encourage his jealous thoughts, those closest to him repeatedly beg him to cease in his suspicions. However, by disguising himself as Mr. Brook and enlisting Falstaff to attain and divulge slanderous information about Mrs. Ford, he also seems to fulfill the instigator role that Don John/Iago/Giacomo occupy in Much Ado About Nothing, Othello, and Cymbeline, respectively. And Falstaff, not knowing to whom he is speaking, can be seen as a precursor to Giacomo when he describes what has (not) transpired between himself and Mrs. Ford. Falstaff's role in the play is also comparable to that of female characters in other plays: like Imogen he disguises in drag as a means of escape, and like Hermione and Much Ado's Hero he is presented in altered form at the play's conclusion. …

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