Was will das Weib?
The Merry Wives of Windsor has always held a curious status among Shakespeareans. It is Shakespeare’s only “English comedy,” almost entirely in prose and centering on small-town life as opposed to the more momentous business of marriage or war among aristocrats. Yet it is the Shakespearean comedy most closely associated with a court through the persistent anecdote (first promulgated in the early eighteenth century) that its author wrote it in two weeks or less to satisfy Queen Elizabeth I’s desire to see Falstaff in love. Since the early eighteenth century, the anecdote has taken root—witness its concretization in David Scott’s striking but historically inaccurate 1840 painting Queen Elizabeth Viewing the Performance of the ‘Merry Wives of Windsor’ in the Globe Theatre;1 witness likewise the fact that most editors of the play have not only accepted the anecdote but embroidered upon it, despite its shaky historical basis.
Within The Merry Wives of Windsor, there is additional material linking the play to the court through the elaborate references to Windsor Castle, the Order of the Garter, and a “radiant” Fairy Queen who “hates Sluts, and Sluttery” (F TLN 2528). The dominant editorial view at present is that the play was in some way connected with the Garter ceremonies of 1597, at which Shakespeare’s patron Lord Hunsdon was installed in the order; indeed, Shakespeare himself, along with other members of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, may well have served among the spectacular retinue of three hundred gentlemen and men expected to attend Hunsdon at Windsor. 2 If Merry Wives was in some way connected with the Garter events of 1597, the most likely date for its performance, editors agree, was St George’s Day, April 23, 1597, at the Feast of the Garter before the queen at Westminster.
Not the least part of this play’s attraction and vexation for critics is that, like Doctor Faustus, it exists in two widely divergent early texts. A quarto version was published in 1602 under the engaging title A Most pleasaunt