Money Changes Everything: Quarto and Folio the Merry Wives of Windsor and the Case for Revision

By Grav, Peter | Comparative Drama, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Money Changes Everything: Quarto and Folio the Merry Wives of Windsor and the Case for Revision


Grav, Peter, Comparative Drama


While countless stagings of The Merry Wives of Windsor have been set in a bucolic "merrye olde England," Bill Alexander's 1985 RSC rendition took Shakespeare's representation of a 1590s English bourgeoisie, numerically anagrammatized its temporal setting, and placed it in the 1950s Macmillan years of postwar prosperity in Britain. Alexander depicted a suburban middle class enjoying the power of newfound affluence in an era whose watchword was "you never had it so good." Mistresses Ford and Page plotted their revenge on Falstaff while sitting under hair dryers and sipped gin and tonics in a comfortable living room while Ford ransacked the infamous buckbasket. One of the underlying concerns of this much-lauded production was the materialism of the time; theater programs even carried real period advertisements for consumer goods such as televisions, complete with prices. Alexander's vision was entirely apropos, as the idea that wealth had become both the measure of personal worth and a societal linchpin lies at the heart of Merry Wives, a play in which economic imperatives are never far from the surface. Falstaff dissolves his retinue and pursues the titular wives because he is penniless; Ford throws money at Falstaff to test his wife's fidelity; and Anne Page's matrimonial fate is governed by the wealth she represents and the capital she attracts. In the only work wherein Shakespeare ostensibly depicts his own contemporary society, it seems evident that cash values, rather than human ones, are firmly in control.

While often neglected in discussions of Shakespeare's comedic oeuvre, Merry Wives is both an intriguing and important play that warrants inclusion in any discussion of the dramatist's underlying attitudes toward the role played by money in society. The inclination of some to place it in the genre of Citizen Comedy seems apt, given that genre's preoccupation with economic motivations and the cozenage required to accumulate wealth. In both the main and subplot of Merry Wives, subterfuge driven by greed appears to be a societal norm. Yet the cynicism of Comedy is belied to a degree by the somewhat predictable resolution of the play's main plot, in which lessons are learned and the forces of avarice are turned back. In fact, the defeat of Falstaff seems so effortless that one might ask whether he ever did represent a threat to Windsor's values. Perhaps of greater interest is the much more opaque Anne Page subplot, which, in the end, offers none of the comfort engendered by the comeuppance of a humbled fortune hunter. This seemingly standard New Comedy tale of a young woman defying her parents to wed the man she loves is, upon closer examination, a consistently cynical exploration of the pervasiveness of economic imperatives in interpersonal relationships. Of particular interest here are the very different ways that the Anne-Fenton love story unfolds in the Merry Wives Quarto and Folio texts. Comparing the two versions reveals that the Folio foregrounds economic themes largely absent in the 1602 Quarto. While the differences between the Q and F versions have long been widely considered the result of the former being either a memorial reconstruction or an abridgement, the argument advanced here is that the Folio text is more likely a revision of the Quarto and that Shakespeare's motivation was to strengthen the indictment of cash and exchange values that lies at the heart of Merry Wives.

As noted above, Merry Wives is the only play that Shakespeare set in a recognizable, contemporary England, and its singularity in this respect suggests it contains his reactions to the economic world in which he lived. The Pages, the Fords, Shallow, Slender, Evans, and Doctor Caius collectively represent an English bourgeoisie (the latter two in spite of their Welsh and French pedigrees, respectively (1)) that grew in strength and numbers over the sixteenth century, and, in Shakespeare's only "English" comedy, their value system is shown to be sorely wanting. …

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