“It will hardly be necessary to deal at any length with The Merry Wives of Windsor,” says Derek Traversi in his Approaches to Shakespeare, and then, indeed, he doesn’t. I am pretty sympathetic, but then I thought that won’t start much conversation either. So I began to think about language. What happens to an audience who settle into a theatre and the first four or five scenes assault one with a—no, two—malapropists (Slender and Mistress Quickly), a bombastic literary allusion mangler (Pistol, and Nym who has a humor to say “humor”), and a—no, two—“foreigners” (Welsh Evans and French Caius) who abuse the King’s English so severely that the Folger Shakespeare Library edition’s facing gloss pages exceed the text itself in length?
I really do look to the opening of a play to orient me – exposition, grace notes to character, setting, maybe a little plot complication – and it was discouraging to find I had spent two hours over the first three scenes, not yet even encountering Dr. Caius or the focative lesson on the obscenity of Latin grammar. Perhaps I was disadvantaged because the last time I saw this play all the lines, alas unmemorable, were sung and translated from Italian.
Anyway, my impression is this is the most language-playful (or –jerked around) play since Love’s Labour’s Lost. What gives with language? Could we say that the subtext insists that the inverse of all this language miasma is a newly accepted default English, that “King’s English” that all the above mangle?
It is inevitable we should talk about Falstaff. Yet who is this guy? Fat, of course, and transported to the twenty-first century bearing the traditional theatrical tradition that Merry Wives of Windsor was written because Queen Elizabeth told Shakespeare she would like to see Falstaff in love (though this myth was not recorded until 1702 by John Dennis, a century after the appearance of the play, and anyway why would Elizabeth tell this to Shakespeare if Edward de Vere wrote Merry Wives?) But this Falstaff is hard to recognize if we have already known the witty, inventive, playful quick-study Falstaff of 1 Henry IV and the aging, touchingly emotional, outsider Falstaff of 2 Henry IV. This one is primarily a wencher, gullible, bombastic without wit. He is alazon, self-deluded, ripe to be deflated. What has the playwright done with my Falstaff?
Yet, this is a comedy. Forget, for a while, the “banish fat Jack and banish all the world” Falstaff, and think of the conventions of comedy. Boy meets girl; obstacles arise; boy gets girl; all dance. Falstaff is no boy and much of the plot iterates and reiterates and rereiterates Falstaff arranging to assignate with Mistresses Page and Ford, revealing his plan (and rerevealing and rererevealing) to “Mr. Brook,” and then being abused—dirty laundry, then cudgels, then exorcism while wearing horns at midnight. He is the butt of all these intrigues, hoist by his own self-inflated ego, left fallen (literally) in the forest and pinched black and blue by fairies/children, then finally invited home to sit with the families by a country fire—only by an afterthought reintegrated into the harmonious society of “all dance.”
Still there is the Anne Page plot: boy (Fenton) sees girl; obstacles arise as alternative suitors engage in courting plots, Slender backed by William Page and Caius backed by Margaret Page until both are drawn away by boys in disguise in the forest; and Fenton gets Anne (oh, wait, like Bassanio and Portia, they have known and been bonded to each other from sometime before). Anyway, all ends in harmony, except Dr. Caius finds himself married to “oon garsoon, a boy: oon pesant” (I gloss that last piss-ant, but then my French is not so good any more). A comic plot, indeed, but notice Verdi entitled his opera Falstaff, not Fenton. Still, Merry Wives of Windsor is “comedy of intrigue” slightly “comedy of manners,” somewhat anticipatory of the great comedies of the Restoration. I think I’d like to come back to intrigue before we are finished with Merry Wives, remembering that intrigue is artificially manipulated social situation, contrived comic artifice, not to be tested by reality.
Merry Wives of Windsor is unique for Shakespeare in its English setting and its class. This is "city comedy." There will be more of this in Jacobean drama. It is unflinchingly middle-class. Page and Ford are merchants, and Falstaff targets their wives, at first, because they control their husbands’ purse strings (even Fenton confesses he wishes to repair his fortune with Anne Page’s money). We’ve often seen English folk (in addition to the histories), especially among the Warwickshire guildsmen and rustics (do you suppose Edward de Vere ever met Nick Bottom or Dogberry or Elbow or Launce?) but they show up in Athens or Verona, whereas all these Merry Wives folk live within a mile of Brainford, Hearne’s oak, Frogmore, Eton all surrounding Windsor. So, what does the introduction of middle-class values do to the crux between the feudal-romantic (Hotspur) and the mercantile (Joseph Addison’s Sir Andrew Freeport)? Is this money-oriented play the true fulcrum between Claudius who knows how to run his kingdom-corporation and Hamlet who finds, therefore, the world is out of joint?
Wednesday, August 11, 2010
Sunday, August 8, 2010
I just finished Merry Wives of Windsor and can think a several topics to discuss – most center on Falstaff and how different and weaker he seems in this play than in the histories. But before we get into that I have a question for Randall that relates to his last TSI post on the blog.
The last practical joke played on the fat knight is centered on him dressing as Terne the Hunter and being set upon by Satyrs and Faeries in the forest. Falstaff is beaten earlier in the play when impersonating Mistress Ford’s maid’s aunt, who is not only large enough for the impersonation to work but also considered a witch. Mr. Ford says of the aunt: “A witch, a quean, an old cozening quean! Have I not forbid her my house? She comes of errands, does she? We are simple men, we do not know what’s to brought to pass under the profession of fortune-telling. She works by charms, by spells, by th’ figure, and such daub’ry as this is, beyond our element; we know nothing. Come down, you witch, you hag you, come down, I say!”
My first thought was that this passage is probably a better representation of the common perception of witchcraft and who practiced it in Elizabethan society than Macbeth, though I’d need to do some work before I could back that up.
But it seems to me that the kind of “forest magic” that is being faked in the last practical joke (faeries, satyrs, etc.) is more common in Shakespeare than the type of dark magic seen in Macbeth’s witches. The other thing that struck me is that the “forest magic” elements seem odder and more foreign for modern readers and audiences than Macbeth’s witches. My daughters think that A Midsummer’s Night Dream has a very strange story, with Puck and the Faeries, but Macbeth makes perfect sense to them on the level of magic. The very brief examples of laws you quoted in your TSI entry in the blog made me wonder if you saw evidence that the apparent view of witchcraft changed over time, moving toward the “modern” view that witches were evil, in league with dark forces, dealing with the devil, etc.
Was there a change in what audiences believed about witchcraft during Shakespeare’s lifetime? Or is this more of an American/English divide, with American falling with King James on the Puritan side and viewing all witches as in league with the devil and refusing to believe in faeries, while the English still hold the realm of Faerie in their cosmology (hence Peter Pan….)?
It’s kind of a convoluted question, but I’ve reached the point where I have enough data that I would easily have been able to write the five paragraph essay in college arguing the point but nowhere near enough to know if actually have a sustainable case either way.
Randall, what do you think?