A review of THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR (William Shakespeare)
by Dr. Joseph Suglia
You know the rumor already: Queen Elizabeth commanded Shakespeare to write The Merry Wives of Windsor (circa 1596) in two weeks. Well, not The Merry Wives of Windsor specifically, but a play in which the fat old knight Sir John Falstaff, one of Shakespeare’s most developed creations, falls in love. This rumor was first set down by John Dennis (1702), over one hundred years after the play was composed. For three centuries, Shakespeare scholars have debated the question: “Did Queen Elizabeth ever issue such an edict? Did she command the poet to write his play in two weeks, for Her pleasure?”
The answer is, who cares? You can either buy the royal-command hypothesis or reject the royal-command hypothesis. Either way, the play seems to have been written for money, and it seems to have been written in two weeks. Like every conscientious writer, Shakespeare reserved his genius lines and genius staves for his stronger plays. The wordplay here is less than dazzling; there is not a single memorable line in the entire play (though the play does have the virtue of having contributed to Orson Welles’ masterly Chimes at Midnight (1965)).
Whenever Shakespeare wants to make fun of one of his characters, he has that character make fritters of the English language. Clearly, Shakespeare valued English more highly than he did anything else. It is a pity that his love for English isn’t particularly legible in this work. There are some amusing countrified insults: “cony-catching rascals” [I:i]; “Banbury cheese” [ibid.]; “Let vultures gripe thy guts!” [I:iii]; “jack-a-nape” [I:iv]; “his guts are made of puddings” [II;i]; “mechanical salt-butter rogue” [II:ii]; “jack-an-ape” [II:iii]; “Jack dog” and “John ape” [III:i]; “Jack-a-Lent” [III:iii]; “polecat” [IV:ii]. Characters liken one another to animals and food products. Contemporary readers of the play might begin insulting their irritating neighbors by calling them “Banbury cheese.”
Shakespeare seems to have disobeyed the queenly command (if one was ever given). Falstaff doesn’t actually “fall in love” with anyone. He has a purely financial interest in the merrily sadistic wives of the title, Mistress Page and Mistress Ford. He attempts to seduce and exploit both of the women for money — unsuccessfully, of course. I write “seduce,” but must qualify that Falstaff appears to have no erotic desire for the wives, nor for anyone else. Mistress Page and Mistress Ford quickly disclose Falstaff’s scheme and dispatch the fat old knight.
In the Arden edition, the editor makes the incisive claim that The Merry Wives of Windsor is not a humorous comedy at all. I partially concur with this assertion. Approaching the text as a black comedy is probably the best way of going about it. A “black comedy” in the sense that Andre Breton defined the term (in relation to Jonathan Swift): a comedy that provokes the audience to laugh, even though the author is never laughing.
The play has the shape and the style of an erotic nightmare. If you know the early films of Peter Greenaway — particularly, The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982) and Drowning by Numbers (1988) — you have some idea of what to expect. The resemblance between these two excellent films and The Merry Wives of Windsor is uncanny. To truly appreciate what Shakespeare is doing, I would recommend viewing both of these films before reading the play.
Mistress Page and Mistress Ford gang up on poor Falstaff. He is thrown into a laundry basket and tossed into a river. He nearly suffocates in the laundry basket and nearly drowns in the river. He is dressed up as a woman — feminization is a classic form of humiliation in the vocabulary of sadism and perhaps also in the vocabulary of masochism, though not in the writings of Sacher-Masoch — and beaten with a cudgel. Antlers are mounted on his head. He is pinched and burned. He becomes a sacrificial figure.
This last form of torture and humiliation does fascinate me, I must confess. The antlers give to the play an even darker valence. In at least three ways: 1.) We learn that Falstaff is a deer-stealer in the first act — the antlers thus create a cosmic irony. 2.) What Falstaff said he would do to Mr. Ford is done to Falstaff instead. 3.) Falstaff is an Actaeonian cuckold.
The myth of Actaeon is alluded to implicitly and explicitly throughout the play. The name ‘Actaeon,’ in fact, appears twice in the text: “Like Sir Actaeon he, with Ringwood at thy heels” [II:i]; “divulge Page himself for a secure and wilful Actaeon…” [III:iii].
The myth is simple and powerful. Actaeon spies on the naked bathing goddess, Diana. Since the goddess is not containable in any human form, Actaeon stares at an empty appearance, a simulation. A rustling in the bushes reveals all. Diana raises herself in her divine nudity and screams at the voyeur: “Tell that you saw me bathing here naked — if you can tell at all!” The hunter is transformed into a stag and ripped into pieces by his own hounds.
What we are given here is a sadistic fantasy, a masochistic fantasy, or a sadomasochistic fantasy. The play culminates in a ritual persecution in which a human being is sacrificed.
Of all the many attempts to ideologize Shakespeare and to press him into the service of a sexual-political cause, this might be the best play to use as a vehicle. And yet the play has been strangely ignored both by specialists in Gender Studies and Shakespearean scholars in general. An Emeritus Professor of Renaissance Literature wrote a book entitled Shakespeare on Masculinity without ever so much as mentioning The Merry Wives of Windsor.
The play does have a great deal to say about disgraced masculinity. Every full-grown man in this play is a puddinghead — even Mr. Ford, who is cuckolded without being cuckolded and who commits adultery with his own wife (prefiguring All’s Well that Ends Well). The women are the crafty ones. Whether this vision of hell is making an ontological claim about the differences between men and women is ambiguous; whether this vision of hell is misogynistic, misandristic, or both is non-obvious. Reading the play is rather like watching two cackling little girls flinging apples at an old lion in the zoo.
Reading over what I have written so far, I see that I am making the play appear more interesting than it actually is.
Dr. Joseph Suglia