Falstaff as fail-safe: The Merry Wives of Windsor

There is a legend that has grown around this play that Queen Elizabeth was so taken with the character of Falstaff in Henry IV, Part One (and possibly Part Two, although the chronology I’m following has this play coming before Part Two) that she commanded Shakespeare to write a new play about Falstaff in love. There is no evidence whatsoever to support this story but it creates an appealing explanation for why Falstaff might have migrated out of the two history plays into this comedy apparently set in contemporary times. And it can’t be denied that Falstaff is one of Shakespeare’s greatest creations as a character: who wouldn’t want to see more of him? And if you’re one of the partners in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, mightn’t Fastaff seem like a fail-safe, a guaranteed box office draw?

City comedy or cynical cuckoldry?

The Merry Wives of Windsor has sometimes been likened to the genre of ‘city comedy’ or ‘citizen comedy’ despite the fact that it predates most of the plays associated with the tradition and is set in Windsor rather than London. These plays often explore the comic possibilities of cuckoldry and that is indeed a focus of this play, although it is the merry wives of the title, Mistress Page and Mistress Ford, who are in control and the would-be seducer Falstaff and the husband Ford who suspects his wife who become the targets of ridicule.

The vision of strong women who control the domestic sphere and have the upper hand with the more inept male characters is not accidental at a time when England was ruled by a woman. The personal is political argued second-wave feminists in the twentieth century and while Shakespeare couldn’t exactly be considered a feminist he was certainly very interested in exploring the analogies between the domestic sphere and the political world of the court. If you’re interested in exploring political questions it’s much safer to locate your story in historical times, or to subtly imply things amongst domestic comedy. Indeed, despite the historical examples of the likes of Queen Elizabeth and the works of Shakespeare, both societies and dramatists have struggled with the idea of the Strong Female Lead right up to the present.

Former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard (left) and Former English Queen Elizabeth I (right). Source

There are two plot lines to the play: one has the afore-mentioned attempted seduction of Mistress Page and Mistress Ford by Falstaff, as much an attempt to gain money by Falstaff as it is to satisfy any sexual urges. The associated jealousy and distrust shown by Mistress Ford’s husband also forms part of this plot line, leading to his ridicule as well as Falstaff’s. The other plot line involves the marrying off of Mistress Page’s daughter, Anne Page. She has three suitors, each favoured by a different character: Anne herself is in love with Master Fenton, but he has been rejected by her father for his wasteful lifestyle. Aside from that, though, he seems like the perfect romantic lead: “he capers, he dances, he has eyes of youth, he / writes verses, he speaks holiday, he smells April / and May” (3.2.65–67). Dad would prefer her to marry Master Slender, who comes across as a not very intelligent buffoon. Meanwhile, her mother has her eye on Doctor Caius, a grumpy Frenchman with a thick accent who serves as a handy vehicle to get in a lot of xenophobic jokes about the French (the Welsh also get a serve through the character of the parson, Sir Hugh Evans).

We’ve seen this kind of plot before in Shakespeare, of course, notably in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet, where the parents wanting their daughter to marry someone of their choosing instead of her own is employed respectively for comedy and tragedy. We’re safely in the world of comedy here, so it all works out for the best. Indeed, the set-piece conclusion of the play evokes the earlier comedy by setting up a scene full of characters playing fairies and Falstaff dressed as Herne the Hunter. Anne Page outsmarts her parents attempts to set her up with their preferred candidates and manages to get married to Master Fenton without them being too upset about it. Even Falstaff is okay with being ridiculed and pinched mercilessly by the children playing fairies.

Falstaff, but not as we know him

Adolf Schrödter: Falstaff und sein Page

Harold Bloom, the incredibly prolific and influential critic (and formidable reader: “According to legend, Bloom could read a 400-page book in an hour without sacrificing comprehension and could recite the whole of Shakespeare’s poetry by heart.”) absolutely loved the character of Falstaff, calling him “the grandest personality in all of Shakespeare.” However, he didn’t love this Falstaff from The Merry Wives of Windsor, as he made clear in his book Falstaff: Give Me Life:

No longer either witty in himself or the cause of wit in other men, this Falstaff would make me lament a lost glory if I did not know him to be a rank imposter. His fascination, indeed, is that Shakespeare wastes nothing upon him. The Merry Wives of Windsor is Shakespeare’s only play that he himself seems to hold in contempt, even as he indites it. Scorning the task, he tossed off a ‘Falstaff’ fit only to be carried in a basket and thrown into the Thames. Such a diminishing is akin to reducing Cleopatra to a fishwife (in a recent British production brought to New York City) or giving us Juliet as a gang girl (on screen). You can cram any fat man into a basket and get a laugh. He does not have to be Falstaff, nor need his creator be Shakespeare. By the time that Falstaff, disguised as a plump old woman, has absorbed a particularly nasty beating, one begins to conclude that Shakespeare loathes not only the occasion but himself for having yielded to it. The final indignity is a horned, chained pseudo-Falstaff, victim of sadomasochistic farce, and perhaps even a quick burst of Shakespearean self-hatred.

So is this indeed the real Falstaff or mere impostor? Would Queen Elizabeth have been crushingly disappointed if she had requested more Falstaff from Shakespeare and then been served up with this version?

The Falstaff scenes in The Merry Wives of Windsor do bear some similarity to some of his scenes in Henry IV, Part One. He is a seeker of pleasures of the flesh who happily orders people around and tries to get money where he can: he happily and shamelessly attempts to deceive people even as they see through his deceptions. He is not just “any fat man” as Bloom has it but recognisably the Falstaff from the earlier play. Being tricked and humiliated is exactly what we see happen to him in Henry IV, Part One and it happens again here.

The main difference as I see it is that Henry IV, Part One is not a comedy but rather a hybrid tragedy/history play. Falstaff is a fictional figure that Shakespeare thrusts into the lives of real people from history and his comic energy serves to offset the large scale historic events such as rebellions and battles. But he’s not merely comic relief: he teaches Hal how to be more human and carries real pathos as we anticipate his future rejection. In The Merry Wives of Windsor, on the other hand, all he has to offer is the comedy. There are no serious lessons to be drawn from him and no main character who grows and develops thanks to their interactions with him. I think the problem with Falstaff in this play is situational more than anything else: to place him in a (mere) comedy is to reduce him and if there’s anything that Falstaff embodies it is weightiness.

The BBC version

Richard Griffiths as Falstaff attempting to woo Judy Davis as Mistress Ford

The BBC production of The Merry Wives of Windsor was episode 2 of Season 5 and first aired in December 1982. It has a rather remarkable cast for a play that isn’t much loved. Richard Griffiths (who I can never think of as anyone other than Uncle Monty in the cult classic Withnail & I) plays Falstaff, presumably cast primarily for his rotundity, although as he has proven as Uncle Monty and in other roles, he has excellent comic chops. Prunella Scales, a few years after Fawlty Towers propelled her into legend, plays Mistress Page. And the husband and wife team of Ford and Mistress Ford are played by heavyweights Ben Kingsley and Judy Davis. To top it off, Justice Shallow is played by actor and playwright Alan Bennett.

Quite why this collection of actors would want to take on roles in a play that to be honest can start to feel a little tedious is unclear: maybe it’s a chance to spread your wings a little and take on some roles that don’t come up often on stage compared to the real classics. There’s no other film version to compete with that I’m aware of, so it could be a chance to become the definitive Mistress Ford, for example, not that this role would appear on a list of Judy Davis career highlights.

Falstaff is really the main drawing card and point of interest here. As a comedy it lacks the magic of something like A Midsummer Night’s Dream (despite the efforts of the final scene) or the edge of The Taming of the Shrew and it lacks the complexity of the later comedies like Twelfth Night and As You Like It. It’s something of a throwback to the early works like The Two Gentlemen of Verona or The Comedy of Errors and I found it to be a bit laborious like those efforts. Never mind, though, there’s more Falstaff to come and next time he finds himself back with the company he belongs in: Prince Hal.

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Blair Mahoney

Blair Mahoney

Teacher of Literature and Philosophy, prolific reader and sometime writer