As Samuel Johnson once observed, The Merry Wives of Windsor “is remarkable for the variety and number of the personages, who exhibit more characters appropriated and discriminated, than perhaps can be found in any other play.” The only play to depict Shakespeare’s own Elizabethan society, The Merry Wives can be said to inaugurate an entire genre of class-conscious English dramas. It’s a short line from this play to the hermetic households of Howard’s End, Gosford Park, and that latest craze of Anglophiles and PBS-watchers everywhere, Downton Abbey.
But Merry Wives is no mere nostalgic portrait of Brittania. Shakespeare is never merely sentimental, and this is perhaps the least romantic of his comedies. In Shakespeare’s England, the ends justify the means, especially concerning matters of money. Shakespeare’s Windsor, on its surface a happy and thriving community, in fact runs on the principle of “cozenage,” or cheating. Everyone is caught up in the aspirational scramble to get to the top of the heap. Falstaff wants the money of the merry wives (and their husbands), while Mistresses Ford and Page want the status that comes with being fêted at court in nearby Windsor Castle, just across the Thames. Everyone else is preoccupied with either finding a job or with marrying the beautiful young Anne Page, who comes. more importantly, with a dowry that ensures financial solvency. Everyone is out for themselves.
It should come as little surprise, then, that beneath the apparently normal façade that Shakespeare draws of provincial (or suburban) Windsor, we receive instead a teeming chaos, a crazy quilt of character quirk and dramaturgical complication. The stage foreigners of the play – Sir Hugh Evans, the Welsh parson and schoolmaster, and the choleric Frenchman, Doctor Caius – are welcome additions to the repertory company of Eastcheap, conceived and made famous by Shakespeare in the Henry IV plays and transplanted here to Windsor’s Garter Inn. Justice Shallow now presides in nearby Gloucester. Mistress Quickly has been pressed into service as Doctor Caius’ housekeeper, and Bardolph has turned tapster, shedding his soldier’s clothes. Above it all presides Falstaff, the fat old knight still, source of much of the play’s Rabelaisian wit and the fountain head of its linguistic vitality. “Merry” England, Shakespeare seems to be saying, is a world of endless mendacity. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t also a whole lot of fun.
This is also a world in which the very concept of Englishness was being rapidly reinvented. In the late 1590s and early 1600s, when Shakespeare was writing The Merry Wives, England was a bankrupt country. It had been embroiled in an exhausting naval war with Spain and Portugal for the last 40 years, ever since Elizabeth I had ascended to the throne in 1558. It would also become embroiled in a war abroad with Ireland from 1597 to 1603. Soldiers returning from war encountered a country whose finances had been drained, and were forced to rely on a small pension from the Queen. These knights, like Falstaff in the play, were known as “Windsor knights” for their reliance on the Queen’s court at nearby Windsor palace, just a few miles up the Thames River from London. Young men of title, like young Fenton in the play, often had an ancestral title but a withered estate, their coffers emptied out to pay for Elizabeth’s wars of empire.
Taking the place of these suddenly impoverished aristocrats in the first ranks of the realm was a rising middle-class of prosperous merchants and traders. Much like the Ford and Page households in Merry Wives, this rising middle-class held different values, came from different backgrounds and even spoke differently than the landed gentry they were so eager to depose. At 88%, Merry Wives is the most prose-heavy of any Shakespeare play, and it is his play most concerned with the use, misuse and abuse of the English vernacular. Whereas Mistresses Ford and Page express themselves intelligently and clearly, in an idiom halfway between verse and plain speech, they are surrounded by a taxonomy of malapropisms, mispronunciations and maimings of common phrases.
Falstaff and his followers, meanwhile, speak like remnants from the Elizabethan golden age of the 1570s and 80s. Nym’s abuse of the term “humour” draws sarcastic attention to the faddish comedies of Shakespeare’s rival, Ben Jonson, while Pistol’s bombastic, “red-lattice phrases” make him seem like a refugee from a Christopher Marlowe play. Falstaff fashions himself like Sir Francis Drake or Sir Walter Raleigh, the explorers made famous in the 70s and 80s for their pursuit of “El Dorado,” the fabled city of gold. But this is Windsor: there’s no city of gold to be found, only the cold darkness of the Thames River.
This production of The Merry Wives is set in England in the Indian summer of 1919. The First World War had ended in late 1918, and English society was undergoing similar convulsions of recession and revolution. “The war to end all wars” had dealt a severe blow to the ruling classes, m,any of whom sat on bankrupt estates. Soldiers returned to find themselves struggling to find work, displaced in many cases by merchants and the rising tide of the first modern woman’s movement. Women who had replaced men in the wartime workforce were now advocating for their voice in the national vote and fighting off the advances (metaphorical and real) of men such as Falstaff, the pensioner and Windsor knight.
It was also a time in which Englishness was being invented anew, as if for the first time. This included Windsor itself. In 1917, King George V changed the name of the English monarchy from its original German surname. It’s true: “The Merry Wives of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha” just doesn’t have the same ring.