The Merry Wives of Windsor: Play Date and Source
Tradition has it that The Merry Wives of Windsor was written at the request of Queen Elizabeth I. After watching Henry IV Part I she asked Shakespeare to write a play showing Falstaff in love. But it seems likely that this is not true, as the sources for the story are unreliable.
It is possible that the play was commissioned for a celebration on 23 April 1597, although it is equally likely that a masque performed at the celebration was later incorporated into the play. This would date the composition to around the same period as Henry IV Part II, which seems likely.
The play was first published in a ‘bad’ quarto in 1602, the frontispiece of which suggested that the play had already been regularly performed, and more than once before the Queen. It was first published in an authoritative version in the First Folio in 1623.
The Merry Wives of Windsor is largely original and appears to have no major source, although various aspects of the story, such as the surprised wife and cuckolded husband and the playing of tricks on a prospective suitor, were familiar in literature.
The play is notably original in other ways, being one of the first in the English language to celebrate characters drawn from the middle classes, and also to feature women as the prime movers of the comedy.
It has been suggested that Shakespeare drew on people he knew from Stratford-upon-Avon and Windsor as inspiration, and that certain of the play’s settings, such as the Garter Inn and Winsor Park were genuine.
Image: The Merry Wives of Windsor title page, from First Folio, 1623. Reproduced with permission of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.
(Source: The Royal Shakespeare Company, 2013)