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Falstaff’s Fall: An Introduction to The Merry Wives of Windsor

by Jay Rogoff
Board President & Dramaturg, Saratoga Shakespeare Company
[Adapted from a talk given at Saratoga Springs Public Library, July 8, 2013]

The Merry Wives of Windsor is unique among Shakespeare’s comedies for several reasons. First of all, it’s the only one of his comedies set in England. As you probably know, Shakespeare located most of his other comedies in exotic places: Greece, France, Italy, Illyria, even a seacoast in Bohemia, a landlocked country that we know today as the Czech Republic. But for a variety of reasons, some of which we can only speculate about, he decided to set Merry Wives near home, just a few miles outside of London. For that reason we’ve also decided to set the play near our home, in 1930s Saratoga, as part of our participation in the Saratoga 150 celebration. The Thirties setting allows our costume designer, Brittney Belz, to create some smashing outfits for our two merry wives and the rest of the cast, and it lets our actors, under David Girard’s direction—David was our Malvolio in last year’s Twelfth Night, and he now brings his directing talents to Saratoga Shakespeare—it lets our actors bring to Shakespeare’s text what I know will be some entertaining ideas from the great film comedies of the period.

It’s not certain why Shakespeare set the play in Windsor, but we know for certain that Merry Wives was performed before Queen Elizabeth, possibly as part of the festivities celebrating the installation of new members of the Order of the Garter on April 23, 1597—April 23 being St. George’s Day, celebrating England’s patron saint, and, by tradition, Shakespeare’s birthday. That’s most likely the reason that some of the play’s action takes place at the Garter Inn. We don’t know if the play would have been new at that point, or if it had had a commercial run by Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. But today many scholars therefore think Merry Wives dates from about 1596-97, though others hold to an older view that it might be as late as 1600 or 1601.

Unlike most other Shakespeare plays, Merry Wives comes with a little origin myth, but it’s an unreliable one. Over a hundred years after its first performances, two English writers claimed that Shakespeare wrote the play at the command of Queen Elizabeth, who wanted to see his great comic character, Falstaff, in love.

This brings us to the second unique quality of Merry Wives: it’s the only one of Shakespeare’s plays that imports characters from another genre, in this case the history play. Falstaff is a fat, cowardly knight, a thief, a rough-swearing, hard-drinking man of insatiable appetites, and a close friend of Prince Hal, the future Henry V, in Henry IV, Parts One and Two, a dramatized account of true events, King Henry’s defeat of rebellions against his throne, which he had seized from Richard II in 1399. The dissolute behavior of Henry’s son Hal, the Prince of Wales—drinking, whoring, picking purses, and hanging around with bad company like Falstaff—leads Henry to despair over England’s future. But Hal transcends the corrupting influence of Falstaff, one of Shakespeare’s greatest comic creations, to help lead England to victory in two civil wars, and in Henry V he conquers the French at Agincourt. Falstaff, meanwhile, with England’s future at stake in civil war, betrays his trust as a recruiting officer by taking bribes to release his conscripts; he displays his incompetence as a military leader, getting all his men killed except himself and pulling out a bottle of liquor when the prince needs a weapon to defend himself; and he rationalizes his cowardice on the battlefield with the speech that includes the famous line, “The better part of honor is discretion,” while absurdly bragging that he has killed Harry Hotspur Percy, the leader of the rebel forces, whom Prince Hal has actually defeated. Yet Falstaff, immoral as he is, is so full of the love of live and good living that he makes us rethink our priorities, especially since the future king allows him a task of honor, bearing off Hotspur’s body at the end of the first Henry IV play.

Falstaff seems to have been enormously popular—after all, Shakespeare soon wrote Henry IV, Part Two—and we can’t blame the playwright for wanting to extend the franchise by introducing the fat rogue into a comedy. Not only Falstaff but several other characters from the Henry IV plays crop up suddenly in Windsor, magically transported from the early fifteenth century to the late sixteenth—for Merry Wives, despite the chronological disruption of Falstaff’s presence, takes place in Shakespeare’s time.

One frequent complaint about Merry Wives, though, is that the Falstaff in this comedy becomes a pale imitation of the Falstaff in the history plays. That Falstaff is such a colossally talented liar that even when he is caught in a falsehood, he has the rhetorical skill to turn the situation to his advantage. In addition, the Henry IV plays give us intense psychological insight into this scoundrel, a fat old man desperately trying to recover his youth and fend off death by spending his time with younger companions and building futile hopes for reward on the shaky ground of his friendship with the future king.

But Falstaff’s function in Merry Wives is quite different. He doesn’t provide comic relief or serious political satire, as he does in the history plays, whose concerns are politics, civil war, and kingship—although early in Merry Wives there are traces of that mock-heroic version of Falstaff. Justice Shallow, an elderly country magistrate, accuses him of acts like some of those he commits in the Henry IV plays: “Knight, you have beaten my men, stolen my horse, and broke open my lodge.” And the Host of the Garter Inn (the Hostess in Saratoga Shakespeare’s production) addresses him with epithets celebrating him as the great warrior he falsely claims to be: “Bully Hercules! Bully Hector!”

But Merry Wives is a farce, not a history, and its most serious material is the stock material of comedy: a young woman, Anne Page, hopes to marry someone she loves, rather than the suitors her parents have picked for her, and a wife, Mistress Ford, hopes to cure her husband of his obsessive jealousy. In such a world, a rural town just a few yards from Queen Elizabeth’s royal palace, Falstaff’s ­main activity involves a series of attempts to seduce two virtuous Windsor wives in order to get his hands on their husbands’ money, and part of the fun of the play is watching Falstaff attempt to conquer these intelligent women with tricks that even a child would see through.

From the beginning, Falstaff makes his aims clear:

FALSTAFF: Briefly, I do mean to make love to Ford’s wife. I spy entertainment in her – she discourses, she’s welcoming, she gives the leer of invitation. All says “I am Sir John Falstaff’s.” Now, the report goes she has the rule of her husband’s purse. . . .

I have writ me here a letter to her, and here another to Page’s wife, who even now gave me good glances too, and examined my parts. Sometimes the beam of her view gilded my foot, sometimes my portly belly. . . .

O, she did so gaze o’er my exteriors with such a greedy intention, that the appetite of her eye did seem to scorch me like a burning-glass! She bears her husband’s purse too. I will be cheater to them both. They shall be my East and West Indies, and I will trade to them both. Go bear thou this letter to Mistress Page, and thou this to Mistress Ford. We will thrive, lads, we will thrive.  (Act 1, Scene 3; all quotations are from Saratoga Shakespeare’s edit of the play.)

He refers to the women not as love objects but as the sites for financial transactions (“I will trade to them both”), and it’s rather pathetic that he can’t even admire them as romantic objects. What makes this passage especially funny, though, is that at a time when Shakespeare was likely still working on his sonnets, with their ingenious praise and anti-praise of their love objects, he has Falstaff’s highest sexual compliments & his most high-flown love rhetoric come not when he’s describing his desire for Mistress Ford or Mistress Page, but in his account of their desire for him. It’s a grotesquely funny example of his self-adoration.

In his love letter to Mistress Page, Falstaff’s rhetorical strategies, which are so brilliant in the Henry IV plays, seem to have abandoned him:

MISTRESS PAGE: What, have I scaped love-letters in the holiday-time of my beauty, and am I now a subject for them? Let me see.

 [Reads]‘Ask me no reason why I love you. You are not young, no more am I. Go to then, there’s sympathy – you are merry, so am I, ha, ha! Then there’s more sympathy – you love sack, and so do I. Would you desire better sympathy? Let it suffice thee, Mistress Page – at the least, if the love of soldier can suffice – that I love thee. I will not say, pity me – ’tis not a soldier-like phrase, but I say, love me.

By me, Thine own true knight, by day or night,

Or any kind of light, with all his might

For thee to fight.  Yours, JOHN FALSTAFF.’

O wicked, wicked world! One that is well-nigh worn to pieces with age to show himself a young gallant! What behavior hath this drunkard picked out of my conversation, that he dares in this manner assay me? Why, he hath not been thrice in my company! What should I say to him? I was then frugal of my mirth. Heaven forgive me! Why, I’ll introduce a law for the putting down of men. How shall I be revenged on him? For revenged I will be, as sure as his guts are made of puddings.  (Act 2, Scene 1)

While we’ve seen how monstrously flattering he can be towards himself, he attempts his seduction by singling out a woman’s least flattering traits: she’s growing old, as he is, and he claims she loves to drink, as he does. To make matters worse, he has written Mistress Page’s good friend, Mistress Ford, the identical letter, as if—as Mistress Page speculates—“he hath a thousand of these letters, writ with blank space for different names”—in other words, as if it were a form letter. These intelligent women—and the most intelligent characters in Shakespeare’s comedies are often his women—aren’t taken in one inch by Falstaff’s designs, calling him at one point an “unwholesome, gross watery pumpkin.”

Shakespeare integrates Falstaff’s incompetence as an adulterous wooer with his cowardice. Mistress Ford arranges a tryst with Falstaff at her house, and she makes sure Mistress Page will arrive, followed soon after by the jealous Master Ford. The women hide Falstaff in a basket of filthy laundry, then instruct Mistress Ford’s servants to dump the basket in the Thames. Later, amazingly undeterred, Falstaff returns for a second attempt, and the women disguise him in a woman’s gown when Ford suddenly comes home. Ford takes Falstaff for the fat woman of Brainford (in our version the fat woman of Ballston!) and beats him black & blue.

Falstaff’s defeats offer him the opportunity for mock-tragic self-pity in which he exposes another side of his pride, oddly mingled with self-satire:

FALSTAFF: Have I lived to be carried in a basket like a barrow of butcher’s offal, and to be thrown in the Thames? The rogues slighted me in with as little remorse as they would have drowned a blind bitch’s puppies – and you may know by my size that I have a kind of alacrity in sinking; if the bottom were as deep as hell, I should down. I had been drowned, but that the shore was shallow – a death that I abhor; for the water swells a man. And what a thing should I have been if I had been swelled! I should have been a mountain of mummy!  (Act 3, Scene 5)

 Amazingly, his first two adventures leave him undeterred. This is a Falstaff who doesn’t know when to cut his losses, giving him a kind of stupidity he rarely exhibits in the Henry IV plays—although the Henry plays also show him constantly pushing his luck to the extreme.

But if Falstaff in love, as the queen supposedly requested, not only looks more like Falstaff in lust, but also comes off as ridiculous and readily fooled, we might consider the foolish things that happen to all of us when sex and greed overtake our reason. Falstaff himself has doubts about his abilities to follow through on the conquests he hopes for: he asks himself, “Sayest thou so, old Jack? Will thy old body yet hold out?” and we are reminded of how his name can be read as a pun about sexual impotence.

We should also think about how well Falstaff’s behavior fits in a play where a young woman ready for marriage is viewed by her family and her society not as a potential romantic partner, but as a commodity. For although it takes up much of the play, the Falstaff plot, in which the two merry wives get revenge on him for assailing their virtue—as Mistress Ford says, “Wives may be merry but honest, too”—is really the subplot of  Shakespeare’s play. As in most of his comedies, he has put a true love plot at the center of Merry Wives, the wooing of Mistress Page’s daughter, Anne.

At this time in his career, the late 1590s, Shakespeare continually experimented with the balance of power between his main plots and his subplots. In The Merchant of Venice, which Saratoga Shakespeare produced two years ago, the Shylock-pound-of-flesh subplot looms so large that it threatens to overpower the love plot between Bassanio and Portia. And with Twelfth Night, our production last year, audiences tend to remember the practical jokes played on Malvolio more than the love triangle of Viola, Olivia, and Orsino.

The main plot/subplot balance often involves contrasts in Shakespeare’s language. You may have noticed that for the examples we have looked at so far, Shakespeare does not use his usual dramatic medium, blank verse—unrhymed iambic pentameter—but prose. The vast majority of Merry Wives is in prose, about 87%, much more than any other Shakespeare play. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that Shakespeare is coasting here. In this period, the late 1590s, Shakespeare is experimenting intensively with mixtures of prose and poetry, and the contrast in texture that mixture creates bore fruit in some of his greatest characters—especially Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, and Falstaff, both of whom speak almost entirely in prose. And much of the brightest dialogue of Shakespeare’s so-called “sunny comedies,” Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night, including many of the lovers’ exchanges, are also in prose—well over half of each of those plays, in fact. So while we think of prose as indicating a class division between “higher” and “lower” characters, Shakespeare in fact was attempting new things with this more realistic medium. In Merry Wives, much of Shakespeare’s blank verse is reserved for the love exchanges between Anne Page and Fenton, the young gentleman she loves. While their verse separates them from the prosaic world that surrounds them, their dialogue is less romantic in mood than a means of solving the practical problem of marrying when they don’t have the Pages’ permission:

FENTON: Tell me sweet Anne, how dost thou yet resolve,
Shall foolish Slender have thee to his wife?
Or one as wise as he the learned Doctor?
Thou knowest that I have always loved thee dear,
And thou, hast oft times swore the like to me.

ANNE PAGE: Good Master Fenton, you may assure yourself
My heart is settled upon none but you.
’Tis as my father and mother please:
Get their consent, you quickly shall have mine.

FENTON: I see I cannot get thy father’s love;
Therefore no more turn me to him, sweet Nan.

ANNE PAGE: Alas, how then?

FENTON:              Why, thou must choose thyself.
He doth object I am too great of birth,
And that my state being galled by my expense,
I seek to heal it only by his wealth.

ANNE PAGE: May be he tells you true.

FENTON:                  By heaven, no!
Albeit I will confess thy father’s wealth
Was the first motive that I wooed thee, Anne.
Yet, wooing thee, I found thee of more value
Than stamps in gold, or sums in sealèd bags;
And ’tis the very riches of thyself
That now I aim at.  (Act 3, Scene 4)


Their exchange highlights another of Merry Wives’ preoccupations, that of money and social class, although as we’ll see, Shakespeare does his best to pave those tensions over. The late 1590s were a time of unprecedented prosperity in Queen Elizabeth’s England. The English fleet had defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588, making England Europe’s premier military power, and opening up new opportunities in trade that fueled the rise of the middle class in English society, and their economic power began to rival the hereditary power of the nobility and the landed gentry. As bourgeois merchants and tradesmen grew wealthy, some of them began to buy up land from members of the upper-class—the land-rich but cash-poor gentry who needed to sacrifice their centuries-old estates in order to survive in a world that increasingly depended on money.

Since this class conflict between the old aristocracy and the nouveau riche was highly topical in London, playwrights began to explore it in their work. A couple of years after Merry Wives, Thomas Dekker wrote a play called The Shoemaker’s Holiday, in which an impoverished gentleman disguises himself to become a journeyman working for a shoemaker, in order to earn enough money to marry the middle-class woman he loves and overcome their parents’ objections. Dekker’s play is festive and genial. The master shoemaker is a good-hearted employer who treats all his journeymen and apprentices generously, and the play offers a vision of upper and middle classes being able to live together in harmony—in fact, when it was published it bore the subtitle A Pleasant Comedy of the Gentle Craft, a happy joining of the gentry with the craftsmen who work for a living. After 1600, however, this harmonious vision would change, and satiric comedies about life in the City of London—the home of the middle class merchants and craftsmen—began to depict the new middle class as both greedy and uppity, aspiring to a social position they didn’t deserve because it was based not on blood but on money.

We see hints of that in Merry Wives in the Pages’ marital hopes for their daughter Anne. Master Page wants Anne to marry Slender, who quickly reveals himself to be an idiot—his name stands for the slenderness of his intellect. When Anne asks him, “Master Slender, what would you with me?” expecting his unwelcome marriage proposal, he replies, “Truly, I would little or nothing with you. Your father and my uncle hath made motions, they can tell better than I can.” Page’s interest in Slender stems exclusively from his being a gentleman who would boost the family’s social position, but as Shakespeare shows, hereditary social standing also brings the possibility of hereditary imbecility rather than merit. Anne’s mother, Mistress Page, in contrast, has her eye on increasing the family’s wealth. She wants Anne to marry Dr. Caius, a French physician, because he is rich, even though he is a cranky, cantankerous man who comically mangles the English language every time he opens his mouth. One of the play’s oddities is that the Pages’ marital aspirations seem inconsistent with their character, since otherwise they seem loving parents with generous hearts and loads of common sense.

Fenton candidly confesses to Anne that he initially showed interest in her because of “thy father’s wealth,” but in getting to know her has found her “of more value / Than stamps in gold, or sums in sealèd gold,” and now seeks only “the very riches of thyself.” He’s rather a stock character, but we believe him because Anne reciprocates her love—her “heart is settled upon none but you,” and as in many other farces, they find a clever way to trick both their parents and wind up married to each other. Anne, then, makes a match that improves her social standing, as her father wishes, but only by way of finding true love.

We should also remember that Falstaff—though it seems hardly believable—is SIR John Falstaff, a gentleman, a knight, so in the light of all these class dealings his interactions with middle-class husbands and wives become significant. When English satiric comedy started getting nasty after 1600, a typical plot involved a handsome young moneyless gentleman whose lands had been bought up by newly rich members of the middle class; these gentlemen would take their revenge upon the play’s tradesmen and merchants by seducing their wives, whose new aristocratic beaus, in another dig at the middle class, satisfy them much more than their husbands.

Shakespeare presents Falstaff as a gentleman hard up for cash because of his riotous living, who aims to prey on the pocketbooks of members of the middle class by preying first on their wives. He foolishly thinks the wives will be easy pickings, and he expresses a gentleman’s contempt for the bourgeoisie, at one point calling them “peasants.” In a strange little subplot, Master Ford, obsessed with his wife’s virtue, disguises himself as a man named Brook and gives Falstaff money to attempt to seduce Mistress Ford in order to test her, explaining to Falstaff that he, Brook, is in love with Mistress Ford, and if Falstaff succeeds in seducing her, he knows that he will likely be able to have her love as well:

FORD: I would you knew Ford, sir, that you might avoid him if you saw him.

FALSTAFF: Hang him! I will stare him out of his wits. I will awe him with my cudgel – it shall hang o’er the cuckold’s horns. Master Brook, thou shalt know I predominate over the peasant, and thou shalt lie with his wife. Come to me soon. Thou, Master Brook, shalt know Ford for knave and cuckold. Come to me soon.  (Act 2, Scene 2)

But there are two important differences between Shakespeare’s plot and those that would come later in the Jacobean City comedies. First of all, Mistresses Ford and Page are extremely clever women who are neither impressed by Falstaff’s knighthood nor fooled by his absurd means of seduction, and they are determined to maintain their fidelity to their husbands, even an extremely jealous husband like Master Ford. In this way, Shakespeare doesn’t satirize the middle class but sees in them important moral virtues that parallel the hard work that has gotten them their social position. Second, the spirit of Shakespeare’s play and its ending is not one of class warfare but of celebration and reconciliation. Falstaff is once more tricked into meeting the wives after midnight at Herne’s Oak, where a bunch of children dressed as fairies attack him, making him believe himself bewitched. Afterwards, he recognizes that he has been outwitted, and he has an exchange with the parson, Sir Hugh Evans, and with Master Ford:

SIR HUGH EVANS: Sir John Falstaff, leave your lusty desires, and fairies will not pinch you.

FORD: Well said, fairy Hugh.

SIR HUGH EVANS: And leave your jealousies too, I pray you.

FORD: I will never mistrust my wife again.

FALSTAFF: Have I laid my brain in the sun, that I could not prevent so gross o’erreaching as this?  (Act 5, Scene 5)

 It’s curious that Falstaff talks about “gross o’erreaching,” since as a gentleman he ranks higher than the wives who get the better of him. What he understands here is that he has “overreached” in intelligence and virtue—that Mistress Page and Mistress Ford are smarter and more honest than he, and those qualities have allowed them to triumph. By the end of the play, Shakespeare has created a kind of meritocracy where those who truly deserve because of their feelings and their honest efforts are the ones who get rewarded. Although he is an impoverished gentleman who the Pages believe are after Anne for her money, Fenton is a good-hearted, honest man who deserves Anne’s love. And although they are simply middle class wives, not Falstaff’s equal in rank, Mistress Ford and Mistress Page deserve their happy triumph over him because of their cleverness, their devotion to each other, and their fidelity to their husbands. It takes Shakespeare’s largeness of imagination to demonstrate that marriage offers a situation in which the greatest happiness can arise through your fidelity to your spouse, and such middle-class family values offer great hope for Anne Page’s future with Fenton.

While we know that the Pages and the Fords are middle-class families, we never learn what Page and Ford do for a living—Shakespeare never shows them at work, unlike, say, Dekker in The Shoemakers’ Holiday, where half the play takes place in the shoemaker’s shop. I think Shakespeare deliberately shoves their bourgeois occupations into the background in order to emphasize merit in the play, which ends with everyone, including Falstaff and Anne’s two unsuccessful suitors, Slender and Dr. Caius, invited to celebrate Anne and Fenton’s wedding at the Pages’. The ending suggests that middle-class moneyed families can display generosity and inclusiveness of spirit, and that a celebration of society can include members of all its ranks. It’s Shakespeare’s festive comic vision, of a world working harmoniously, where the important values aren’t money or family or bloodlines, but intelligence, wit, the ability to laugh at oneself, and the willingness to let true love stand forth and be our guide.

Copyright © 2013 by Jay Rogoff