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Merry Wives… Brief Background and History

Merry Wives… Brief Background and History

The Merry Wives of Windsor was entered in the Stationers’ Register on January 18, 1602, and was printed in the same year with the title A Most pleasaunt and exellent conceited Comedie, of Syr John Flalstaffe, and the merrie Wives of Windsor…As it hath bene divers time Acted by the right Honorable my Lord Chamberlaines servants.  Both before her Majestie, and else-where.

The Merry Wives exists in two quite different versions: the Q (quarto) version of 1602, reprinted in 1619, and the F (folio) version of 1623. The progress of the plot is essentially the same in both versions, but the lengths are notably different: 1,624 lines in Q as opposed to 3,018 lines in F. It is generally agreed that the folio version is the more complete and authentic one.  Accounting for the difference between Q and F there cold be three possible causes: 1) The garbling, by a reporter, of the play as actually performed on the stage; 2) the cutting and possible rewriting of the text for acting purposes by a stage adapter; and 3) the working over, by an authorized reviser, of the original text (the quarto) and the production of a new version (the folio text).

Almost all modern critics have fixed the play between 1596 and 1601. All efforts to place the date in 1596-97 relate to the legend that Shakespeare wrote the play at the command of Queen Elizabeth.  The legend is of doubtful authenticity, starting, it seems, when John Dennis in 1702 claimed knowledge that the play was written at the request of Queen Elizabeth who ‘commanded it to be finished in fourteen days’. Nicholas Rowe in 1709 embellished the tradition by saying that the Queen asked to see Falstaff ‘in love’;

She was so well pleas’d with that admirable Character of Falstaff, in the two Parts of Henry the Fourth, that she commanded him to continue it for one Play more, and to shew him in Love. This is said to be the Occasion of his Writing The Merry Wives of Windsor. How well she was obey’d the Play it self is an admirable Proof.

 The overwhelming majority of scholars have accepted the story, probably because it so neatly accounts for the startling change in the circumstance of Falstaff, the presence of the characters from the histories in what otherwise seems a contemporary domestic comedy, and for the signs of haste throughout the play.

William Green argues that the play was composed for the annual celebration of the Feast of Saint George, April 23, 1597. This feast was a key ceremonial of the Order of the Garter the year in which George Carey, patron of Shakespeare’s company, a favorite of Queen Elizabeth, and the new Lord Chamberlain, was initiated into the order.  Certainly the play’s many references to the Order of the Garter would have been appreciated by such an audience.

This is the most English of Shakespeare’s comedies.  No explicit source for the play has been found.  The scene where Falstaff hides in a basket of soiled linen could derive from a common motif in Italian stories. Herne the Hunter is a character from English folklore.  The outwitting of the would-be lover is an ancient literary convention exemplified in many French fabliaux, in Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale, and late in numerous popular