Sunday, September 12, 2010

Discussion: The Merry Wives of Windsor

The play: The Merry Wives of Windsor

The plot tweet: Falstaff woos two women to get at their money -- but quickly becomes the fool in his own game. The Bard at his weakest and most commercial.

My favorite line:
Ford: I think, if your husbands were dead, you two would marry.
Mistress Page: Be sure of that -- two other husbands.


Let's start today's discussion of The Merry Wives of Windsor, which should be Falstaff's triumphant moment in the spotlight, with the words of renowned Shakespeare critic A.C. Bradley:
[Falstaff is] baffled, duped, treated like dirty linen, beaten, burnt, pricked, mocked, insulted, and, worst of all, repentant and didactic. It is horrible.
The tradition is that Shakespeare wrote Merry Wives at the command of Queen Elizabeth, who had seen at least Henry IV, Part I and wanted to see Falstaff "in love." Shakespeare didn't take the command very seriously, as Falstaff's romantic attachments in this play are merely mercenary, and we have a sense that he didn't enjoy his assignment. His witty wordplay and beautiful poetry are almost entirely absent from this -- dare I say it -- pedestrian comedy of small-town life.

Shakespeare didn't put his whole heart into this play, and thus he didn't give us the real Falstaff. Bloom writes, "the hero-villain of The Merry Wives of Windsor is a nameless impostor masquerading as the great Sir John Falstaff." The same could be said for this play. One wishes we could remove this piece of fluff from the Shakespeare canon and assign it to some lesser playwright.

Oddly enough, the most engaging character in this play isn't Falstaff at all. For me, it's Ford/Brooke, who suspects his wife of infidelity but eventually joins her plot to shame Falstaff. I saw this play recently at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival, and Ford/Brooke got more laughs than every other character combined.

As a side note, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival is presenting Merry Wives as one of its headline shows next season, in its largest theater. I assume the director has something special planned, but this still seems to be a very strange decision. We'll see.

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