For several months, I've been withholding final judgment on Merry Wives of Windsor. Although I've recently seen productions at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company and the Illinois Shakespeare Festival, I knew this season's production at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival had the best chance of making me finally like this play. (And why not? It worked for As You Like It last year.)
My devotion to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival isn't far from idolatry. So, I must clarify that there is absolutely nothing wrong with its Merry Wives production. The scenery is breath-taking, the costumes are perfect and the acting is superb (with a few minor exceptions). The production stars two of my favorite festival actors, Geraint Wyn Davies and Tom Rooney (who completely steals the show as Ford), and the production sticks close to the letter and spirit of Shakespeare's text.
Which is, actually, the problem. Shakespeare can be riotously funny -- as any good production of Comedy of Errors makes clear. But that comic genius never emerges in Merry Wives. Shakespeare can create memorable, lifelike characters, including the Falstaff of the Henry IV plays -- but those characters never come to life in Merry Wives, not even Falstaff himself. Shakespeare can provide striking and startling insights into human nature -- but he doesn't bother to do so in this play.
Now that I've seen the Stratford production, I can finally say this with confidence: I really don't like Merry Wives of Windsor. It is one of my least favorite plays in the Shakespeare canon (just barely ahead of Troilus and Cressida). If it disappeared forever, I wouldn't really mind.
The playbill for the Stratford production explains that the play is derided by scholars and readers but is a favorite of theater audiences. I've now seen the play three times in one year, and I'm not sure that statement is true. Even the best possible production -- and the Stratford production comes pretty close -- can't change my mind about this weak entry in the Shakespeare canon.
P.S. As a side note, I also saw the Stratford productions of Camelot and Jesus Christ Superstar this weekend, and they are both fantastic. Highly recommended.