A destitute, fat and old knight (who, by the way, also appears in Shakespeare’s historical plays such as Henry IV) – Sir John Falstaff be thy name – arrives in Windsor and hatches a scheme to woo a married woman so he can gain access to her husband’s fortune. Wait, why not kill two birds with one stone? Let’s seduce two married women, at the same time! The two women, who also happen to be friends/neighbors, are smart and prudent enough to see right through his smarmy letters and vow to have their revenge. Speaking of which, it seems the town of Windsor is full of people who must avenge themselves on someone for something. Falstaff’s servants have some grudge against him, so they seek to ruin his plot. The local parson and doctor want to get back to a tavern host because he prevented them from duelling each other (really, too much goodwill, sir!). And so on.Anyway, with all these vengeful souls going ’round, one would think The Merry Wives of Windsor would be anything but merry. But merry it is, indeed! The revenges are not the blood-thirsty kinds à la Hamlet. They are petty and humorous – and just, in case of the Mistresses Page and Ford (they are the two women Falstaff sets out to woo).
I did not ever expect to really enjoy a Shakespeare play just by reading it. Admire it, yes. Feel intimidated by it, maybe. Confused by it, heaps! But The Merry Wives of Windsor had me cackling away from the beginning. The funniest thing, for me, was all the mispronounced words – ‘abused, hacked, frittered English’ – by the ‘foreigners’, that is, the local parson Sir Hugh Evans and the French doctor Dr. Caius. Especially the latter’s exclamations “By gar!” got really hilarious! Then there’s Mistress Quickly, who looks after Dr. Caius, and she bungles the words so often and in so wrong a context! Slender, the nephew of the country justice of peace, is so dense that whatever comes out of his mouth is bound to have a comic effect on the reader. The two women’s revenge is risky and a great fun, and funnier still is Falstaff’s reaction to those revenges.
I read The Merry Wives in preparation for the FutureLearn course ‘Shakespeare and his World‘ starting on October 5th. I still have Henry V, The Merchant of Venice, Macbeth, Othello, Antony and Cleopatra and The Tempest to go through, so enjoying The Merry Wives as heartily as I did sets up a good precedent, I suppose!
My edition of the text contributed a good deal towards the merriment. It is the Penguin Shakespeare series and all of them has a short General Introduction and a longer Introduction about the specific play. The Introduction points out the main themes of the play, so if you’d rather not spoil yourself, better skip it. I understand the importance of a first impression free of any expectation but since I tend to take every written word so damningly seriously, it helps me to understand the general plot and characters before I read the play. This way, I know who’s being sarcastic, dumb or earnest. This edition also has an extensive commentary as a crutch to muddle through the Shakespearean language.
I will leave it to you to find out about the ‘merry, and yet honest’ wives and their revenge! (Note: ‘honest’ here means ‘chaste’.)