The original title of this delightful comedy was Sir John Falstaff and the Merry Wives of Windsor. This is hugely significant because the play is largely a vehicle or an excuse for the lampooning of the character of Falstaff, who had made his first appearance in Henry IV, Part 1. In that play, Falstaff’s character had originally been named Sir John Oldcastle. Oldcastle had been one of the leaders of the Lollards, a proto-Protestant sect instituted by John Wyclif.
Sir John Oldcastle led a failed rebellion in 1417 to overthrow the king and was subsequently hanged. He was later immortalized as a Protestant martyr in John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, published in 1563. It is, therefore, hardly surprising that Shakespeare’s depiction of Oldcastle as a disreputable drunk and coward should outrage the Protestants of his time. Bowing to pressure, the character’s name was changed to Sir John Falstaff, although Shakespeare has Prince Hal refer to him as “my old lad of the castle,” keeping the provocative connection alive, albeit only allusively.
In Henry IV, Part 2, Prince Hal’s conversion and rite of passage from dissolute youth to the fullness of responsible kingship, following his accession to the throne as Henry V, is made manifest in his professed rejection of Falstaff and his degenerate lifestyle. “I know thee not old man,” he tells him. “Fall to thy prayers.”
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This brief character portrait of Sir John Falstaff serves as the background and the curtain-raiser to The Merry Wives of Windsor, which was written, so it is said, following Queen Elizabeth’s desire for a comedy which would show “Falstaff in love.”
Apart from Falstaff, whose incorrigible vanity serves as the humorous inspiration and dramatic driving force for the comedy, the principal characters are Master and Mistress Page; their friends Master and Mistress Ford; Anne Page, the Pages’ daughter, a virtuous maiden; and the three suitors to Mistress Page: Slender, Dr. Caius, and Master Fenton.
Falstaff, blinded by his vanity, sends love letters to Mistress Page and Mistress Ford in the conceited belief that they are attracted to him. His primary motivation is not lustful but purely mercenary. He is short of the funds necessary to continue his drunken, debauched lifestyle and believes that these married ladies will keep him in the lap of luxury in return for his amorous favors. Upon receipt of the letters, the two “merry wives” decide to have fun at Falstaff’s expense, feigning their love for him and their willingness to cuckold their husbands at his adulterous behest. Throughout the remainder of the play, Falstaff is made to look increasingly absurd and ridiculous, falling into folly after folly, outwitted by the wives and by his own self-conceited blindness.
A humorous subplot is provided by the jealousy of Master Ford, who is too ready to believe the worst of his wife, prefiguring in comic form the tragic and destructive jealousy of Othello.
Paralleling the “love” of Falstaff is the love of the three suitors to Mistress Page, two of whom are unworthy of her hand in marriage and whose advances are clearly unwanted. One of these two unworthy suitors, Master Slender, is in league with his cousin, Justice Shallow. Several scholars have shown convincingly that Justice Shallow and Master Slender are thinly veiled caricatures of Justice William Gardiner and his stepson William Wayte, with whom Shakespeare had crossed swords in court in 1596, only a few months before his writing of The Merry Wives of Windsor, which was probably written early in 1597. Justice Gardiner was evidently a disreputable character “who defrauded his wife’s family, his son-in-law and his stepson, oppressed his neighbors and fleeced his tenants” (Mutschmann and Wentersdorf, Shakespeare and Catholicism).
Wayte was equally disreputable, being described as “a certain loose person of no reckoning or value, being wholly under the rule and commandment of the said Gardiner” (Hotson, Shakespeare Versus Shallow), reflecting Slender’s relationship to Justice Shallow in Shakespeare’s play. In 1596, Wayte had petitioned the court, probably at Gardiner’s behest, craving “sureties of the peace against William Shakespeare” and others. Whereas Shakespeare’s co-defendants in this court case included known Catholic recusants, Justice Gardiner was “one of the extreme Puritans” who had boasted in a report in 1585 of a raid on a Catholic home in which “papist” books, pictures, and a crucifix were discovered and confiscated. Such a man was Shakespeare’s enemy and, so it seems, Shakespeare had “staged” his revenge by parodying him as Justice Shallow in his comedy.
The third suitor to Mistress Page, and the one who ultimately wins her hand in marriage, is Master Fenton, a reformed prodigal whose conversion to a life of virtue parallels the conversion of Prince Hal in Henry IV, Part 1 and also serves as a counterpoint and foil to Falstaff’s viciousness. Whereas the virtuous suitor wins the hand of his beloved, the vicious suitor is left empty-handed and becomes the object of public ridicule. Master Fenton, the reformed and repentant sinner, is, therefore, the mirror of whom Sir John Falstaff ought to be.
Editor’s Note: This is the thirteenth in an ongoing series of articles explaining the great works of literature “in a nutshell.”
[Image: Falstaff Wooing Mistress Ford by John Masey Wright]