[Between 2006 and 2016 I wrote a number of short articles for the magazine of Shakespeare’s Globe in London, Around the Globe; I’ve begun to deposit them on this blog under the category ‘Globe Essays’. This is the second, on a play I left out of my book, Shakespeare and Comedy, because there wasn’t room to include it].
‘Cry God for Falstaff, England and Saint George!’ For one scene only, in 2 Henry IV, we are given a glimpse of an England where Falstaff, not Harry, is king: a land engendered by the sheer force of the fat knight’s imagination. Throughout the play Falstaff’s disease-ridden body, grown cold with age and huge with self-indulgence, paradoxically generates wholesome hilarity, the healthiest of moods, which spreads from him like a benign virus until it erupts, near the end, in the cheeriest party in theatrical history. The party takes place on the eve of Harry’s coronation, and in it a man called Silence bursts into song; a servant is commended for being a good ‘husband’ to his master; Falstaff’s seedy follower Bardolph speaks like a monarch; a young page finds himself entertained by a judge with the same gusto as his elderly employer; and the company in general is urged to ‘Lack nothing’, to slough off their years of penury and feast instead on the fruits of Justice Shallow’s orchard. And the party ends with a promise that this genial mood will soon extend itself throughout the kingdom. When Falstaff hears of the old king’s death he declares ‘the laws of England are at my commandment’; his comrade Pistol salutes a happy future (‘welcome these pleasant days’); and for a few seconds we dare hope that this ragtag of ne’er-do-wells may be granted some small fragment of their wishes, if no more than a pittance with which to fund their ongoing revelry. Instead, Falstaff is discarded by his former protégé, the new-crowned monarch, and slinks off to die of disappointment. Few audiences have found it in their hearts to forgive Henry V for his dismissal, even when their heads insist that it’s in the best interests of the English economy.
But legend has it that another monarch – Elizabeth I – compensated for Henry’s bad sportsmanship by insisting that Falstaff be granted an imaginative kingdom of his own: a play in which he falls in love, thus confirming the physical fruitfulness of his laughter-engendering body. No-one knows if she really made this request, but if she did, Shakespeare did not quite comply with it. Falstaff could never truly be in love, except perhaps with Harry or Hal and the possibilities he represented; and an England, or rather a play, that was dominated by this monstrously self-centred anarchist would quickly collapse into nightmare. Nevertheless, The Merry Wives of Windsor makes concrete the merry England that is hinted at in Justice Shallow’s orchard; and it renders that fictional construct both stable and convincing by plucking it out of the hands of the aristocracy and gentry – the classes to which Falstaff and Shallow belong – and placing it firmly in the hands of the middle classes, to which Shakespeare belonged himself.
In doing so, Shakespeare lifts England out of the nightmare of history to which his plays had so far consigned it. Apart from the History Plays, The Merry Wives is the only play he set in his own country, and it’s firmly linked with the two parts of Henry IV both by the presence of Falstaff and by the fact that the impoverished gentleman Fenton once drank ‘with the wild Prince and Poins’. But Fenton’s link with the cast-list of the English chronicles – the Prince of Wales and his aristocratic companions – merely disqualifies him as a suitable match for a nicely-brought-up middle-class girl in the eyes of her parents. Throughout the Second Tetralogy the middle classes carefully exempted themselves from the epic narrative of the nation, paying their way out of military service and thus avoiding the slaughters and betrayals that bedeviled the ruling classes; and in The Merry Wives they firmly decline to be dragged back into those events by an ill-considered union. The events of ruling-class history are not just irrelevant to these people’s lives but obnoxious to them. Instead this play narrates the histories of ordinary men and women, history as it’s purveyed in the Tudor jest-books, whose so-called ‘merry tales’ full of pranks and japes are mimicked in the farcical situations with which it is filled: situations based, as nowhere else in Shakespeare’s works, on a mutual trust that never for a moment seems in any danger of breaking down.
The titular merry wives occupy an egalitarian rural space in which nearly everyone can participate with equal enthusiasm in plots to make, break, prevent or procure each other’s marriages. It’s a space where women rule the roost, hatching stratagems designed to show, as Mistress Page insists, that ‘Wives may be merry and yet honest too’, in contrast to the dishonest merriment of hereditary knights like Sir John. And it’s a space where jests do no harm, as all the characters repeatedly assure us. The Host’s deception of the physician, Doctor Caius, and Hugh Evans the parson, is devised not to hurt them but to prevent them from damaging each other in a duel. The wives’ deception of Falstaff aims to prevent him from hurting their husbands by committing adultery. Fenton’s tricking of Anne Page’s parents proves that he has laid aside his aristocratic wildness and committed himself to the stability of middle-class matrimony. As Parson Evans puts it, the play is driven by ‘fery honest knaveries’, and Master Page piously confirms this view: ‘God prosper our sport’. Moral disapproval of this sport – of the kind expressed by the Elizabethan anti-theatrical lobby – is as irrelevant here as the iron hand of the law, or civil war, or bloody revenge. And so rigorously are these oppressive considerations excluded from the action that it would be fair to describe The Merry Wives as Shakespeare’s only ‘pure’ comedy, the one play in his oeuvre that is unshadowed by the threat of death or the intimidating presence of rulers.
The egalitarianism of the play manifests itself in the fact that nearly everyone in it has at least one prank played upon them. Falstaff is tricked more often than anyone else, of course, and subjected to more painful physical abuse: half-drowned in a ditch, beaten in women’s clothes, pinched black and blue by children disguised as fairies. But he is never isolated in his comic sufferings, as he was in Henry IV; his humiliation is shared by. the bulk of the Windsor community. Master Ford, Master and Mistress Page, Slender, Sallow, Doctor Caius, the Host of the Garter Inn and Parson Evans, are all conned as comprehensively as he is, and he himself notes the multiplicity of quarries there are for the play’s pranksters: ‘When night-dogs run, all sorts of deer are chased’. So if in this play Falstaff is toppled from the position of comic pre-eminence he enjoyed in Henry IV, his former absolute monarchy of wit is supplanted by a commonwealth of merriment, the model for a new anti-authoritarian England. In place of the crown of power and influence he hoped for in the ‘Henriad’, the fat knight is tricked into accepting a crown made of the antlers of a Windsor stag, ‘the fattest, I think, i’the forest’. And while the stag is the most lordly of English beasts, it’s also the chief ingredient of the ‘hot venison pasty’ Master Page serves to his guests in the first scene of the play, in token of perpetual amity. between them. In other words, Falstaff here becomes a wholly wholesome dish, his predatory sexual desires transmuted into a harmless fairy-tale, his bulk made the centre of an inclusive social circle. He is defused, in other words, but not deflated, and this cheerful metamorphosis is completed at the end of the final scene when Mistress Page invites him to ‘laugh his sport o’er by a country fire’ and enjoy, with his friends, ‘many, many merry days’.
In The Merry Wives merriness is vindicated, laughter liberated from slaughter, and the shadow of civil war dispersed from a land where everyone enjoys warmth and enough to eat. It’s not the land where the Elizabethans lived; but thanks to Falstaff and his friends they could go home from the performance nurturing the hope that one day it might be.