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Merry Wives of Windsor

Creation of the play

Shakespeare is unlikely to have created The Merry Wives of Windsor before late 1599 or 1600. The action of the play takes place between that of Henry IV, Part 2, created in 1597, and Henry V, which dates to 1599. Shakespeare must have written the latter before deciding on the chronology of The Merry Wives of Windsor in relation to the other plays involving Falstaff. The theory that the play was created as a royal entertainment to celebrate the election of new knights of the Garter in 1597 is no longer widely accepted. The Merry Wives of Windsor was first published in 1602.

Early performances

The title-page of the first quarto states that The Merry Wives of Windsor ‘hath bene diuers times acted by the Right Honorable my Lord Chamberlaines seruants. Both before her Maiestie, and else-where’. This indicates that the play was given by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men at court as well as in the public theatres. The Revels Accounts record payment for a performance in 1604 in the Banqueting Hall at Whitehall Palace.

Payment for another performance of The Merry Wives of Windsor, this time at the Cockpit-at-Court in Whitehall, was made in 1638. The early casts for the play may well have included John Sincklo as Slender, Richard Burbage as Ford, and Robert Armin (known for his comic Welsh characters) as Sir Hugh Evans. The character of Falstaff may originally have been played by John Heminge. John Lowin is thought to have succeeded Heminge in the role.

Publication in quarto and folio

The Merry Wives of Windsor appeared in five editions before 1642.

  • First quarto, 1602. Apparently printed from a memorial reconstruction of an acting version prepared by Shakespeare. The actor who played the Host of the Garter Inn has been suggested as the main reporter of the text. This ‘bad’ quarto throws useful light on the way in which Shakespeare could restructure his own work for different acting conditions.
  • Second quarto, 1619. Printed from the first quarto.
  • First folio, 1623. Printed from a transcript made by the scribe Ralph Crane. He may have used working documents belonging to the King’s Men, perhaps a promptbook together with other papers connected with stage performances of the play. The text is nearly twice as long as that of the first quarto. Nearly all the scenes are longer than in the quarto, and the folio text adds the Latin lesson in act 4 scene 1, as well as several scenes at the beginning of act 5.
  • Third quarto, 1630. Printed from the first folio.
  • Second folio, 1632. Printed from the first folio.

The Merry Wives of Windsor was entered to John Busby in the Stationers’ Register on 18 January 1602. The same entry immediately transferred the play from Busby to Arthur Johnson. The first quarto was printed by Thomas Creede for Johnson and published the same year. The second quarto appeared with the imprint ‘Printed for Arthur Johnson’ dated 1619. It was, in fact, one of a group of ten plays printed by William Jaggard for Thomas Pavier in that year. These were apparently intended to form a collection of plays attributed to Shakespeare. The King’s Men may have protested against Pavier’s intentions, for the Lord Chamberlain subsequently wrote to the Stationers’ Company demanding that no more plays belonging to them should be printed except with their consent. An entry on the Stationers’ Register dated 29 January 1630 transferred The Merry Wives of Windsor from Johnson to R. Meighan. The third quarto was printed by Thomas Harper for Meighan in 1630.

British Library copies of Merry Wives of Windsor contains detailed bibliographic descriptions of all the quarto copies of the play.

Shakespeare’s sources

Shakespeare could have used several sources for The Merry Wives of Windsor.

  • Barnaby Riche, ‘Of Two Brethren and Their Wives’, in Riche His Farewell to Militarie Profession (1581). Shakespeare could have drawn on this for Falstaff’s wooing of Mistress Ford and his escapes from her jealous husband.
  • ‘The Tale of the Two Lovers of Pisa’ in Tarltons Newes Out of Purgatorie (1590). This is another possible source for Falstaff’s entanglement with Mistress Ford and its consequences.

    A Lover’s Misfortunes. Tarlton’s Newes out of Purgatorie
    A Lover's Misfortunes. Tarlton's Newes out of Purgatorie, 1590. British Library, C.40.c.68, p. 47. Larger image

  • Ser Giovanni Fiorentino, Il Pecorone. (1558) The second novella from the second day of stories is closest to the plot involving Falstaff and Mistress Ford, and may have been used directly by Shakespeare.
  • Luigi Pasqualigo, translated by Anthony Munday, Fedele and Fortunio (1585). Munday’s comedy is a free translation and adaptation of the 1576 edition of Il Fedele by Pasqualigo. It includes the character Captain Crackstone, who has been suggested as an important influence on Falstaff.

Story of the play

The Merry Wives of Windsor is set in the town of Windsor and the surrounding forest. Since the action takes place between Falstaff’s appearance in Henry IV, Part 2 and his death in Henry V, it may be dated to the early years of the 15th century.

(Act 1) Justice Shallow and his young relative Slender acuse Falstaff of riotous behaviour and theft. Falstaff denies the charges. In need of money, he decides to court Mistress Ford and Mistress Page at the same time. He sends love-letters to both of them. Slender, Dr Caius, and Fenton all ask the help of Mistress Quickly in wooing Anne Page, the daughter of Mistress Page.

(Act 2) Mistress Page and Mistress Ford compare the love-letters they have received from Falstaff. They are exactly the same, and the two women plan revenge. Falstaff’s men tell Page and Ford of Falstaff’s intentions towards their wives. Ford is jealous and decides to take action. Mistress Quickly joins with Mistress Page and Mistress Ford to plot Falstaff’s downfall. She tells him that both women are in love with him. Ford disguises himself as a would-be lover to his own wife and asks Falstaff’s help to seduce her. Falstaff tells him of his meeting that very day with Mistress Ford. Dr Caius challenges the parson Sir Hugh Evans over his support for Slender’s wooing of Anne Page.

(Act 3) When they meet, Dr Caius and Parson Evans are persuaded by their friends not to fight. Mistress Ford entertains Falstaff at her house. Mistress Page arrives to warn her friend of the imminent arrival of Ford. The two women persuade Falstaff to hide in a large laundry basket. He is carried out inside it as Ford arrives to search the house. Page urges his daughter Anne to accept Slender as a husband, while Mistress Page intends Anne for Dr Caius. Falstaff returns after being thrown into the Thames. Mistress Quickly persuades him to try again with Mistress Ford. Falstaff tells Ford, again in disguise, about his escape from Ford’s house and his new assignation with Mistress Ford.

(Act 4) Falstaff again visits Mistress Ford. Mistress Page arrives to warn that Ford is on his way home. The two women persuade Falstaff to disguise himself in women’s clothes so he can escape. As Falstaff leaves, Ford does not recognise him but beats him all the same. Mistress Ford and Mistress Page tell their husbands about Falstaff’s letters and the tricks they have played on him. Together, they decide to teach the fat knight a lesson. Fenton plots to elope with Anne Page.

(Act 5) As commanded by the women, Falstaff arrives at night by Herne’s oak in Windsor Forest. He is wearing antlers on his head. Mistress Ford and Mistress Page join him, but they run away in pretended fright as Mistress Quickly arrives disguised as the Queen of the Fairies. Her troupe of fairies frighten Falstaff and pinch him soundly. During the commotion, Fenton steals away with Anne Page. Mistress Page and Mistress Ford and their husbands confront Falstaff and show him up as a coward and a fool. Fenton and Anne Page return to confess they are married. The assembled company return home to celebrate the events of the night.


 
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