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There is a great deal of conjecture about when The Merry Wives of Windsor was written. According to one school of thought, the play was written for Elizabeth I’s Garter Feast, held at Westminster Palace in 1597. In the play, Falstaff belongs to the Order of the Garter, and the order’s chivalric motto is quoted at the end of the play. There is also a theory that the play was written years later, in 1602, when a Quarto bearing the play’s second, longer title appeared: The Most Pleasant and Conceited Comedy of Sir John Falstaff and The Merry Wives of Windsor.
Along with a number of scholars I believe the play is actually two plays, joined together later. Shakespeare probably wrote a masque for the 1597 Garter Feast, which survives in acts 4 and 5. These two acts are written mainly in verse, while the rest of the play is in prose. This part was probably written around 1602, most likely to capitalize on the success of the characters of Falstaff and his followers, who were made famous in the Henry IV and Henry V plays. Merry Wives is unique, the only play of Shakespeare’s to be set in his own contemporary society. It is a world in which the economic imperative is never far from the surface, one where subterfuge driven by greed is the accepted norm.
There’s another theory, that Queen Elizabeth commissioned Shakespeare to write a play for her depicting “Falstaff in love.” Now, anybody who has read the play knows that only a small part of the play is about love, and Falstaff’s attempts on the merry wives have precious little to do with it!
The play is not really about Falstaff in love, but Falstaff in the poorhouse. By the late 1590s, England was close to being bankrupt. Since Elizabeth had assumed the throne in 1558, the country had been at war with Spain and Portugal. In 1594, England became embroiled in another war with Ireland, which didn’t end until 1603. These wars drained the finances of the exchequer, and Elizabeth was forced to grant favors to members of her court in return for their support. It was a gravy time for those at court. But for the ordinary man in the street, taxes had gone up, and the quality of life had gone down. The England that soldiers were returning to at the end of the century was very different than the one of the 1570s and 1580s.
Those decades had marked the Age of Discovery. Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Francis Drake and others had plundered gold-laden Spanish galleons in the name of war. But they had also begun trading with the New World and the Far East, returning with great riches and a whole new vocabulary. It’s no accident that Falstaff makes reference in this play to Guiana, as well as to the East and West Indies, as part of his get-rich-quick schemes. All of a sudden, anybody, not just those born into the royalty, could make their fortune through trade.
Adventurers such as Drake and Raleigh were emblematic of a rising middle class which was transforming England. Between 1500 and 1600, the population of London grew 400 percent, from less than 50,000 to more than 200,000. More than half of the population of England was under 25 years old, and many of them would become more prosperous many times over than their parents’ generation.
Merry Wives is built around these two new social types of Elizabethan society. Destitute soldiers and knights had returned from war to find an England in which it was difficult to earn a penny. Meanwhile, the rising merchant and middle classes were earning the money previously reserved for the now withered aristocracy. Falstaff and his followers, rather than being in love, are forced to cheat and lie to make a living, with predictably farcical results. The Fords and the Pages, on the other hand, are characters we recognize as being rather like us. They are married couples from middle-class homes, who only want the very best for themselves and their children.
All of this brings me to our production. We’re setting the play at the end of the First World War, which I believe offers a vibrant window into the social world of the play and makes it more accessible to a modern audience. In 1919, just as 300 years before, England was a bankrupt, postwar country, in which soldiers returning from the battlefield found themselves displaced by a rising middle class; in 1919, the British Empire was still at its zenith. In the late 16th century, it was just getting started. The two periods bookend each other in a way, and throw light on the quintessential Englishness of this comedy.
Falstaff, the title character of the 1602 version of the play, and the “merry wives,” who are given prominence in the Folio, are all English. But they come from different social worlds, and they regard each other from either side of a great cultural and historical divide. Falstaff represents the Old World, and Shakespeare is quite hard on the fat old knight in this play, almost as if he knows that the post-Restoration stage will gravitate to tales of merry wives. Mistresses Ford and Page, meanwhile, are wise, powerful and independent, created very much in Elizabeth’s image. And they are surrounded by a rich panoply of characters who delineate the many aspects of the English experience. You could make a good argument, in fact, that Merry Wives stages modern English society for the first time, while depicting the twilight of an earlier age.
The twilight of the First World War is perhaps the earliest date at which our
contemporary version of English identity emerges. In fact, the early 20th century is when the House of Windsor itself came into being. In 1917, King George V changed the name of the English monarchy from its original German surname. Lucky for us: “The Merry Wives of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha” just doesn’t have the same ring.