As Stephen Rayne observes in his director’s note, The Merry Wives of Windsor occupies a singular place in the Shakespearean canon. Set in Windsor among the middle classes, it is Shakespeare’s only play set in Elizabethan England, and it foregrounds its social themes with a surprising directness. Shakespeare could be political—even polemical—but his dominant method was sly suggestion, not political cartoon. It is somewhat shocking to see him working in the vein of his peers. And in fact, the play was written at a turning point in contemporary comedy. Ben Jonson’s comedies of humors, satires of the Elizabethan age, were on the wane, but not yet fully replaced by the Jacobean “city comedy,” a form popularized by Chapman, Heywood and Middleton. Merry Wives owes debts to both, but it exists as a unique genre unto itself.
Perhaps Shakespeare was just saying goodbye. Elizabeth had passed a law in 1597 outlawing the depiction of living or historical personages onstage. If the play was written between 1597 and 1602, after Shakespeare had abandoned the form of the history play, this was his way of giving a curtain call to his beloved historical personages. Falstaff, Mistress Quickly and the rest of the gang could trod the boards once more, but only through Shakespeare parachuting them into the modern world of Windsor.
Shakespeare’s strategy for Merry Wives is as unique as his mise-en-scène. Rather than depicting the world of Windsor with the high-blown romantic verse of Romeo and Juliet or A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he reveals this teeming little suburb on the bank of the Thames almost entirely through the English vernacular.
Eighty-eight percent of Merry Wives is in prose, making it the most prose-heavy of Shakespeare’s plays. And Shakespeare never wrote better prose than in this play, in which he pulls plain-spoken English apart by the seams, inspects each of its discrete elements and reassembles it into something miraculous. Each of the Windsorites in the play possesses a verbal tic that reveals something essential about their natures. Foreigners such as Sir Hugh Evans and Doctor Caius are immediately identifiable by their thick stage accents and their grammatical garblings. The play’s lower-class characters, such as Mistress Quickly, reveal their working-class origins through outlandish malapropisms. In Quickly’s case, her “alligant terms” often reveal surprisingly obscene truths, as in the famous “Latin lesson” of act 4, scene 1, when her glosses of Evans’ dead words resurrect them in surprisingly bawdy fashion.
But of all the play’s linguist souls, there is one who towers above them all. As David Crane notes, “Falstaff is just massively himself.” The utterly singular character of the fat old knight contains multitudes, perhaps in no play moreso than this one, where his language often animates others’ flights of fancy. Falstaff is also the only character in the play who possesses something of the tragic dimension, a quiet pathos amid the farce. Not to give anything away, but Falstaff’s experience at the end of the play is accompanied by a dignity as mysterious as any bottomless dream. After 400-plus years, he continues to fascinate critics, scholars and audiences, existing as a character almost outside of Shakespeare.