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Often overlooked in discussions of Shakespearean comedies, The Merry Wives of Windsor merits much more consideration than it is traditionally given. This mid-career work is arguably important in two ways. First, while the dating of the play is inexact, it is safe to say that this was Shakespeare’s last broad, laugh inducing play, his final pure non-“problem” comedy. Indeed, the play contains some of Shakespeare’s finest farcical moments, in particular the two scenes of Falstaff’s “assignations” with Mistress Ford. Anticipation is often cited as an essential component of comedy, and in that respect Merry Wives delivers—the staging of Ford twice arriving in triumph only to be thwarted as well as Falstaff escaping in humiliating fashion each time can produce riotous physical comedy. The second and most significant aspect of Merry Wives lies in it being the only play that Shakespeare recognizably set in his own contemporary society. As such, the play provides unique insight into how Shakespeare may have regarded the world in which he lived. This is Shakespeare’s England, and it seems evident that money is on everyone’s mind and that cash values, rather than human ones, are firmly in control. In The Merry Wives of Windsor, we are invited to look beyond surface appearances and realize that, from respectable middle-class citizens to a seeming paragon of a male romantic lead, greed holds sway.
The idea that wealth had become both the measure of personal worth and a societal lynchpin seems central in Merry Wives, a play in which economic imperatives are never far from the surface. Falstaff dissolves his retinue and pursues the titular wives because he is penniless; Ford throws money at Falstaff to test his wife’s fidelity, and Anne Page’s matrimonial fate is governed by the wealth she represents and the capital she attracts. The inclination of some to view Merry Wives as Shakespeare’s foray into Citizen or City Comedy seems apt, given that genre’s preoccupation with economic motivations and the trickery required to accumulate wealth. In both the main and subplot of Merry Wives, subterfuge driven by greed appears to be a societal norm. Yet the cynicism we expect from City Comedy (such as what’s found in the works of Ben Jonson or Thomas Middleton) is mitigated to a degree by the resolution of the play’s main plot in which lessons appear to be learned and the forces of avarice are seemingly turned back.
Of course, the presence of Falstaff, one of Shakespeare’s greatest characters, is part of the play’s attraction, but this Falstaff seems different from the man we encounter in the Henry IV plays. One might expect that the anachronistic thrusting of him into this bourgeois society would result in a puncturing of its pretensions and values similar to the way that notions of honor and duty come under attack in the Henry plays; instead, it is Falstaff’s pretensions that are deflated by economic reality, and he embarks upon his ultimately humiliating seduction of Mistress Ford simply because he is broke. Moreover, if Falstaff represents a threat to the status quo in The Merry Wives of Windsor, it is a small threat indeed as the titular wives see through his schemes from the beginning. In fact, the defeat of Falstaff seems so effortless that one might ask whether he ever did represent a threat to Windsor’s values. Under the direction of Page, this society is fundamentally secure and selfassured. The Fords and Pages are, in effect, local patricians in their urban world without need of title, the traditional marker of status. They, along with Shallow, Slender, Evans and Doctor Caius, are all representatives of an English bourgeoisie (the latter two in spite of their Welsh and French pedigrees, respectively) that was growing in strength and number during Shakespeare’s lifetime. Ford’s jealously aside, these are supremely self-confident representatives of a society that seem to always factor the economic into their thinking. Perhaps for this reason, Friedrich Engels commented in an 1873 letter to Karl Marx that “the first act of the Merry Wives alone contains more life and reality than all German literature.”
The main plot of Merry Wives may indicate that mirth, wit, common sense and an amiable sociability trumps man’s mercenary tendencies, but everything beyond its surface suggests the opposite. Windsorites may be easily able to ward off Falstaff, but, in their egocentricity, they seem unaware of the extent to which they embody his values. For example, Ford’s dedication to the economic matrix is evident in his first encounter with Sir John; he is well aware that the prospect of cash is enough to enlist Falstaff’s help, but he goes further and provides a supremely jaded philosophic slant on the way of the world, stating baldly that “if money goes before, all ways do lie open” (act 2, scene 2). While Sir John’s reply, “Money is a good soldier, and will on”, bestows a somewhat questionable dignity upon cash values by invoking military valor, this trade-off of mercenary catchphrases effectively renders the two men equal. Even near the play’s end, instead of taking part in the happy resolution and rejoicing at the confirmation of his wife’s virtue, Ford insists on bringing economics to the fore with his demand that Falstaff repay him the funds he had advanced.
The romantic subplot of The Merry Wives of Windsor offers further strong evidence that, in Windsor, money makes the world go round. In the great comedies that precede this play, such as As You Like It, Twelfth Night and Much Ado About Nothing, economic considerations never rear their head in the love stories. In this play, however, the ultimate importance of our erstwhile heroine, Anne Page, lies in what she is, rather than who she is. This is decidedly no epilogue-delivering Rosalind; what Anne may or may not have to say is of little consequence as her attraction seems to lie in the 700 pounds she will inherit when she turns 17. The conversation in Merry Wives’ opening scene amongst Evans, Shallow and Slender pointedly configures Anne as a lucrative commodity on the marriage market. Meanwhile, our ostensible romantic hero, the bankrupt Fenton, admits that Anne’s wealth was the original reason he courted her and then tries to assure her that he doesn’t only have economic interests at heart; however, when he does so by affirming that her “value” is higher than “stamps in gold or sums in sealed bags” (act 3, scene 4), one can be forgiven for thinking that money is never far from his mind. For his part, Anne’s father, the reliably sensible Page, certainly believes that Fenton is little more than a fortune-hunter. Similar to other Shakespearean works with multiple or parallel plots, the two separate storylines that run through Merry Wives mirror and reinforce each other. Upon examination, Fenton’s pursuit of the wealthy Anne seems remarkably similar to Falstaff’s designs on Mistresses Ford and Page. Far from offering up an idealized romance as a counterpoint to Falstaff’s mercenary courtship schemes, the Fenton-Anne subplot appears to reinforce ideas present in the main plot. Even in their names, Falstaff and Fenton seem to echo each other.
When it comes to Merry Wives’ romantic plot, it’s not only Fenton who seems to have money on his mind. Presumably, the only reason Anne’s father favors the simple-minded Slender’s suit is the latter’s lucrative land holdings. Anne has obviously been briefed on the expected payout that will come from marrying Slender, and her disgust for her father’s economic maneuvering is evident: “This is my father’s choice. / O, what a world of vile ill-favoured faults / Looks handsome in three hundred pounds a year!” (act 3, scene 4). For her part, the no-nonsense Mistress Page also turns her daughter into a commodity when she discloses her own scheme to see Anne wedded to the older and linguistically-challenged Dr. Caius. The reason? In her words: “The Doctor is well moneyed, and his friends potent at court.” She even goes so far to say that Anne will marry Caius even if “twenty thousand worthier come to crave her” (act 4, scene 4). Obviously, Anne is hers to dispose of in a manner that will bring the greatest return, regardless of the Doctor’s suitability. In the end, it seems fair to ask whether her principles as well differ that much from the fortune-hunting Falstaff.
If Shakespeare intended the Windsor he created to reflect his contemporary England’s social mores, then it seems he thought that money was a central driving force for human behavior. Practically everyone in Merry Wives is motivated by economic considerations; and, in Shakespeare’s only “English” play, their value system seems to be sorely wanting. In this respect, the play seems more relevant than ever when we consider, how in the early years of the 21st century, we have seen the near-disastrous consequences of the relentless pursuit of monetary gain. While fortune-hunting knights and dowries may be a long way from Enron and sub-prime mortgages, Shakespeare, once again, provides us with valuable food for thought in our ongoing consideration of the human condition.
Dr. Peter Grav is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of English and the School of Graduate Studies at the University of Toronto. In 2007, his book Shakespeare and the Economic Imperative: What’s Aught but as ’tis Valued? was published by Routledge.