Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare

MISTRESS FORD: I shall think the worse of fat men as long as I have an eye to make difference of men's liking.  And yet he would not swear, praised women's modesty, and gave such orderly and well-behaved reproof to all uncomeliness that I would have sworn his disposition would have gone to the truth of his words.  But they do no more than adhere and keep place together than the hundred and fifty psalms to the tune of 'Greensleeves.'  What tempest, I trow, threw this whale, with so many tuns of oil in his belly, ashore at Windsor?  How shall I be revenged on him?  I think the best way were to entertain him with hope, till the wicked fire of lust have melted him in his own grease.

Merry Wives of Windsor occupies an uncomfortable place in Shakespeare's works.  It doesn't seem "Shakespearean," whatever that means, even though one of its principal characters is Falstaff.  It should be set in the time of Henry IV and Henry V, about 200 years before Shakespeare lived, but its atmosphere is decidedly Elizabethan, and instead of focusing on the lives of great men and women, it's about a pair of contemporary middle class families.

Bloom calls the Falstaff of Merry Wives an "impostor," and while I don't necessarily want to support that turn of phrase, I think he's right: Falstaff here is hardly the same guy as in Henry IV and Henry V.  His cleverness, his endless humor, are replaced with broad venality and gullibility.  Seeking money, he writes identical letters to the Mistresses Ford and Page declaring his love for them, but they discover his duplicity and punish him by leading him on only to engineer a series of mild humiliations.

Unfortunately, they're not very funny.  In the first, Mistress Ford convinces Falstaff to hide in a laundry basket from her husband, which she then has a servant dump in a laundry basket.  In the second, she convinces him to hide by dressing up as her aunt, whom her husband hates, so he gets the crap beaten out of him.  Finally they get a bunch of children to dress as fairies and pinch him in the forest.  I suspect that on stage each of those moments might play extremely well, but on the page they fell, for me, very flat.  Much of the other humor is derived from the humorous accents of some of the minor characters.  I did, however, enjoy the Latin lesson given by the Welsh parson and teacher Evans to his student William, which the ignorant Mistress Quickly keeps interrupting:

EVANS: What is your genitive case plural, William?

WILLIAM: Genitive case?


WILLIAM: Genitivo: 'horum, harum, horum.'

QUICKLY: Vengeance of Jenny's case!  Fie on her!  Never name her child, if she be a whore.

EVANS: For shame, 'oman!

But I suspect even that plays a lot better to an audience who has had a rigorous classical education.

I read this a few weeks back, for class.  I'm sure I would have had something better to say about had I blogged about it immediately, but clearly I found this one of Shakespeare's most forgettable plays.

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