The Merry Wives of Windsor
Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR
Falstaff tells Brook that tonight will be wondrous. The third time for him is the charm, for “they say there is divinity in odd numbers, either in nativity, chance, or death” (V.i.3-4). Falstaff’s statement about having been beaten when in the form of a woman instead of as a man, since “I fear not Goliath with a weaver’s beam” (V.i.22), is an obscure biblical reference — “And the shaft of his spear was like a weaver’s beam” (I Samuel 17:7; cf. II Samuel 21:19) — marked in de Vere’s Geneva Bible housed currently at the Folger (Stritmatter; Farina 31). He continues, “because I know also life is a shuttle” (V.i.22-23), quoting Job (7:6). His reference to having “pluck’d geese” (V.i.25) has been taken as an oblique allusion to Burghley.
Page tells Slender that his daughter will be in white tonight.
Mistress Page tells Caius that her daughter will be in green tonight.
Evans, disguised as a satyr, prepares others for their roles as fairies.
Various topical references to the Order of the Garter occur, including the motto — “Honi soit qui mal y pense” (V.v.69) — as there are “special seats in St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, assigned to specific members of the Order of the Knights of the Garter” (Asimov 446).
Falstaff is dressed idiotically as instructed; “He had planned to plant horns on Ford’s head, but here he wears them himself” (Asimov 445). Queen Elizabeth is vaguely referenced as “Our radiant Queen” (V.v.46). Falstaff greets the two women, but we get an amateur theatrical in this final scene when a large troop of fairies descends on them and the two women run off. With Quickly as the Fairy Queen, the fairies receive assignments whereby they are the instruments of annoyance for the slothful and negligent.
Fie on sinful fantasy!
Fie on lust and luxury! (V.v.93-94)
Some fun these fairies, eh? They gang-pinch Falstaff, poke fire at him, and generally terrorize him. The pinching “black and blue,” echoing the phrase in The Comedy of Errors (II.ii.201), can be found in Lyly’s Endymion, though, despite its 1586 publication, the song, like all other song’s in Lyly’s plays, was not published until a 1632 edition (Ogburn and Ogburn 112, 574).
Amid these punishments, Falstaff is called “Vild worm, thou wast o’erlook’d even in thy birth” (V.v.83). He cries, “O, O, O!” (V.v.89).
“I do begin to perceive that I am made an ass” (V.v.122). “The Falstaff of the King Henry plays would certainly have discovered this much earlier in the game” (Asimov 447). “From buck-basket to buck to cuckold to deer to ass, Falstaff’s trajectory is a lively degeneration” (Garber 368). And Ford supplements significantly, “Ay, and an ox too” (V.v.123) (Ogburn and Ogburn 744).
In the hubbub, Caius sneaks off with a boy dressed in green and Slender goes off with a boy dressed in white. The Pages and Fords finally reveal the ruse to Falstaff, adding a few further insults to injury. Soon, Slender returns, having discovered that he ran off not with Anne. Caius returns too, having married another boy. Caius asks, “Vere is Mistress Page?” (V.v.204) — an unintentional pun that reveals the allegorical truth perhaps. Fenton and Anne return and announce their marriage. Fenton has rescued her from “A thousand irreligious cursed hours / Which forced marriage would have brought upon her” (V.v.229-230). Everyone ends up happy enough when all are invited back home for laughs.
The verse is triumphant somehow, and the quirky Windsorites lose their verbal idiosyncracies in the end. Despite everything, there is some final sense of community, a wholeness in this society despite its shortcomings. And Falstaff is allowed to join them in the revelry.