Wednesday, November 06, 2013

conclusions (for the moment) about The Merry Wives of Windsor.

1910 Jacket (F.A. Stokes, New York) 

[Image source:]

I do not think it was written for, or performed at, the Garter ceremonies in April 1597. There is no evidence that plays ever formed part of Garter ceremonies, nor that plays were commissioned by or for the Monarch.

(I base these views on, above all, Barbara Freedman's "Shakespearean Chronology, Ideological Complicity, and Floating Texts: Something is Rotten in Windsor" (Shakespeare Quarterly Vol 45 No 2 (1994)), which you can read when you've signed up to MyJstor.)

(Frederick D. Losey, introducing the play in his 1926 edition, claims that it's because the Merry Wives was a court-sponsored play that it's all about middle-class Windsor citizens; the general public, on the other hand, wanted to hear about kings and nobles. Losey seems to imply that he has other evidence for this surprisingly lowbrow taste among courtiers, but he doesn't tell us what it is. I draw exactly the opposite conclusion: citizen comedy was particularly entertaining to citizens, hence its presence in MW tells against court sponsorship.)

The play does, undeniably, include a few underlined Garter references that seem to pierce the 4th wall, but why (or in reference to what occasion) is unclear.

Accordingly, the only firm evidence to date the play is that it can't be later than 1601 (when the bad quarto emerged).

Having been so dismissive of April 1597, Freedman seems surprisingly amenable to Gary Taylor's alternative theory of Feb 1598, thus accepting the common view that MW was written at the same time as 2H4. (This seems to be mainly because Feb 1598 would have been a good time for German satire. Ironically, that's an occasionalist argument.)

I'm more inclined to think it post-dates Henry V, so I'm placing it 1599-1600. [Apparently I am in agreement with current scholarship, according to the British Library's Shakespeare in Quarto page on MW, though I don't understand what it means when it says "Shakespeare must have written [Henry V] before deciding on the chronology of The Merry Wives of Windsor in relation to the other plays involving Falstaff".]

Principally this is because of the Falstaff crew. I see Pistol and Shallow being "introduced" in Henry IV Part 2, I see Corporal Nym being "introduced" in Henry V.  In my opinion the Merry Wives takes recognition of these characters for granted.

It is quite characteristic of the low characters in the Henriad (collective name given by scholars to the two parts of Henry IV plus Henry V)  that what later become their defining features are not in full effect from the start.  In 1H4 Bardolph's red nose is not mentioned at first,  and the language of the "Hostess" isn't immediately full of suggestive pratfalls; in 2H4 Pistol isn't instantly Marlovian; and in H5 Nym takes a few speeches before he actually brings out the word "humour". This may be partly because Shakespeare fleshed out the characters as he wrote, but it's also to build up the audience's acquaintance with a character piece by piece. You need to know, for example, that Nym considers himself a man of few words.

An audience meeting Nym for the first time in MW would be fairly mystified. He has become a wild sort of linguistic engine:

Slice, I say! pauca, pauca: slice! that's my humour.

 He has only a small part here, but such humour as it has (oh God, I swear that was unintentional) depends on the way that Nym and Pistol bounce off each other in their various swaggerings. More to the point, it depends on the audience remembering how they bounce off each other in H5. It is a reprise.

The Merry Wives begins with Shallow accusing Falstaff of poaching his deer. That scenario is pretty consistent with the depths their relationship had sunk to by the end of 2H4, when Shallow begins to realize that Falstaff won't be paying back his thousand pounds any time soon. It's not at all consistent with their relative positions earlier in the play, when Shallow is keenly looking forward to meeting  the now-famous knight that he used to knock about with half a century before.  So it makes sense to me that by the time Shakespeare wrote the beginning of MW he'd already finished 2H4.

I have no confidence that the story first reported by Dennis and Rowe (Queen Elizabeth commanded Shakespeare to write a play about Falstaff in love, and he wrote it in 14 days) embodies any real information about MW's origins. But it's the sort of hypothesis that was bound to arise in response to some of the play's peculiar features. It's likely enough that someone persuaded Shakespeare to reprise the old gang. And the most probable context for that request would be after the first performances of Henry V, with its dismaying absence of Falstaff and the demise of his low-life companions (regretted by all, as Johnson remarked). By the end of H5 Falstaff, Bardolph, Nym and Mistress Quickly are all dead.

(Once you start to think about MW in connection with H5, other resemblances emerge. For example, William's Latin lesson compared with Katherine's English lesson - both full of ruderies. Or the medley of accents, including cod-Welsh, in both plays. Looking forward, you can see how the role of Slender might lead on to Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night.  What about Bardolph's new job, as a precursor to Pompey's new job ? I admit this is trifling, but the cumulative point is that MW doesn't seem too out of place in that 1600-ish context. Besides, MW occasionally has touches of the clotted style that appealed to Shakespeare around the time of AW and MM.)

It is often said that you mustn't get too naturalistic in trying to connect the Henriad with the quite different fictive world of the Merry Wives and of course I agree. In the former the low-life characters have a generally consistent and sequential story. The Merry Wives is more than a sideways step from all this. There's no getting around, for instance, the fact that in MW Falstaff and Mistress Quickly have apparently never met, whereas in 2H4 they had known each other for 29 years.  

The Merry Wives is both a citizen comedy and masque. It re-unites us with the well-loved comic characters from the Henriad but it brings them into an essentially a-historic and contemporary scene.

(Some people, e.g. Charles Edelman, have tried to argue that the low-life characters lived in an a-historic bubble even in 1H4, but in my opinion that's misleading if it claims for 1H4 a consciously applied anachronism distinct from the built-in anachronism that we find in all Shakespeare's realizations of the past.)

In MW the Henriad characters have transformed into something like the recurring commedia del arte characters that are always the same though the plays they appear in are always new. Or compare it to a film vehicle for, say, Morecambe and Wise .. "This time they're a pair of down on their luck travelling salesmen.."

You can almost hear the audience waiting in joyful anticipation for a reference to Bardolph's red face.  They don't have to wait long. The first words Falstaff says to him are: "What say you, Scarlet and John?" (In H5, Falstaff is reported as joking about Bardolph's nose on his deathbed.)

I think it's the same with the deer-stealing dispute between Shallow and Falstaff.  This is a sort of quickfire reprise of how Shallow and Falstaff carried on when they were together in 2H4. Once that's been re-established, the deer-stealing business is forgotten about. The role assigned to Shallow in the remainder of the play doesn't call for much further interaction with Falstaff. (See G.R Hibbard, review of H.J. Oliver's Arden edition in Modern Language Review Vol 67 No 4 (1972), pp. 870-71 - yes it's in MyJStor.)

This of course brings us on rather neatly to the hypothesis that the old gang from the Henriad were shoe-horned into a pre-existing play. Usually this hypothesis is prompted by Dennis' implication that Shakespeare was working against the clock, but even if Dennis' story is dismissed it has something to be said for it. Everyone notices how characters both old and new sometimes seem to speak unlike themselves, giving the curious impression that we're suddenly reading a different play. You can easily imagine that Mistress Quickly could have usurped a role originally designed for a sprightly maid similar to Maria in Twelfth Night. Shallow too, except in the opening scene, could have taken over from a more generic fussing old uncle. Bardolph, Pistol and Nym have no really critical role to play in the plot, so perhaps, we ponder, it might have been quite easy to add them into a pre-existing structure.

But with Falstaff it's a different matter. His hypothetical predecessor in the anti-hero role would need to have the following features: he would have to be unscrupulous, hard up and prepared to exploit anyone, especially women, for his own ends. He would have to be a rogue, yet also gullible. He would presumably have to be a member of the privileged classes, for instance a knight. Ideally an old, fat, ridiculous knight. Yet he would have to carry sufficient authority to make it credible that Ford (in disguise) would seek to make a friend of him. He would have to have sufficient self-esteem to take in his stride the various discomfitures that befall him, sufficiently bumptious to bounce back from them and keep on trying to seduce Mrs Ford. Finally, he would have to be sufficiently pleasing to the audience that they'd sympathise with him and accept him being pardoned and admitted to the festive hearth at the end. Of course you could claim that some of these features of the current play were re-modelled to fit Falstaff. But my basic point is, that Shakespeare would have to have been incredibly lucky to have something lying around that happens to fit Falstaff so well.

Charles Dickens, then aged 36, took the role of Shallow in a performance of the Merry Wives in Birmingham. MW has always been a winner in the theatre, its stereotypic characterizations and farcical comedy mean that anyone can act it. I like Terry Hands' account of the play, which strongly emphasizes its festive nature (though settling for All Hallows might be a bit of a stretch). There's undoubtedly something archetypal about the Merry Wives, even prior to its masque-like closing scenes, and maybe thence arises the pervasive sense of generic uncles/maids/would-be seducers lurking behind the more-personalized characters from the Henriad.

Not everyone is willing to enjoy the festivities of Middle England. Jonathan Goldberg (2009) valiantly assails the play's apparent heteronormality; he makes an immense amount out of Page's predilection for the boy Robin.

Peter Grav (2006) underlines the play's emphasis on money and argues that the supposedly positive figure of Fenton is just another fortune-hunter parallel to Falstaff.  (Elizabethans would probably have sensed some moral distinction between seducing a wife and marrying a daughter, even if it was for money.) Grav's argument is not really helped by being deployed to argue further that F is a revision of Q; I consider the bubble of "Shakespeare the reviser" to be thoroughly burst -  essentially by Sidney Thomas, in 1984.  (The indisputable late changes, here as in the Henriad, are all to do with censorship.) The comparative absence of references to Fenton's economy in Q rather tells against Grav; it suggests the actors didn't take any interest in this theme and promptly forgot about it, - they reverted to functional stereotype. If Shakespeare's company had made something big of it then the actors would have remembered it. We are talking, let's face it, about a character who contributes very little and very briefly to the theatrical impact of the play.

Nevertheless the money theme is very clearly there. In this context there's perhaps a deeper significance to the running joke in which the easy-natured Mistress Quickly speaks of the upright citizens of Windsor in exactly the same rosy terms that we have seen her use previously to speak of social filth like Doll Tearsheet or Nym ("Anne is a good girl...  A kind heart he hath: a woman would run through fire and water for such a kind heart..")



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