Shakespearing #17 by David Foley
The Merry Wives of Windsor
The Merry Wives of Windsor was one of three Shakespeare plays I’d neither read nor seen when I began this project. (The other two were King John and The Two Noble Kinsmen.) I can’t say I was missing much. Riverside’s introduction repeats the tradition that it was written (in fourteen days) at the request of Queen Elizabeth. If so, she may not have been thrilled with what she got. James Shapiro speculates that Merry Wives might have been “the displeasing play” for which Shakespeare appears to apologize in his epilogue to Henry IV, Part 2.
Riverside says she’d asked for “a play about Falstaff in love,” and the imagination of a playwright being hard to herd, Shakespeare hasn’t come through as commissioned. Falstaff isn’t in love (we can wonder what it says about the Queen that she wanted or could even imagine such a thing). He’s being driven mostly by money and a little by lust, and if the Queen had a more sentimental idea in mind, Shakespeare might well find himself apologizing the next time the Christmas court entertainments rolled around.
So Merry Wives might be a lesson about the dangers of writing to order. Or it might be an early example of the chancy nature of the spinoff. Despite being “in the waist two yards about,” Falstaff is much diminished here. He’s shrunk in language. The insouciant verbal play in Henry IV, Part 1 is reduced to drollery, and the play as a whole is linguistically bare. Shakespeare has a couple of tiresome traits, and one is an apparently boundless faith in the comic possibilities of malapropism. Mistress Quickly who is comically inapt in Henry IV (“any man knows where to have me!”) is here given a stream of malapropisms. Perhaps the most tiresome scene in all Shakespeare is the one in which Evans instructs William in Latin while Mistress Quickly follows along with labored misprisions.
As always, we have to remember how far we are from Shakespeare’s language. The Riverside notes are full of things like “Shallow’s meaning has not been satisfactorily explained” and “A crux.” (Until I read this play, I never knew that “crux” could mean “a particular point of difficulty.”) Just because the Queen didn’t like it, doesn’t mean the groundlings weren’t rolling on the ground when they saw it. But it’s a puzzle, isn’t it? Why has some of Shakespeare’s language become foreign to us while much of it remains so immediate?
There’s something here about language rising to the occasion, or perhaps language and occasion rising together. One fascination of Merry Wives is that you get to see what a Shakespearean first draft might have looked like. It’s almost all prose, with lines of verse popping up at odd moments. Some of these make sense—maybe we want verse in Fenton’s love scenes—but why does Pistol speak his few lines in verse? Towards the end, in the midnight fairy masque—the kind of thing that reliably gets Shakespeare’s juices flowing—we get big chunks of verse.
It’s pretty tepid verse, but you can imagine that in another draft we’d start to soar. We’d also have a new play. Whether you’re talking about Jane Austen or David Foster Wallace, the language of a great writer is bound up in the structure of the worlds he creates, and vice versa. (For this reason I tend to get impatient with novels and plays whose language is noticeably fine. If I’m noticing it, it’s become separate from the created world.) What world would Merry Wives have become with another two weeks?
David Foley is a playwright and fiction writer living in Brooklyn. His plays include Cressida Among the Greeks, Paradise, Nance O’Neil, The Murders at Argos, A Hole in the Fence, and Sad Hotel, among others. His novel The Traveler’s Companion is available on Amazon. He teaches at New York University.