Shakespearing #17.1 by John King
More on Merry Wives of Windsor
Pardon my commandeering David Foley’s wonderfully textual Shakespearean blog for one week, in order to prolong the magic of the discussion of The Merry Wives of Windsor.
I have read Merry Wives, even though I probably have only read a little more than half of Shakespeare’s plays. What is more, I have taught Merry Wives in an undergraduate Shakespeare course. (If you were in that class, accept my belated apologies.)
David is entirely right that the wordplay grows tiresome on the page, and that there is a looseness and grossness of comedic effects that we seldom associate with Shakespeare. Hamlet’s filthy, punning mind is always counterbalanced by his spiritual urge for perfection and mental clarity.
There is something deliciously punk-rock, however, about Shakespeare being bidden by the queen to produce a play about “Falstaff in love” and instead his producing a play in which his wannabe knight is essentially an unrepentant gigolo wooing married women. Elizabeth wanted Falstaff to be other than what he was, which means that she wanted Shakespeare to be other than what he was. Shakespeare could apologize much more easily than he could change what he saw as human nature. Perhaps he would not have lasted in the production processes in Hollywood.
If Shakespeare’s Richard III can be seen as an enhanced and humanized version of a vice character from Medieval morality plays, then Falstaff is sort of a super-vice character’s enhancement. His braggadocio, cowardice, vanity, and base morality seem so compelling, like Jack Sparrow, but Sir John Falstaff is quite fat and incapable of actually winning any fight or struggle, apparently. The pull of such deep foibles is strongly felt by audiences. We laugh at him, but we are all to some degree like him, if we are honest with ourselves.
But what I want to talk about most when I talk about Merry Wives is how much fun the play is, and how funny, it is, in performance.
In 2005, I saw The Palm Beach Shakespeare Festival perform it gloriously. The setting of The Garter Inn was interpreted as a roadside motel in the rural American south during the late 1970s. The stage was exposed (no curtain). A dumb-show preceded the first act, like an opening credits scene, in which the disco music got louder, and the actors, in character, congregated by the small pool and the bar. I had to struggle not to leave my seat and join them up there for a drink.
The actors mostly affected southern accents, which sounds like a terrible idea, but sounded shockingly apropos for the pastoral setting. The actors, Krys Parker in particular, made it work wonderfully.
Kevin Crawford (whom I interviewed on Episode 4) portrayed Falstaff in a fat suit, with a pompadour and white disco suit. He did this in Florida, in July. Miraculous.
When the married women prank Falstaff with their “fairy” revels in the woods, the true effect cannot be managed in the text—it must be seen. In this case, a stagehand held over the top of the inn a long pole with a mirror ball that radiated over the audience.(Michael Ditsua, the actor whose job it was to hold that pole, noted that the bugger was immensely heavy.)
Dreaming of fairies and seeing fairies can seem much like the same thing, and one can feel, like Falstaff, the horror of transgression when it seems to cause the fabric of the world itself to rupture.
This production ended, however, with a kiss upon Falstaff’s head, which was such a sweet, an amazingly powerful gesture, that suggested that if Falstaff was most in love with himself, that he was still lovable. This swerving from the text is what I imagine Shakespeare might have wanted, if he thought Elizabeth would have tolerated it.
The play is exquisite fun, especially when enjoyed by friends.
John King (Episode, well, all of them) is a podcaster, writer, and ferret wrangler.