Folger Theatre’s season is drawing to a close, but there’s one more production to tickle DC’s funny-bones: Shakespeare’s raucous, prank-filled The Merry Wives of Windsor, directed by Aaron Posner. For context, Folger Resident Dramaturg Michele Osherow explores the play’s history, the wit of its wives. and production’s far-out 1970s setting.
As far as origin myths go, The Merry Wives of Windsor’s is quite good. Elizabeth I, taken with Falstaff in the Henry IV plays, directed the playwright to present the knight in love. No sixteenth-century source confirms the request; it is referenced in a preface to the play from Nicholas Rowe’s 1709 edition, more than a century after Elizabeth would have enjoyed 1 Henry IV (or anything) on stage. If, indeed, Merry Wives was intended to feature Falstaff as a lover, the affair must be between the man and his purse. Sir John attempts to seduce Windsor’s wives because he’s convinced they hold the keys to their husbands’ coffers. It’s money, not love, he’s after. Neither the astute Mistress Page nor clever Mistress Ford succumbs to his charms; instead, the two collude to teach him a lesson for offending their honor and the honor of the husbands he aims to cuckold.
Anyone familiar with I Henry IV knows Falstaff places little stock in honor: “Can honor set a to a leg? No. Or an arm? No.” It holds no more value for him in Merry Wives. Falstaff’s indifference to honor distinguishes that of those around him, and in this play, it’s women who are in line for medals. The stakes are different, of course, between the battlegrounds of Shrewsbury and the inviting residences of Windsor, and there’s much debate on the benefits of relocating Falstaff to a new genre and century. The monumental clashes among princes and rebels are swapped for skirmishes of middle-class morality. In the history play, Falstaff found a prince willing enough to cavort for a time, but in comedy wives are more discriminating.
Good for them. They are wise to be cautious. In Windsor, deer are not the only items Falstaff aims to poach. But his eyes are too big for even his stomach when he imagines he can compromise both women at once, using exactly the same means: “he cares not what he puts into the press, when he would put us two.” Among Falstaff’s gross mistakes is thinking too little of the women’s virtue, sophistication and complexity. It is an ignorance the play cannot abide.
The demonstration of wit and agency by Windsor’s wives is the play’s great achievement and delight. These are not queens or countesses, but housewives who make superb use of the domestic sphere to shame and educate the men who underestimate them. How better to punish Falstaff’s filthy presumptions than to cover him (in this production) in household garbage? For his scheme to manipulate the wives’ affections and property, why not send him into the world as a woman pursued by a man who intends her harm? Finally, how rich to fix horns, literally, on the head of the beast who boasts about cuckolding others.
We meet bold women throughout Shakespeare’s comedies, but these outspoken wives will not be tamed by the play’s end. They do not surrender any of their authority. They do not apologize for indulging their own merriment: “Wives may be merry, and yet honest, too.” At the end of the play, only men recognize the need for change, and both Falstaff and the jealous Mr. Ford will confess that publicly.
The plot’s insistence on a public acknowledgment and correction of the men’s unacceptable behavior made the world of the 1970s a perfect fit for this production. It was the time of the second wave of feminism, the ERA, Gloria Steinem, the National Organization for Women, the ‘51% minority,’ and essays like “I Want a Wife” in the new Ms. Magazine.
Windsor wives exhibit a clear sense of their own value and decide it is time to have it acknowledged beyond the realm of the home. Upon the heels of their example (spoiler alert!), the next generation’s Windsor wife will similarly assert her authority, along with a merry desire. To the credit of Windsor men, they do not begrudge the women their plots or punishments, their roasts or their rebellions. With a nod to fortune (another powerful lady!), reform feels possible in Windsor. The wives’ merriment is appreciated as a benefit to all, anticipating that “in the long run . . . women’s liberation will be men’s liberation, too” (G.Steinem, New York Magazine, 1969).
Don’t miss Folger Theatre’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, on stage through March 1, 2020. For tickets and more information, visit us online or call the Folger Box Office at 202.544.7077.