Merry Wives of Windsor: Essay Q&A

1. Why do critics consider Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor to be inferior to the same character in the Henry IV plays?
In the Henry IV plays, Sir John Falstaff is the companion of Prince Hal. He is a liar, a thief, a drunkard and a coward, but he has the gift of making light of everything. His easy-going good nature makes others willing to indulge his outrageous behavior, and he gets out of scrapes by using his quick wit and his ability to play on words. Falstaff cares nothing for authority and is cynical about martial ideals such as honor. He simply looks out for himself. Despite Falstaffs outlandish behavior, Prince Hal finds him a lovable and entertaining companion, and his other friends, such as Poins and Bardolph, are also fond of him. Indeed, the Falstaff of the Henry plays has been described as the supreme comic character on the English stage.
In The Merry Wives of Windsor, however, Falstaff, although he retains some of the former characters verbal extravagance, no longer uses his wit to stay one step ahead of everyone else. Quite the reverse. He becomes merely the butt of the humor. He is vain and stupid-stupid enough to believe that the “merry wives” will welcome his attentions. Not only does he make this big mistake, he repeats it, falling for the same ruse, not once, not twice but an incredible three times. This is clearly a lesser figure than the Falstaff of the Henry plays. A. C. Bradley, one of the great Shakespearean critics of the nineteenth century, was horrified at what Shakespeare had done to his beloved Falstaff, calling the character in Merry Wives an “impostor.” According to Bradley, the few sentences in the play that were worthy of the real Falstaff might be written down on a single sheet of notepaper (see Bradleys essay, “The Rejection of Falstaff,” in Oxford Lectures on Poetry, 1909, p. 248). Perhaps if Shakespeare had given the Falstaff of Merry Wives a different name, he might have avoided such howls of protest from devoted Shakespeareans, and the play might have received more appreciation from critics than it has done.
2. Describe some of the uses of dramatic irony in the play.
Dramatic irony occurs when the audience, or the other characters, know something about the situation that one or more characters do not. The Merry Wives of Windsor is full of such ironies, and the humor of the various situations often depends on them. All the characters in the play are, at some stage, ignorant of some aspect of the plotting. No one knows entirely what is going on, except for the audience. This adds to the audiences enjoyment, since there is always pleasure in being in on a secret.
The main plot rests on the dramatic irony of Falstaffs thinking that his letters to the merry wives have been favorably received, when the audience knows this is not true. Therefore when he goes to Fords house, his attempt to woo Mrs. Ford comes across as even more ludicrous than it otherwise would have been, because the audience knows that Mrs. Ford is only pretending to be receptive to him.
Another dramatic irony in the main plot is in Fords jealousy of his wife, which the audience knows to be misplaced.
In Act 2, scene 2, there is a double irony, since the audience knows what Falstaff does not-that Brook is really Ford-as well as the fact that Falstaff is deceived in believing that he will succeed in bedding Fords wife. This adds to the humor of the scene, as the audience watches Falstaff dig himself deeper into trouble, all the time thinking that his plans are succeeding.
Yet another example of dramatic irony is when Ford comes unexpectedly back to his house while Falstaff is there. The merry wives have been pretending that he is about to return (in order to get Falstaff in the laundry basket), and are surprised when he actually does. The audience, however, is not, since they have heard Ford speak of his plans to trap Falstaff.
3. Is Falstaff a villain or a victim?
At the beginning of the play, Falstaff is clearly a threat to order and morality in the town of Windsor. He is a lawless character who associates with thieves and thumbs his nose at the attempts of the local Justice of the Peace to make him accountable for his actions. Falstaff then plans an outrageous scheme to seduce two married women in order to cheat them out of their husbands money. Obviously, something has to be done to curb Falstaff, who otherwise would wreak havoc on this small, middle-class community, and the two “merry wives” take it upon themselves to do what the local justice cannot. However, the nature of Falstaffs punishments might seem excessive to some, and also cruel. His speech at the beginning of Act 3 scene 5, when he laments his ducking in the Thames (“Have I lived to be carried in a basket like a barrow of butchers offal”), makes him a more ambivalent figure. He probably deserves what he gets, but to see such an exuberant, self-confident and amusing figure humiliated in this way arouses sympathy in the audience. And after Falstaffs final, cruel humiliation, when Evans, Ford, Page and Mrs. Page take turns in insulting him, he does appear as more victim than villain-a victim of his own stupidity as well as of the other members of the community. In short, at different points in the play Falstaff is both villain and victim.
4. Describe how the different characters use or misuse the English language.
Many of the characters in The Merry Wives of Windsor speak in a quirky way that highlights their misuse of English. This becomes a running joke throughout the play, prompting some critics to refer to it as a “comedy of language.” Evans speaks in a Welsh accent that sometimes, because of the different pronunciation of certain vowels and consonants, leads to meanings he does not intend. According to Falstaff, the Welshman “makes fritters of English” (Act 5, scene 5). Dr. Caius speaks a kind of hybrid English-French that makes him a comic figure; Mistress Quickly accuses him of “abusing of Gods patience and the Kings English” (Act 1, scene 4). Of Falstaffs companions, Pistol has a verbal exuberance similar to that of Falstaff himself, although he seems more in love with the sounds of the words than with their meaning. As for Nym, his vocabulary is minimal, and he cannot form a phrase without putting the word “humour” in it.
Mistress Quickly is another example of the idiosyncratic use of English. She often uses the wrong word to express her meaning, or comes up with a variant word of her own invention, such as “rushling” for “rustling,” “alligant” (a conflation of “elegant” and “eloquent”), and “fartuous” for “virtuous.” When Evans tries to teach William Page Latin grammar, Quickly misunderstands some of the words and gives them a sexual meaning, rebuking Evans for teaching the boy such things. (Evans thinks she is crazy.)
The quirkiness in the characters use of language not only helps to individualize them, it also creates another level of humor in the play, through language rather than physical boisterousness.
5. Is The Merry Wives of Windsor a farce or a comedy?
The Merry Wives of Windsor is not generally considered the equal of Shakespeares greatest comedies, such as As You Like It and A Midsummer Nights Dream, and many critics dismiss it as a farce rather than a comedy. A farce is a play intended to make an audience laugh, often through the use of physical, nonverbal humor, such as horseplay and slapstick. Plot and action are more important than intellectual wit and dialogue. Plot situations in farce are improbable or absurd, and the characters are stock types, without individual characteristics.
Comedy, on the other hand, is a more subtle form of drama than farce. Its aim is to amuse in a lighthearted way, and it always ends happily. Sometimes a distinction is made between “high comedy” and “low comedy.” The former may feature verbal wit, a play of ideas in dialogue between intelligent, sophisticated characters. In the case of the Shakespeare plays mentioned above, there is also a subtlety of themes and ideas that engage the mind of the audience. Low comedy, on the other hand, might include slapstick humor and other physical jokes that appeal to the eye rather than to the ear, making it much closer to farce.
The Merry Wives of Windsor has strong farcical elements. The farcical episodes are the three humiliations of Falstaff: the scene in Fords house where Falstaff is stuffed into a laundry basket, the scene where he is disguised as an old woman and beaten by Ford, and the final scene in Windsor Park where he is tormented by the fairies. The play also has shallow characterization, and features stock characters such as the jealous husband (Ford), and the pedantic priest (Evans). Another farcical element is the sheer improbability that Falstaff would be fooled three times by the same trick.
However, the second plot, the courting of Anne Page, is not farcical but belongs in the realm of comedy. According to Jeanne Addison Roberts, in Shakespeares English Comedy, this plot is typical of comedy in that it involves “the celebration of the triumph of young love, the overthrow of the authority of the older generation, and the acceptance by society of the new” (p. 66).
For this reason, The Merry Wives of Windsor is perhaps best described as a comedy with farcical elements. Critics have occasionally used the term “farce-comedy” to describe it.