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Shakespeare's most middle-class play, and one of his most farcical, The Merry Wives of Windsor was heartily admired by Friedrich Engels, co-author of the Communist Manifesto. Perhaps Engels enjoyed the way Shakespeare dramatized the formation of the middle class out of disparate social tensions. The play's farcical, comic intrigues create a jovial tone, which suspends hierarchies, reconciles upper- and lower-class characters, and draws them together into the burgeoning middle class.
The main plot surrounds the playful but virtuous behavior of the title characters, Mistress Page and Mistress Ford, who are married to two prosperous men of Windsor. Their main point is that wives can be merry and faithful at the same time--that is, that they can lead boisterous, vivid lives without betraying their duties to their husbands--which Mr. Page understands but Mr. Ford doubts. The wives set out to dupe the sexually predatory Falstaff while curing Ford of his jealousy, bringing him to the same level of trust that Page feels. Meanwhile, the Pages' daughter, Anne Page, is married to Fenton, a man of higher birth but less money. This affirms romantic love as a kind of social assimilator, transcending class and enabling individuals to create new and inclusive social categories around their romantic relationships.
Merry Wives has a contemporary middle-class tone, emphasizing provinciality and kind of robust common sense, that is unique to Shakespeare's plays. The social network of the community takes a negative view of anyone with origins outside Windsor. Slender's pretensions make him look like a fool; Justice Shallow, whose authority is based in the monarchy, ends up much the same. Sir Hugh Evans, the Welsh clergyman, derives his authority from outside (the church) and is heartily mocked for his foreign accent. Caius, the French doctor, is similarly teased for his external roots and source of authority.
The hostility of the locals to the aristocracy appears offstage in Page's rejection of Fenton's request for Anne's hand; Page suspects Fenton of having only financial desires for Anne, which is untrue. Yet the most marked resistance to the aristocracy lies in the repeated abuse of the impoverished knight, Falstaff. By the end, Falstaff has become a scapegoat for the whole town to mock because of financially-motivated attempts to seduce the Mistresses. Yet by the end, Fenton's successful marriage to Anne marks the reconciliation of the middle class and aristocracy.
This play makes use of far more prose than any other Shakespeare play. As befits its middle-class tone, it reproduces many proverbs and cliches; Slender and Mistress Quickly particularly depend on cliche. Quickly also misunderstands and mishears words throughout the play, hearing sexual innuendo in Latin conjugations and declensions. Throwaway insults against foreigners show a kind of casual linguistic ethnocentrism, which reaches its heights in the ridicule of the fragmented English and unusual pronunciation of Evans and Caius.
The title of the play declares the primacy of the women's roles: the play is literally the story of the two merry wives. The conflicts in which Mistress Ford and Mistress Page are involved are, to an extent, related to gender--but what do they accomplish? Is their triumph over Falstaff's seduction attempts and Ford's jealousy a victory for them as women, or as members of the middle class, or both? Mistress Ford proves that Ford shouldn't be jealous, but in a certain way he was right to be--if he had arrived home at the right moment, he would have found Falstaff, and nothing would have convinced him that his wife was merely playing a trick. And while Mistress Page is blessed with an unjealous husband, she too has problems; she and her husband have each chosen a different man for their daughter to marry. While the play celebrates the Mistresses' autonomy (which is, in part, created by their husbands' wealth--social roles, gender roles, and economic hierarchy are very intermingled in the fabric of the comedy), the only woman who shows herself to be truly free is Anne, who manages to create a companionable marriage like that of her parents, but against their will.
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