Likely the most influential writer in all of English literature and certainly the most important playwright of the English Renaissance, William Shakespeare was born in 1564 in the town of Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire, England. The son of a successful middle-class glove-maker, Shakespeare attended grammar school, but his formal education proceeded no further. In 1582, he married an older woman, Anne Hathaway, and had three children with her. Around 1590 he left his family behind and traveled to London to work as an actor and playwright. Public and critical success quickly followed, and Shakespeare eventually became the most popular playwright in England and part owner of the Globe Theater. His career bridged the reigns of Elizabeth I (ruled 1558-1603) and James I (ruled 1603-1625); he was a favorite of both monarchs. Indeed, James granted Shakespeare's company the greatest possible compliment by endowing them with the status of king's players. Wealthy and renowned, Shakespeare retired to Stratford, and died in 1616 at the age of fifty-two. At the time of Shakespeare's death, such luminaries as Ben Jonson hailed him as the apogee of Renaissance theatre.

Shakespeare's works were collected and printed in various editions in the century following his death, and by the early eighteenth century his reputation as the greatest poet ever to write in English was well established. The unprecedented admiration garnered by his works led to a fierce curiosity about Shakespeare's life; but the paucity of surviving biographical information has left many details of Shakespeare's personal history shrouded in mystery. Some people have concluded from this fact that Shakespeare's plays in reality were written by someone else--Francis Bacon and the Earl of Oxford are the two most popular candidates--but the evidence for this claim is overwhelmingly circumstantial, and the theory is not taken seriously by many scholars.

In the absence of definitive proof to the contrary, Shakespeare must be viewed as the author of the 37 plays and 154 sonnets that bear his name. The legacy of this body of work is immense. A number of Shakespeare's plays seem to have transcended even the category of brilliance, becoming so influential as to affect profoundly the course of Western literature and culture ever after.

Probably written in 1597-8, Merry Wives is Shakespeare's most middle-class play in setting, subject matter, and outlook. It's also one of his most farcical works, using physical gags and linguistic jokes to establish a comic tone that influence the play's ultimate spirit of reconciliation, after all the intrigues have been sorted out.

Merry Wives gives an impression of life in an English provincial town as it was lived at the time of the play's first performance. It refers to other, older plays; the main plot closely resembles Il Pecorone, a 1558 Italian play by Ser Giovanni Fiorentino. This plot and the primary subplot also draw on ancient Roman comedy and medieval farce. Though the play does contain characters both above and below the middle class, as well as culturally stereotyped foreigners, ultimately everything functions to demonstrate the assimilating power of the middle class.

The first performance of this play was said to have occurred in London on April 23, 1597, at a feast of the Order of the Garter (an aristocratic fraternity), which Queen Elizabeth attended. According to theatrical legend, Elizabeth saw Henry IV, Part I and so liked the character of Falstaff that she asked Shakespeare to write another play about him, allegedly allotting him only 14 days. Shakespeare may have put aside Henry IV, Part 2 to complete Merry Wives, and he included several characters who reappear from both plays, including Pistol, Nim, Bardolph, Mistress Quickly, and Shallow. Falstaff and his entourage supposedly were good friends with Prince Henry, later Henry V, which lends a monarchal touch to the more suburban events of Merry Wives.

The text survives in two different versions, one in the First Quarto (1602) and another in the First Folio (1623). The Folio is printed from a manuscript that was based on either a playhouse promptbook or an authorial manuscript, and has a close connection with the first performance of the play. The Quarto is most likely a reconstruction from memory by actors who performed parts in the first performances. Half the length of the Folio version, the Quarto is probably a poorly remembered account, or a version trimmed down for provincial performances. Modern editions are based on the Folio edition, though the Quarto's stage directions and certain passages have been integrated into modern editions.

Popular pages: The Merry Wives of Windsor