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.
A pattern of sexual allusion develops in events, as well as language. Falstaff has to escape his second visit to Mistress Ford's house in disguise as a fat aunt of a servant. Ford's hatred of this aunt brings him to beat Falstaff as he flees. This moment of transvestitism looks ahead to the conclusion, where Slender and Caius both elope mistakenly with young boys instead of with Anne, as they had intended. These silly suitors are punished for their behavior by finding themselves in scenarios that suggest a threat of homosexuality, which, like adultery or financially-motivated arranged marriages, falls outside the alleged norm of a happy romantic wedding at a comedy's conclusion.
Additionally, this cross-dressing gives Shakespeare a chance to poke fun at the theatrical conventions of his day. In Elizabethan times, young boys played the roles of women on-stage. So in fact Fenton, though he is leaving with the real Anne, goes off at the end with a boy who is dressed as a girl, because the actor who played Anne would have been a boy; Fenton is, in the eyes of the audience, in exactly the same position as Slender and Caius. The boy gets the girl in an audience-pleasing fashion, yet at that same moment Shakespeare reminds the audience that they have willfully believed the same falsehood accepted by some of the play's most foolish characters.
By the end of the play, the efforts of the main plot to humiliate and expose Falstaff have unraveled. The predatory character is not ejected from the unified town; rather, Ford and Page decide to humiliate Falstaff one more time, even though they believe he is already harmless, and then invite him to their wedding feast. The Pages have managed to humiliate Falstaff, but they too are humiliated in his presence when they find that Anne has married neither of their choices for her husband. The tricksters have been tricked, bringing about a kind of moral leveling. Hierarchies are resolved, ending in a universally inclusive conclusion. The middle class cheerfully absorbs all comers, despite the conscious efforts of most of the leading characters, and the final unity is felt to be more profound than the various conflicts throughout the play.
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