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The Merry Wives of Windsor /

An Introduction to This Text: The Merry Wives of Windsor

By Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine
Editors of the Folger Shakespeare Library Editions

A version of The Merry Wives of Windsor was first published in a quarto of 1602; this text is a little more than half the length of the second version subsequently published in the 1623 collection of Shakespeare’s plays now known as the First Folio. Despite the variation in length, the two published texts present substantially the same dramatic action. They also provide dialogue that is sometimes almost identical and that sometimes diverges widely.

The convergence and divergence of dialogue do not finally assume an intelligible pattern, even though the possibility of such a pattern may seem initially to emerge in connection with the entrances and exits of the character known as the Host of the Garter Inn (suggesting to some that the actor playing the Host was responsible for the Quarto text). Sometimes when the Host enters, the Quarto’s dialogue, which has been quite divergent from the Folio’s, suddenly snaps into nearly perfect alignment with the Folio’s. This change occurs with the Host’s entrances in 1.3, 2.1, 2.3, and 4.5. In some scenes as well, when the dialogue of both texts has been very nearly the same, it suddenly becomes very different with the Host’s exit; a good example is to be found in 2.1. But striking as this pattern seems at first to be, it is not sustained. The Host’s entrances in 3.1, 3.2, 4.3, and 4.6 do not make nearly the difference that his other four entrances do, and occasionally the convergence of the two texts’ dialogue is much more impressive when the Host is offstage than when he is onstage. For example, immediately following the entrance of Falstaff, Pistol, Bardolph, and Nym in 1.1, the dialogue of the two texts suddenly converges, even though the two texts had just previously borne virtually no verbal resemblance to each other. (For further discussion of this topic and examples of Quarto dialogue, see Paul Werstine’s “A Century of ‘Bad’ Shakespeare Quartos,” Shakespeare Quarterly 50 [1999]: 310–33.)

From this evidence, many have argued that the Quarto is to some extent a memorial reconstruction of what was later published in the Folio—in other words, that Quarto and Folio constitute two versions of the same text of the play, the Folio simply being much more successful than the Quarto in reproducing this single text. However, if the Quarto indeed represents an effort to re-create the Folio text, that effort was carried out quite sporadically. It is therefore equally possible that the Quarto represents, however imperfectly, another version of the play—a version not wholly but nonetheless still widely divergent from the Folio. We as editors have therefore felt that we could draw on the Quarto for a reading to correct an evident error in the Folio only if there is, at that point in the dialogue, a very high level of convergence between the two texts.

Explore the first printing of The Merry Wives of Windor (1602) in the Folger’s Digital Collections.

From the 1623 First Folio. STC 22273 Fo.1 no.68, D2r
From the 1623 First Folio.
STC 22273 Fo.1 no.68, D2r

But the Quarto is useful to editors for its many stage directions. These are valuable because the Folio, in contrast, contains almost no stage directions; it includes only lists of the characters that are to appear in each scene. These lists are printed at the head of each scene, even though in many cases a number of the named characters do not enter until late in the scene. (The single exception to this pattern is the mid-scene stage direction “Enter Fairies.” at 5.5.39.) Scholars have convincingly argued that such mass entries derive from the scribe Ralph Crane, who used this style of stage direction in some of his surviving transcripts of non-Shakespearean plays and who is thought, on good grounds, to have prepared printer’s copy for some of the plays in the Folio. Whatever the origin of the Folio’s stage directions, they need to be supplemented in the editing of a modern edition. We have drawn liberally from the Quarto’s stage directions in this edition, sometimes emending them to make them conform to modern idiom or to bring them into agreement with the Folio’s dialogue.

In spite of our occasional reference to the Quarto for readings and, more often, for stage directions, this present edition remains an edition of the Folio printing of the play.1 For the convenience of the reader, we have modernized the punctuation and the spelling of the Folio. Sometimes we go so far as to modernize certain old forms of words; for example, usually when a means he, we change it to he; we change mo to more, and ye to you. But it is not our practice in editing any of the plays to modernize words that sound distinctly different from modern forms. For example, when the early printed texts read sith or apricocks or porpentine, we have not modernized to since, apricots, porcupine. When the forms an, and, or and if appear instead of the modern form if, we have reduced and to an but have not changed any of these forms to their modern equivalent, if. We also modernize and, where necessary, correct passages in foreign languages, unless an error in the early printed text can be reasonably explained as a joke.

Whenever we change the wording of the First Folio or add anything to its stage directions, we mark the change by enclosing it in superior half-brackets ( ). We want our readers to be immediately aware when we have intervened. (Only when we correct an obvious typographical error in the First Folio does the change not get marked.) Whenever we change either the First Folio’s wording or its punctuation so that meaning changes, we list the change in the textual notes, even if all we have done is fix an obvious error.

We regularize spellings of a number of the proper names, as is the usual practice in modern editions of the play. For example, the Folio sometimes calls Falstaff by the names “Falstaffe,” “Falstaff,” “Falstaf,” “Falstoffe,” and “Falstoff,” and once calls Fenton by the name “Fenten,” but we use the spellings “Falstaff” and “Fenton” throughout the text.

This edition differs from many earlier ones in its efforts to aid the reader in imagining the play as a performance rather than as a series of actual events. For example, when the fiction of the play calls for one character to give another a letter or letters, the onstage action will show one actor giving another a paper or papers. Thus our stage directions usually indicate an exchange of papers, not of fictional letters, unless such a direction might cause confusion. When, for example, the play presents Mistress Page reading a letter at the beginning of Act 2, we do not say that she is reading “a paper,” because such a stage direction might well lead readers to imagine her reading something besides a letter, say, a newspaper. Whenever it is reasonably certain, in our view, that a speech is accompanied by a particular action, we provide a stage direction describing the action, setting the added direction in brackets to signal that it is not found in the Folio. (Occasional exceptions to this rule occur when the action is so obvious that to add a stage direction would insult the reader.) Stage directions for the entrance of a character in mid-scene are, with rare exceptions, silently placed so that they immediately precede the character’s participation in the scene, even though these entrances appear at the beginning of the scene in the Folio text. The textual notes include the full text of the Folio stage directions and record their positions in the text. Latin stage directions (e.g., Exeunt) are translated into English (e.g., They exit).

We expand the often severely abbreviated forms of names used as speech headings in early printed texts into the full names of the characters. We also regularize the speakers’ names in speech headings, using only a single designation for each character, even though the early printed texts sometimes use a variety of designations. Variations in the speech headings of the early printed texts are recorded in the textual notes.

In the present edition, as well, we mark with a dash any change of address within a speech, unless a stage direction intervenes. When the –ed ending of a word is to be pronounced, we mark it with an accent. Like editors for the past two centuries, we display metrically linked lines in the following way:

 Alas, how then?
FENTON  Why, thou must be thyself.


However, when there are a number of short verse-lines that can be linked in more than one way, we do not, with rare exceptions, indent any of them.

  1. We have also consulted the computerized text of the First Quarto provided by the Text Archive of the Oxford University Computing Centre, to which we are grateful.