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The Merry Wives of Windsor /

Reading Shakespeare’s Language: The Merry Wives of Windsor

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

For many people today, reading Shakespeare’s language can be a problem—but it is a problem that can be solved. More than four hundred years of “static” intervene between his speaking and our hearing. Most of his immense vocabulary is still in use, but a few of his words are not, and, worse, some of his words now have meanings quite different from those they had in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In the theater, most of these difficulties are solved for us by actors who study the language and articulate it for us so that the essential meaning is heard—or, when combined with stage action, is at least felt. When reading on one’s own, one must do what each actor does: go over the lines (often with a dictionary close at hand) until the puzzles are solved and the characters speak in words and phrases that are, suddenly, rewarding and wonderfully memorable.

Shakespeare’s Words

As you begin to read the opening scenes of a play by Shakespeare, you may notice occasional unfamiliar words. Some are unfamiliar simply because we no longer use them. In the opening scenes of The Merry Wives of Windsor, for example, you will find the words fallow (i.e., light brown), cony-catching (i.e., cheating), pickpurse (i.e., pickpocket), and fap (i.e., drunk). Words of this kind will become familiar the more of Shakespeare’s plays you read.

In The Merry Wives of Windsor, as in all of Shakespeare’s writing, more problematic are the words that we still use but that we use with a different meaning. In the opening scenes, for example, the word marry has the meaning of “indeed,” demands is used where we would say “requests,” fair is used where we would say “beautiful,” conceited where we would say “ingenious,” and shift where we would say “improvise.” Such words, too, will become familiar as you continue to read Shakespeare’s language.

Some words are strange not because of the “static” introduced by changes in language over the past centuries but because these are words that Shakespeare is having characters misuse. While Falstaff, late in the play, describes Sir Hugh Evans as one who “makes fritters of English” (5.5.151), Sir Hugh is not alone in his comic misspeaking. Slender, for example, very early in the play, transposes “successors” and “ancestors”: “All his successors gone before him hath done ’t, and all his ancestors that come after him may” (1.1.14–16). By including in the line itself the correct meanings of the abused English words, Shakespeare establishes in the clearest possible way the severe limitations of Slender’s command of his native language. In this respect Slender greatly resembles Doctor Caius’s servant Mistress Quickly, who as often as not chooses the wrong word. When, for example, she promises Fenton to “tell [him] more . . . the next time [they] have confidence” (1.4.166–67), the word she needs is not confidence but conference (which at that time meant “conversation”). Mistress Quickly also makes up words that were no more current in Shakespeare’s time than in ours; she says, for instance, that Anne Page “is given too much to allicholy and musing” (1.4.158–59). Allicholy has never been an English word, but its sound and its pairing here with “musing” suggest that Quickly is using it for the word melancholy.

Among other prominent misusers of words are the Welsh parson Sir Hugh and the French Doctor Caius, each of whom is given, among other language characteristics, a distinctive foreign accent. Sir Hugh’s accent becomes apparent in the play’s first scene as Shakespeare gradually introduces it with “py” for by in Sir Hugh’s third speech and “Got” for God in his fourth, thickening it in his next speech with “petter” for better, “prain” for brain, and “prings” for brings. Beyond this Welsh accent, Sir Hugh’s speeches are also characterized by erroneous word choices; for instance, he calls Anne Page a “pretty virginity.” Unlike Sir Hugh’s, Doctor Caius’s accent and his foreign-seeming syntax are heavy from the very beginning: “Vat [i.e., what] is you sing? I do not like dese [i.e., these] toys” (1.4.44). Doctor Caius’s speeches also challenge the reader with their occasional use of French words and of English words that carry not their English meanings but those of the French words from which they derive. When, for example, he asks Quickly “Do intend vat I speak?” (46), intend has the sense “hear.” Though this seems by Shakespeare’s time no longer to have been a meaning of the word in English, it is the meaning of the French word entendre, from which intend ultimately derives. Among other speakers in The Merry Wives of Windsor who frequently use words in highly unusual ways are Pistol, Nym, and the Host of the Garter Inn.

Shakespeare’s Sentences

In most of Shakespeare’s plays, speeches are predominantly in blank verse; this is not true of The Merry Wives of Windsor, where blank verse is to be found mainly in a few speeches by Master Fenton and in the play’s last scene with the fairies. Master Fenton’s first extensive speech to Anne Page, in which he tells her of her father’s objections to him as her future husband, can serve as an example of the kind of dramatic verse that Shakespeare typically writes:

FENTON          Why, thou must be thyself.

He doth object I am too great of birth,

And that, my state being galled with my expense,

I seek to heal it only by his wealth.

Besides these, other bars he lays before me—

My riots past, my wild societies—

And tells me ’tis a thing impossible

I should love thee but as a property.


In the above speech, as is his practice, Shakespeare shifts his sentences away from “normal” English arrangements—often to create the rhythm he seeks, sometimes to use a line’s meter to emphasize a particular word. The first short sentence in this speech follows normal English word order, as does the beginning of the second sentence. After the verb (“doth object”), however, the second sentence becomes elliptical (i.e., leaves something out). The word that is omitted at the beginning of the first object of the verb (i.e., the clause “I am too great of birth”), an omission that preserves the largely iambic rhythm of the line: “He doth | object’ | I am | too great’ | of birth’ |.” The second object-clause (“that, my state being galled with my expense, / I seek to heal it only by his wealth”) also departs from normal word order; we would expect “that” to be immediately followed by the subject of the clause (“I”), but Shakespeare holds back the subject in order to insert before it an absolute construction, “my state [estate] being galled [depleted; literally, chafed] with my expense [extravagance].” This insertion provides the grounds for the second objection of Master Page, the presentation of which completes the sentence: “I seek to heal it only by his wealth.” In the third sentence, normal word order and sentence construction are again altered, with the object of the sentence “other bars” coming before the subject and verb (“he lays”) and with that twice omitted, once before “ ’tis a thing” and again before “I should love,” the ellipses here giving Fenton’s speech an informal, colloquial tone.

Most of the challenges and rewards of reading Shakespeare’s sentences in The Merry Wives are quite unlike those just analyzed. The play is largely prose, and normal word order is usually observed. Yet Shakespeare introduces into his prose all kinds of comic distortions of sentence structure. We have already quoted Doctor Caius’s sentence “Vat is you sing?”—an unidiomatic form of the sentence “What are you singing?” (or, “What do you sing?”) that indicates how he has yet to master English as a second language. Mistress Quickly’s utterances often refuse to conform to our expectations of sentence formation: “And the very yea and the no is, the French doctor, my master—I may call him my master, look you, for I keep his house, and I wash, wring, brew, bake, scour, dress meat and drink, make the beds, and do all myself” (1.4.98–102). This sentence begins in the usual way with a subject (“the very yea and the no”) and verb (“is”) and seems to be moving toward proper completion in a clause that has “the French doctor, my master” as its subject. But we will never know what this clause may have been because Mistress Quickly drops her first sentence to begin a second: “I may call him my master. . . .” Inconsequence, or lack of sequence, is the distinctive mark of Mistress Quickly’s sentences. When her sentences do conform to grammatical sequence, they often escape logical sequence. For instance, when Falstaff calls her “good maid” (i.e., “good virgin”) she replies “I’ll be sworn—as my mother was, the first hour I was born” (2.2.36–38), thus confusedly vowing that she is every bit the virgin that her mother was just after giving birth to her.

Falstaff’s sentences provide a very different kind of comedy: the pleasure of reading or listening to his speeches is often that of following the elaborate patterning that Shakespeare has used to shape them. One prominent example comes near the end of the play when Falstaff excuses his disguising himself in pursuit of a woman by calling on Jove, who transformed himself into a bull to capture Europa and into a swan to seduce Leda:

[1] Remember, Jove, thou wast a bull for thy Europa; love set on thy horns. [2] O powerful love, that in some respects makes a beast a man, in some other a man a beast! [3] You were also, Jupiter, a swan for the love of Leda. [4] O omnipotent love, how near the god drew to the complexion of a goose! [5] A fault done first in the form of a beast; O Jove, a beastly fault! [6] And then another fault in the semblance of a fowl; think on ’t, Jove, a foul fault.


Here Shakespeare creates the illusion of Falstaff’s great mastery of language by having him utter sentences that, to some extent, mirror each other in their form. We rearrange these sentences schematically to call attention to their patterns of repetition, and we print in bold the parallel elements. At the same time, we print in italic those words in each sentence that echo each other either through outright repetition or through their similar sounds.

[1] Remember,

Jove, thou wast

a bull for thy Europa . . . .

[3] You were also,


a swan for the love of Leda.

[2] O powerful

love, that

in some respects makes
a beast a man,



in some other
a man a beast!

[4] O omnipotent

love, how near

the god drew to the
complexion of



a goose!

[5] A

fault done first

in the form
of a beast;






a beastly fault!

[6] And then another


in the semblance
of a fowl;
on ’t,






a foul fault.

As these examples show, Falstaff is capable not only of choosing precisely the right words for their sense but also of playing with the sounds of these words as a way of mocking both Jove and himself.

Shakespearean Wordplay

Shakespeare plays with language so often and so variously that entire books are written on the topic. Here we will mention only three kinds of wordplay: puns, metaphors, and similes. A pun is a play on words that sound somewhat the same but that have different meanings (or a play on a single word that has more than one meaning). The language-learning scene (4.1) in The Merry Wives of Windsor exhibits sustained punning that turns on the similarity of sound between the Latin words on which William Page is being tested and the English words that Mistress Quickly, in her ignorance of Latin, substitutes for them. When William is asked “What is ‘fair’?” and responds correctly with the Latin adjective pulcher, Mistress Quickly substitutes the English noun polecats, meaning “weasels,” and declares “There are fairer things than polecats” (25–29). When she hears the plural possessives or genitives of the Latin word meaning “this,” which are horum, harum, horum, she substitutes the English whore and rails against the schoolmaster: “You do ill to teach the child such words” (64–65).

A metaphor is a play on words in which one object or idea is expressed as if it were something else, something with which it shares common features. For instance, in Fenton’s speech quoted above, he speaks of his “state” (i.e., estate) as if it were a body that his extravagance has “galled” or chafed, but that can be healed through the medicine of Master Page’s “wealth.”

A simile is a play on words in which an object or idea is, through the use of “like” or “as,” explicitly compared to something else. Just as Falstaff is made the master of the schematic sentence, so is he the master of the simile. When, for example, he describes “the pangs of three several deaths” he suffered in his dunking in the river, he is allowed to find a term of comparison for his every state:

to be compassed, like a good bilbo [i.e., flexible sword], in the circumference of a peck, hilt to point, heel to head; and then, to be stopped in, like a strong distillation, with stinking clothes that fretted in their own grease. . . . And in the height of this bath, when I was more than half-stewed in grease, like a Dutch dish, to be thrown into the Thames and cooled, glowing hot, in that surge, like a horseshoe!

(3.5.110, 112–23)

Implied Stage Action

Finally, in reading Shakespeare’s plays we should always remember that what we are reading is a performance script. The dialogue is written to be spoken by actors who, at the same time, are moving, gesturing, picking up objects, shaking their fists. We should try to remain alert to signals for action as we stage the play in our imaginations. Some signals are provided in what are called “stage directions”; some are suggested within the dialogue itself.

For editors attempting to provide helpful and accurate stage directions, The Merry Wives of Windsor presents special challenges because the only complete text of the play, the First Folio text of 1623, is quite bare of such directions, except for some entrances and end-of-scene exits. Thus editors must reconstruct the action of the play entirely from what is suggested by the dialogue itself, supplemented by reference to the stage directions printed in the truncated and deficient Quarto text of 1602. (For more discussion of the Quarto, see “An Introduction to This Text.”) As editors, we have introduced stage directions from the Quarto or of our own devising only when we felt confident that they are signaled by the dialogue, placing them in half-brackets to alert readers to the fact that they are not in the Folio text that is the basis for our edition.

Fortunately, the dialogue in this play is often clear about the action that should accompany the language. When, in 3.3, for example, Falstaff says “I will ensconce me behind the arras” and Mistress Ford responds “Pray you, do so” (89–91), it is clear from these lines and from those that then follow that Falstaff does hide behind an arras (i.e., a wall hanging). A few lines later, the stage action suggested by the dialogue is again clear. Falstaff, frightened out of his hiding place by the threat of Master Ford’s approach and desperate to get into a handy laundry basket in order to be carried secretly out of the house, says “Help me away. Let me creep in here” (139–40). The line that follows, Mistress Ford’s “Help to cover your master, boy,” makes it clear that Falstaff has indeed gotten into the basket and hidden himself under the dirty linen. We feel comfortable, then, adding the stage direction “Falstaff goes into the basket; they cover him with dirty clothes.”

Sometimes, though, signals to the reader are not so clear. How, for example, should Mistress Page and Mistress Ford act toward Falstaff when they meet him in the play’s first scene? Mistress Page reflects back on that meeting in 2.1, after she has received a love letter from Falstaff, and she expresses bewilderment about what she might have done when in his company that would have encouraged his forwardness; Mistress Ford, receiving her own such letter, joins her in her bewilderment: “What doth he think of us?” (83). While the Folio text gives us no help about stage action in the opening scene, the Quarto includes a stage direction for Falstaff to kiss Mistress Ford (1.1.189). We have incorporated this direction into our edition, but in Shakespeare’s time, in contrast to ours, the kiss could be merely a form of polite salutation. Thus readers, actors, and directors are free to imagine what, if anything, the women do in the first scene to attract Falstaff’s predatory attention—including the likelihood that they behave with complete propriety and that his perception of their “leer of invitation” (1.3.43–44) arises from his own conceit and greed.

Another place where stage action is problematic is in the play’s last scene. According to the play’s dialogue, the scene includes rather complicated action in which the fairies punish a disguised Falstaff and in which three men each take away a “fairy” that each thinks is a disguised Anne Page. Here again the Quarto provides a stage direction, this one reading:

Here they pinch him [i.e., Falstaff], and sing about him, & the Doctor comes one way & steales away a boy in red. And Slender another way he takes a boy in greene: And Fenton steales misteris Anne, being in white.

Unfortunately, this direction does not completely cohere with the Folio dialogue, which mentions nothing about a red costume, and which clothes Anne Page and her replicas in colors that do not match those in the Quarto stage direction. We have therefore adapted the Quarto stage direction to make it conform to the Folio dialogue:

Here they pinch him and sing about him, and Doctor Caius comes one way and steals away a boy in white. And Slender comes another way; he takes a boy in green. And Fenton steals Mistress Anne Page. (5.5.98)

As with much of the action in this eventful scene, the moment thus described may actually be staged in any number of ways. Although we provide our best guess about the action, directors and actors—and readers in their imaginations—are at the same liberty as editors to imagine this moment on stage.

It is immensely rewarding to work carefully with Shakespeare’s language so that the words, the sentences, the wordplay, and the implied stage action all become vivid—as readers for the past four centuries have discovered. It may be more pleasurable to attend a good performance of a play—though not everyone has thought so. But the joy of being able to stage one of Shakespeare’s plays in one’s imagination, to return to passages that continue to yield further meanings (or further questions) the more one reads them—these are pleasures that, for many, rival (or at least augment) those of the performed text, and certainly make it worth considerable effort to “break the code” of Elizabethan drama and let free the remarkable language that makes up a Shakespeare text.