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The Merry Wives of Windsor /

A Modern Perspective: The Merry Wives of Windsor

By Natasha Korda

The Merry Wives of Windsor is often described as unique in the Shakespearean canon because of its contemporaneity—its quality of here-and-now-ness—which “create[s] the impression of life in an English provincial town as it is being lived at the moment of the play’s first performance.”1 The world of the play is indeed quite different from the far-off never-never lands of Illyria, Arden, or Belmont. It is given a local habitation and a name, Windsor, whose recognizable topography is rendered in homely detail, Park-ward and Petty-ward, from Frogmore to Datchet Mead. This quality has in turn led to the play’s designation as the “most realistic of Shakespeare’s comedies.”2 The play seems to stand apart in offering what might be called its own modern perspective on small-town life in early modern England.

In applying the phrase “modern perspective” to the play, I am taking the word modern in its very Shakespearean sense, which derives from the Latin roots modus (manner, fashion) and hodiernus (of the present time). Its early modern usage was closely related to the word mode, which denoted in English “a prevailing fashion, custom, practice or style . . . characteristic of a particular place or period,” and in French “a collective manner of living or thinking proper to a country or age” (OED). As used by Shakespeare, the word commonly refers to the everyday, ordinary, or commonplace. The realism or modern-ity that sets Merry Wives apart is constructed through a variety of techniques that ground the world of the play in the particularity and texture of everyday life: references to popular customs (hue and cry, shaming rituals, bearbaiting); folk and fairy lore (Herne the Hunter, the Fairy Queen, Hobgoblin, elves, aufs, urchins, nymphs); everyday objects (seacoal, cowlstaffs, coffers, chests, trunks, presses, halfpenny purses, pepperboxes, buck-baskets, foul shirts and smocks, greasy napkins); food and drink (hot venison pasties, Banbury cheese, burned sack, salt fish, stewed prunes, pippins, pumpions, possets); routines of housewifery (washing, wringing, brewing, baking, bleaching, scouring); domestic architecture (lodges, brew houses, kiln holes, closets); coins (groats, mill-sixpences, Edward shovel-boards); fashions in apparel, both elite (jerkins, fans, semicircled farthingales, Venetian head-tires) and ordinary (mufflers, plain kerchiefs, thrummed hats); idiomatic speech, including such red-lattice phrases or slurs as “Froth and scum, thou liest,” “mechanical salt-butter rogue!” “peaking cornuto,” “old cozening quean!” “you rag, you baggage, you polecat, you runnion!”; the foreign accents of Sir Hugh and Doctor Caius; class idiolects both elite (Fenton’s blank verse) and vulgar (Mistress Quickly’s bawdy malapropisms); and throughout, a higher percentage of prose than in any other play by Shakespeare. It is perhaps the play’s situatedness in Shakespeare’s England that has led scholars to seek a specific occasion for which it was written, and to suggest numerous topical allusions to particular events or persons hidden in the text.

Yet the notion that Merry Wives holds, as it were, a mirror up to everyday life “as it was lived in a small country town round about the year 1600,”3 or that it points to a particular event, occasion, or person, diverts our attention away from the complexity of the text itself and of its relation to its various historical contexts, both past and present. For the play does not merely record small-town life, popular customs, and domestic routines during the historical moment defined as Shakespeare’s present. Rather, it calls such customs and routines into question by situating them in relation to England’s historical past and its political present. What has often been called the play’s “anachronism,” its mixing of past and present elements, serves as a constant reminder that more is at stake than the simple present, if only because the town of Windsor is populated by a cast of characters who themselves have a past in Shakespeare’s chronicle history plays. Shakespeare thus situates the comedy within the orbit of a constellation of plays that are deeply concerned with issues of political legitimacy and historical engagement. It is thus not entirely accurate to describe Merry Wives as modern, for its concerns are confined neither to the present nor to the everyday lives of ordinary citizens. Shakespeare was in fact profoundly mistrustful of such modern perspectives narrowly construed. In Othello, he refers to them as the “thin habits and poor likelihoods / Of modern seeming” (1.3.127–28). As the phrase “modern seeming” suggests, and as Merry Wives and Othello (as well as a host of other early modern plays) make abundantly clear, everyday appearances can be dangerously misleading. Both plays explore the potentially dire consequences of a jealousy that feeds on “thin habits and poor likelihoods,” or what might be described as an overly narrow or myopic, uncritical view of the present.

As we begin to unravel the complexity of Shakespeare’s engagement with the modern in Merry Wives, it would help to acknowledge that the play is neither his only nor his first exploration of contemporary English small-town life. In The Taming of the Shrew’s Induction, too, we are likewise given a glimpse of the here-and-now that is far from simple—and that bears little resemblance to anything that might be described as “merry olde England.” Rather, as in Merry Wives, we are introduced to the class and gender conflicts that characterized a period of momentous social, political, and economic change. That such conflicts reach beyond the domestic sphere is suggested by the Induction’s concluding description of the play itself: it is not simply a “comonty”—the drunken Sly’s term for a comedy concerned with everyday life, common customs, and “household stuff”—but rather “a kind of history” (Ind.2.140, 143–44). Throughout the 1590s, Shakespeare explored the generic boundaries of the comedy and the history play, and, as always, he delighted in mixing things up. When Petruchio, the shrew tamer, confides to his audience “Thus have I politicly begun my reign” (4.1.188; my emphasis), he makes clear that the domestic sphere was not perceived to be isolated from the political sphere. Rather, the governance of the former was explicitly modeled on that of the latter: “Thy husband” is “thy lord, thy king, thy governor,” Kate reminds her female audience in her final speech (5.2.162, 154). It is thus only partly true to say that comedies such as Shrew and Merry Wives are concerned with “money and marriages, not crowns and kingdoms”4—with the private, not the political—for the two were viewed as inseparable.5

Yet the analogy between the governance of the household and the state became more difficult to sustain during the period in which both Shrew and Merry Wives were written, when England was ruled by a female monarch—which is perhaps why both plays are concerned with defining the wife’s role in the governance of the household and with the specter of the unruly woman-on-top. During the first half of the sixteenth century, there had been no need to consider the implications of female rule with respect to marital hierarchy, or vice versa. A domestic treatise of the period thus easily establishes the confinement of female governance within the domestic sphere: “[Think] you it was for nothing that wise men forbade you [women] rule and governance of countries . . . ? All this same meaneth that you shall not meddle with matters of realms or cities. Your own house is a city great enough for you.”6 But with the accession of Mary I in 1553, and with her marriage to Philip II of Spain, female governance of the state became a reality; political theorists were faced with the problem of reconciling wives’ ordinary domestic duties with a married queen regnant’s extraordinary political duties. Matters were further complicated by the legal status of wives under the English Common Law: according to “coverture,” a woman’s legal identity was subsumed, and her property rights forfeited, to her husband during marriage. Although it had been established since the reign of Edward III that a queen regnant was to be treated as a single woman with regard to her legal status and property rights, this precedent had never been put to the test. A contemporary political theorist voiced the anxieties of English subjects that their “liberties, laws, commodities, and fruits” would be “given in to the power and distribution of others by the reason of [Mary’s] marriage.”7

Mary’s reign therefore left a legacy of doubt regarding the ability of a married queen regnant to enforce her exemption from the law of coverture. This legacy weighed heavily on Elizabeth I and her subjects during the early part of her reign, while she still entertained the idea of marriage.8 Legal theorists who wished to defend her right to rule argued at times for her exceptional status (i.e., although an ordinary woman “must be subject,” a queen “may be her husband’s head”), and thus for a discontinuity between women’s domestic and political roles; at other times they pointed to a continuity between them (i.e., women often manage affairs within the household, “and an household is a little commonwealth”; therefore you cannot “debar them of all rule”).9 The apparent contradiction between these two arguments arose from the disparity between legal theory and actual practice. For as contemporary commentators frequently noted, in fact women exerted considerable control over domestic affairs.

The comic intrigue of Merry Wives mines these cultural anxieties surrounding female domestic and political rule, inviting us to consider the implications of the former with respect to the latter. Initially offering a modern perspective on wives’ active, managerial role in everyday domestic affairs, it then progresses beyond the boundaries of the domestic sphere to examine the implications of this role at court in its concluding masque, which centers on the figure of the Fairy Queen. That the wives’ domestic management has political resonance is suggested early in the play when we learn that they have “all the rule” of their husbands’ purses (1.3.51–52, 69–70)—a state of affairs running directly against the law of coverture. Importantly, however, the world of the play is presented not as one of topsy-turvy misrule or shrewish inversion, as in many of Shakespeare’s comedies, but as a glimpse into the everyday lives of common citizens. We are told, for example, the mundane details of the domestic routines that define Mistress Page’s household management: “Do what she will, say what she will, take all, pay all, go to bed when she list, rise when she list—all is as she will. And, truly, she deserves it” (2.2.117–20). Yet the defensive tone of Quickly’s “truly, she deserves it” indicates that women’s managerial control over the domestic sphere was still a matter of contention. It is therefore crucial that the play portrays both wives not as unruly or overbearing shrews, but rather as ordinary housewives who protect the propriety of their domestic domains.

The contemporary debate over wives’ domestic duties surfaces in the conflicting attitudes displayed by Ford and Page. Whereas Page demonstrates absolute trust in his wife’s self-governance (“I would turn her loose to him,” he says of Falstaff, “and what he gets more of her than sharp words, let it lie on my head” [2.1.181–83]), Ford pries into every aspect of his wife’s domestic management, viewing Page as “an ass, a secure ass. He will trust his wife. . . . I will rather trust a Fleming with my butter, . . . an Irishman with my aquavitae bottle, or a thief to walk my ambling gelding, than my wife with herself. Then she plots, then she ruminates, then she devises” (2.2.308–14). Ford’s mistrust, although ostensibly grounded in the obvious, or what counts as common sense, is spun out of a web of “modern seeming.” His reasoning smacks of a narrow-minded provincialism (“We are simple men. . . . We know nothing” [4.2.173, 177], he later declares) that epitomizes the “thin habits” of collective wisdom (which is often characterized by caricatures, biased beliefs, recycled rumors, and slanderous slurs). “Rumor is a pipe / Blown by surmises, jealousies, conjectures,” we are told in Henry IV, Part 2 by Rumor itself, who delivers the Induction speech in a costume “painted full of tongues” (Ind. 15–16, SD 0). “Upon my tongues continual slanders ride,” Rumor further boasts, “Stuffing the ears of men with false reports” (6, 8). Ford’s own surmises, jealousies, and conjectures regarding his wife make clear that slanderous, false reports could be as damaging in domestic affairs as in affairs of state.10

The play reveals Ford’s mistrust to be misplaced, and he is publicly ridiculed for it: “Fie, fie, Master Ford, are you not ashamed?” Page reproves his friend. “What spirit, what devil suggests this imagination?” (3.3.211–12). Ford is cast as both uncharitably suspicious of and as unnecessarily meddlesome in his wife’s domestic affairs as he obsessively searches every square inch of his household for Falstaff. The length of Mistress Ford’s list of potential hiding places habitually inspected by her husband underscores the excessiveness of his domestic surveillance (“Neither press, coffer, chest, trunk, well, vault, but he hath an abstract for the remembrance of such places, and goes to them by his note” [4.2.60–63]), as does the minuteness of the objects (from a halfpenny purse to a pepperbox) in which he seeks the gargantuan knight. Ford’s search for Falstaff in his wife’s buck-basket is likewise castigated by the community as inappropriate meddling: “Why, this passes, Master Ford!” says Page. “You are not to go loose any longer; you must be pinioned” (4.2.123–24). Sir Hugh likewise cautions, “Why, this is lunatics. This is mad as a mad dog” (125–26), to which Shallow adds, “Indeed, Master Ford, this is not well, indeed” (127). Domestic advice manuals of the period similarly warned husbands against meddling in their wives’ domestic management: husbands “must be accounted over-curious, or rather mean spirited,” The Ladies Dictionary chides, who “must be peeping, prying, and finding fault with the Feminine Jurisdiction.”11

Merry Wives playfully assuages male anxiety surrounding wives’ ability to supervise both house and hold by making the stranger who threatens to infiltrate them quite literally unhideable. The purely comedic aspect of the wives’ plans for revenge revolves around the practical impossibility of hiding Falstaff, who simply won’t fit into any of the household’s available recesses or repositories. His monumental proportions are thereby turned to comic advantage, making him not only an unlikely gallant (“I had rather be a giantess,” says Mistress Page, “and lie under Mount Pelion” [2.1.79–80]) but an extremely inconvenient one as well. Because “There is no hiding [Falstaff] in the house” (4.2.63–64), the wives must come up with inventive ways of conveying him—past Ford and his search party—out of it. Their first scheme relies on a literal act of housekeeping that removes the “stain” of impropriety (i.e., the threats of theft, adultery, and slander), embodied by the fat, “greasy” knight, out of the household with their dirty linens to be “bucked” or bleached in the Thames. Particularly ingenious in the wives’ demonstration of their ability to govern the “Feminine Jurisdiction” is the choice of weapons they deploy: a buck-basket, a cowlstaff, and dirty linens. All were household objects commonly used during the period in public shaming rituals to punish unruly or wayward wives and their hapless husbands. In ridings, for example, adulteresses, cuckolds, and wife-beaten husbands were hoisted on a cowlstaff while accompanied through town by a boisterous procession of jeering neighbors; in charivari, victims were dragged out of the house, covered with mud and filth, and then washed in a lake or river on a cucking stool. The play thus dramatically appropriates and transforms the tools of communal shaming: here, they are used not to punish wayward wives but rather to vindicate the wives’ honesty as they are wielded against a would-be seducer. In the second scheme of revenge, Falstaff is coerced into disguising himself as “the fat woman of Brentford” (4.2.75–76) and thereby into parodying another shaming ritual called Skimmington, in which husbands who had been beaten or cuckolded by their wives were made to dress in their wives’ clothing and to ride the cowlstaff while being beaten by a neighbor. The merry wives effectively convert the tools of such public spectacles into a more discreet form of punishment that succeeds in warding off the prying gaze of the community while displaying themselves as chaste and chary housewives. The play thus offers a complex, if not critical, perspective on the general thinking, fashions, and customs that constitute modern, everyday life.

In their final scheme of revenge, the wives once again appropriate and redeploy elements of public shaming. The “rough music,” mocking rhymes, and cacophony produced by beating pots and pans, common to such rituals, reappear as the “rattles” (4.4.55) and “scornful rhyme[s](5.5.97) used to discipline “the unclean knight” (4.4.61); moreover, Falstaff’s buck’s horns, ordinarily used to shame cuckolded husbands, are here worn by the would-be cuckolder instead. Ford gloats over this propitious reversal of the typical terms of the ritual: “Now, sir,” he chides Falstaff, “who’s a cuckold now? . . . Falstaff’s a knave, a cuckoldy knave. Here are his horns” (5.5.115–17). Indeed, the husband actually enjoys the shaming ritual concocted by the wives because it is not directed at him. The whole community has already discovered through the agency of the wives that Ford is not a cuckold and that his wife, in Sir Hugh’s words, “is as honest a ’omans as I will desires among five thousand, and five hundred too” (3.3.216–18).

In moving beyond the bounds of the domestic sphere into the public environs of Windsor Castle, the final masque likewise invites us to consider the wives’ governance of the “Feminine Jurisdiction” in relation to Queen Elizabeth’s governance of the state. The masque begins by casting the “Fairy Queen” as a scrupulous housekeeper, proclaiming “Our radiant queen hates sluts and sluttery” (5.5.50). While the obvious referent of this pronouncement is Elizabeth’s status as “the Virgin queen,” the terms slut and sluttery denoted slovenliness and insufficiently scrupulous housekeeping (the elves have just found the fires “unraked and hearths unswept” [5.5.47–48]). The Fairy Queen herself employs the language of housewifery, ordering her elfish subjects to “Search Windsor Castle . . . within and out,” and to “scour” her knights’ “chairs of order” to ensure that all is “fit, / Worthy the owner, and the owner it” (5.5.61, 66, 64–65). The Fairy Queen is portrayed as a fastidious housewife who commands her servants to investigate every nook and cranny of her household so as properly to order and protect her property. Yet the property over which the queen presides, unlike that of an ordinary housewife, is her own, both because she is queen and because she is unmarried. Unlike many of the court entertainments performed for Elizabeth during the early part of her reign, Shakespeare’s masque culminates not in the Fairy Queen’s marriage but in her punishment of the unclean knight’s “lust and luxury” (5.5.100).

In the latter part of her reign, Elizabeth’s self-presentation as a royal housewife who had “given herself in Marriage to her Kingdom”12 had given way to the cult of the Virgin Queen, whose iconography was showing increasing signs of strain during the social and economic crises of the 1590s (the period in which Merry Wives was written). England’s population was under a heavy tax burden to pay for foreign wars and had experienced frequent plague outbreaks; in addition, a succession of agricultural and climatic disasters had resulted in dire food shortages, inflation, and an upsurge in poverty and rioting. Towns were hit hard, as dearth threatened the domestic comforts of the middling sort. Elizabeth’s reputation likewise suffered, as many blamed the queen for the desperate state of the economy. Nor did the crisis leave the court untouched, as Elizabeth was forced to cut down on court expenditures and the distribution of patronage. Images of Elizabeth produced by her courtiers during the 1590s were at best ambivalent and at worst iconoclastic.

Shakespeare’s masque seems to suggest that like the merry wives, Elizabeth must sift and scour all corners to make ends meet and safeguard the property and propriety of her own “Feminine Jurisdiction.” Yet in casting the unmarried Mistress Quickly as the Fairy Queen, the masque also calls attention to Elizabeth’s resolute status as single. The audience’s startled expectations on discovering Quickly instead of Anne Page playing the queen may well have been akin to those of Elizabeth’s own subjects, who had been expecting their maiden queen to marry a suitable suitor—even if, like Anne, she insisted he be someone of her own choosing—but who, by the end of her reign, were ruled by an aging queen who was neither a wife nor a mother; instead, she was, like Quickly, a “dry nurse” (1.2.4) to her subjects. Yet to understand the modern perspective of Merry Wives in its historical context, we need not read the play as a political allegory or polemic. Rather, if the play offers a modern perspective on everyday life in England at the close of the sixteenth century, it is one that explores the comedic potential of the complex and pervasive contemporary preoccupation with the reality and legitimacy of female domestic and political rule. It is, in this sense, “a kind of history.”

  1. Walter Cohen, introduction to The Merry Wives of Windsor, in The Norton Shakespeare, ed. Stephen Greenblatt (New York: W. W. Norton, 1997), p. 1225. Anne Barton likewise describes Merry Wives as “a play apart[,] . . . unique among the comedies in that it is set explicitly in an English town well known to members of Shakespeare’s audience”; it offers “a stage picture of ordinary, middle-class life in a small country town, among innkeepers and doctors, country magistrates, parsons, citizens and their wives and children” (introduction to The Merry Wives of Windsor, in The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans, 2nd ed. [Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997], p. 320.)
  2. Barton, introduction, p. 323.
  3. G. R. Hibbard, introduction to The Merry Wives of Windsor, ed. Hibbard (New York: Penguin Books, 1973), p. 14.
  4. Ibid.
  5. The complex connections between the private and the political are staged in the history plays as well, through interposed scenes of comic, everyday life in the Boar’s Head tavern in Eastcheap, or on Justice Shallow’s country estate.
  6. Juan Luis Vives, Instruction of a Christen Woman, trans. Richard Hyrd (London, 1529), sig. C4v (spelling modernized).
  7. John Knox, The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women [1558], in The Works of John Knox, ed. David Laing (Edinburgh: J. Thin, 1895), 3:411 (spelling modernized).
  8. For a more extended discussion of these matters, see Constance Jordan, “Woman’s Rule in Sixteenth-Century British Political Thought,” Renaissance Quarterly 40 (1987): 421–51, an essay to which I am indebted.
  9. Quotations from John Aylmer, An Harborowe for Faithful and Trewe Subjectes (London, 1559), sig. C4v, D1r (spelling modernized).
  10. Ford’s comparison of his wife to a “thief” further suggests that what was at stake in trusting one’s wife was not only sexual fidelity but the safeguarding of household property. His fears are in this respect not far-fetched; Falstaff makes clear from the beginning that his main motive in cuckolding Ford is pecuniary: “They say the jealous wittolly knave hath masses of money, for the which his wife seems to me well-favored. I will use her as the key of the cuckoldly rogue’s coffer” (2.2.278–82). Ford’s mistrust of his wife is likewise expressed in terms that make clear the interdependence of social, sexual and economic “trust”: “See the hell of having a false woman: my bed shall be abused, my coffers ransacked, my reputation gnawn at” (2.2.298–300). In the credit economy of early modern England, the term trust suggested not simply placing one’s confidence or reliance in a person but giving a person credit for goods supplied, or committing the safety of one’s property to another. Trust, credit, and reputation all functioned as forms of currency that were grounded in “a system of judgments about trustworthiness” circulating within a community. The trustworthiness of wives was particularly important because of their role in managing the household economy. See Craig Muldrew, The Economy of Obligation: The Culture of Credit and Social Relations in Early Modern England (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998), p. 148.
  11. N.H., The Ladies Dictionary (London: John Dunton, 1694), p. 203.
  12. William Camden, The History of the Most Renowned and Victorious Princess Elizabeth Late Queen of England, ed. Wallace MacCaffrey (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970), p. 30.