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The Merry Wives of Windsor

1597

The Merry Wives of Windsor is a comedy by William Shakespeare first published in 1602, though believed to have been written in or before 1597. The Windsor of the play's title is a reference to the town of Windsor, also the location of Windsor Castle, in Berkshire, England. Though nominally set in the reign of Henry IV, the play makes no pretense to exist outside contemporary Elizabethan era English middle class life. It features the character Sir John Falstaff, the fat knight who had previously been featured in Henry IV, Part 1 and Part 2. It has been adapted for the opera on several occasions. The play is one of Shakespeare's lesser-regarded works among literary critics.

The title page of the 1619 quarto (the False Folio): A most pleasant and excellent conceited comedy,...

Date and text

he play's date of composition is unknown; it was registered for publication in 1602, but was probably several years old by that date. In the Fairy pageant in Act 5 Scene 5 (lines 54-75), Mistress Quickly, as the Queen of the Fairies, gives a long speech giving an elaborate description of the Order of the Garter. The play also alludes to a German duke, who is generally thought to be Frederick I, Duke of Württemberg, who had visited England in 1592 and was elected to the Order of the Garter in 1597 (but was eventually only installed in Stuttgart on 6 November 1603). These facts led commentators starting with Edmond Malone in 1790 to suggest that the play was written and performed for the Order of the Garter festival. William Green suggests that the play was drawn up when George Carey, as Lord Chamberlain and patron of Shakespeare's company, was elected Order of the Garter in April 1597. If this is so, it was probably performed when Elizabeth I attended Garter Feast on 23 April.

The Garter theory is only speculation, but it is consistent with a story first recorded by John Dennis in 1702 and Nicholas Rowe in 1709: that Shakespeare was commanded to write the play by Queen Elizabeth, who wanted to see Falstaff in love. This theatrical tradition was first recorded by Dennis in the prologue to his adaptation of the play, The Comical Gallant. He states that Queen Elizabeth "commanded it to be finished in fourteen days." Rowe wrote that Elizabeth "was so well pleased with that admirable character of Falstaff, in the two parts of Henry the Fourth, that she commanded him to continue it for one play more, and to shew him in love." T.W. Craik suggests that these stories may simply be fantasies occasioned by the Quarto's title page which says of the play "As it hath diuers times Acted...Both before her Maiestie, and else-where." Nevertheless, Carey would have been well placed to pass on the queen's wishes to his players, which could account for the tradition.

Support for the Garter theory is divided. If it is correct, it would probably mean that Shakespeare wrote The Merry Wives of Windsor between Henry IV, Part 1 and Part 2. Critics have trouble believing this for several reasons. One is that Pistol and Shallow are introduced as new characters in Henry IV, Part 2, but in The Merry Wives their connection to Falstaff is taken for granted. Also, there are no references to any of the major events from Falstaff's 15th-century exploits from the history plays, such as the rebellion (Henry IV, Part 1 & 2), in Merry Wives. T.W. Craik suggests that Shakespeare was forced to interrupt work on Henry IV, Part 2, having written most of it, because The Merry Wives had to be completed quickly. Another possible explanation comes from the epilogue to Henry IV, Part 2, which promises to "continue the story, with Sir John in it". Sir John does not appear in Henry V, so Merry Wives could have been written to make good on the pledge.

At least parts of the play may have been written around or before the first performances of Part 1 in 1597, after which controversy over the original naming of Falstaff (he was originally the historic Sir John Oldcastle, which presumably did not please Oldcastle's descendants) forced Shakespeare to rename the character. It appears that the joke in V,v,85–90 is that Oldcastle/Falstaff incriminates himself by calling out the first letter of his name, "O, O, O!," when his fingertips are singed with candles—which of course works for "Oldcastle" but not "Falstaff." There is also the "castle" reference in IV,v,6.

18 January 1602 was the date the play was entered into the Register of the Stationers Company. The first quarto was published later that year, in an inferior text, by bookseller Arthur Johnson. It was published in a second quarto in 1619, as part of William Jaggard's False Folio; the superior First Folio text followed in 1623.

The title page of Q1 states that the play was acted by the Lord Chamberlain's Men, "Both before Her Majesty, and elsewhere." The earliest definitely dated performance occurred on 4 November 1604, at Whitehall Palace. The play is also known to have been performed on 15 November 1638, at the Cockpit in Court.

The first page of The Merry Wives of Windsor, printed in the Second Folio of 1632

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Published in 17/09/2018

Updated in 19/02/2021

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