Watching The Merry Wives of Windsor at Grosvenor Park open air theatre in Chester the other evening, I wondered why this Shakespeare comedy is so rarely performed. As always, the Grosvenor company put on a terrific show – fast-paced, multi-sensory, and packed with music and comedy. We couldn’t have asked for a more entertaining three hours of theatre – and on one of the warmest evenings of this dreary summer.

The Merry Wives seems to be generally regarded as one of Shakespeare’s weakest plays, with its Falstaff considered a much inferior character to the Falstaff of the two Henry IV plays. Yet, while it’s true it contains few great lines or memorable poetry, it is certainly one of Shakespeare’s funniest and most accessible plays.

Grosvenor Merry Wives of Windsor 2
The Merry Wives of Windsor in Grosvenor Park

Sir John Falstaff, staying in Windsor and down on his luck, decides to restore his fortunes by seducing the wives of two wealthy citizens. He sends Mistress Page and Mistress Ford identical love letters, but when his plot is discovered they turn the tables, letting loose all the elements of a classic, extremely silly, English farce: cross-dressing, foreigners who speak funny, mistaken identities, and Falstaff reduced to hiding in a basket of smelly  laundry.

Commenting on the low regard in which this play is held, Michael Billington wrote in the Guardian:

I’ve always had a soft spot for this play. Long patronised by academics, it’s Shakespeare’s only purely English comedy, pins down middle-class mores to perfection

I had somehow got the idea that Merry Wives was the first time that Falstaff appeared in a Shakespeare play – but I was wrong. In fact, there’s a story – probably apocryphal – Elizabeth I, having seen Falstaff in Henry IV parts 1 and 2, asked William Shakespeare to write a play in which Falstaff played the leading role and the result was one of the first spin-offs in dramatic history.

Grosvenor Merry Wives of Windsor 1
Sir John Falstaff with Pistol, Bardolph and Nim in the Grosvenor production

What’s probably true is that the play was written to commission, probably rather hurriedly – which is why most critics don’t regard it that highly. Unlike many of Shakespeare’s texts, The Merry Wives of Windsor is largely original and appears to have no major source, although various aspects of the story – such as the cuckolded husband, surprised wife, the tricks played on a prospective suitor – were already familiar tropes of English drama.

One aspect of the play’s originality is that it is perhaps the first English drama to celebrate characters drawn from the middle classes –  and also to feature women as the prime movers of the comedy. Some have suggested that Shakespeare drew on people he knew from Stratford-upon-Avon and Windsor as inspiration.

In an inspired move, the Grosvenor’s director, Rebecca Gatward, reinforces the play’s farcical character and its satire of middle class ways by setting the play in the 1970s. The design by Jessica Curtis revived memories of Abigail’s Party and The Good Life, with period home furnishing, Mateus Rose, Cadbury’s Milk Tray, cheese and pineapple cocktail sticks, and drip-dry dresses. Daniel Goode as Falstaff is aone of those instantly-recognisable swaggering seventies men: long-haired but balding, blinged and paunched, dressed in cowboy boots and jeans.  Falstaff’s entourage (Bardolph, Nym, and Pistol – all played by women) are goths, while the highlight of the production must be the climactic fairy scene in Windsor Forest, where Falstaff, bedecked in deer’s antlers, is humiliated; the director transforms the scene into a multi-sensory psychedelic revel, complete with hippy outfits and the scent of patchouli wafting around the auditorium.

Grosvenor Merry Wives of Windsor 3
Psychedelic revels in Windsor Forest

Love and marriage, jealousy and revenge, social class and money: it’s all here, explored through irony, puns, double entendre, and stereotypes of class and nationality. It all helps to give the play a modern-day feel.

The lower class is represented by Falstaff’s followers, Bardolph, Nym, and Pistol (here, as I mentioned earlier, represented as three young goths), while Sir John Falstaff personifies the upper class. Shakespeare derives much humour from the exaggerated accents of the French Dr. Caius and the Welsh clergyman, Sir Hugh Evans – who speaks with such a pronounced Welsh accent that Falstaff declares he ‘makes fritters of English’. (These are not the only example of characters – and jokes – recycled from the Henry IV plays: Mistress Quickly is here, too.)

And, as in those plays, much fun is had at Falstaff’s expense – mocking his girth, his fondness for sack, and his vanity. As Mistress Ford puts it:

What tempest, I trow, threw this whale, with so many tuns of oil in his belly, ashore at Windsor? How shall I be revenged on him? I think the best way were to entertain him with hope, till the wicked fire of lust have melted him in his own grease.

At one of the most hilarious moments in the play Falstaff is ignominiously stuffed into a ‘buck basket’, the Elizabethan equivalent of a dirty laundry basket (the term ‘bucking’ meant doing the laundry).

Did you know?

Four everyday phrases originated in The Merry Wives of Windsor: ‘The world ‘s mine oyster’; ‘The short and the long of it’; ‘What the dickens‘ (that one surprised me); and ‘As luck would have it’.

The title page of A most pleasant and excellent conceited comedy, of Sir John Falstaffe, and the merry wiues of Windsor.
The title page of A most pleasant and excellent conceited comedy, of Sir John Falstaffe, and the merry wives of Windsor, 1619

And another thing … Samuel Pepys writes in his Diary of seeing performances of The Merry Wives of Windsor on three different occasions, none of which impressed him. On Wednesday 5 December 1660 he wrote:

I dined at home, and after dinner I went to the new Theatre and there I saw “The Merry Wives of Windsor” acted, the humours of the country gentleman and the French doctor very well done, but the rest but very poorly, and Sir J. Falstaffe as bad as any.

While on another Wednesday –  25 September 1661 – he commented grumpily:

Hence, much against my nature and will, yet such is the power of the Devil over me I could not refuse it, to the Theatre, and saw “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” ill done.

The Grosvenor Park production was far from being ill-done. We enjoyed it immensely, and I can’t think why this exuberant and witty play isn’t put on more often. As usual, the evening in Grosvenor Park was made even better by the relaxed atmosphere, the availability of cakes and ale, and the helpful stewards who were on hand to dispense blankets and surprisingly comfortable little cushions with backs. On YouTube there’s this little timelapse video showing the construction of Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre:

This production continued a busy Shakespeare year for us: see links below.

See also

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