Richard Nisley

Shakespeare on Marriage
History - World Released - Jan 08, 2013

Word has it that Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603) was so amused by Falstaff, the Fat Knight, in Henry IV Part 1 she asked William Shakespeare to write a play with Falstaff in love. “The Merry Wives of Windsor” was the result. Thought to be written in two weeks, it’s Shakespeare’s comment on the state of marriage in Elizabethan England. 

Falstaff is a knight, but hardly young or dashing. Think W.C. Fields. In Henry IV Part 1 he describes himself as “A goodly portly man, i’faith, and a corpulent; of a cheerful look, a pleasing eye, and a most noble carriage . . ..” Prince Hal describes him as “a stuffed cloak-bag of guts” and “an old white-bearded Satan.” Falstaff’s idea of love is to find a woman who will fund his considerable appetite for food and drink. 

Falstaff has focused his attention on two such women, both of whom are married to wealthy town merchants and have control of the family purse. Both women have flirted with him, or so he has deluded himself into believing. They are Mistress Ford and Mistress Page, a.k.a. the Merry Wives of Windsor. He writes them identical love letters, and says, in effect: we both like to drink, neither of us are young; when your husband’s away, let’s get together and have some fun. 

The merry wives are on to Falstaff, however. They invite him to their homes intending to make a fool of him. The husbands learn of the planned rendezvous and one of them--Master Ford--believes his wife is about to cheat on him and becomes crazy with jealousy. The other trusts his wife. That’s half the plot. The other half involves Anne Page, the daughter of Master and Mistress Page. As was the Medieval custom, the parents have decided who their daughter will marry, while Anne has ideas of her own. She wants a marriage of equals, such as the merry wives enjoy, where women are independent and free to have fun too--to be merry wives--while remaining faithful. It was yet another idea that resulted when the English people were granted the freedom to read the Bible and decide for themselves what it meant. Other benefits were the growth of public education, the rise of the middle class, the democratization of government, finance, invention and many other breakthroughs that would make England the freest and most powerful nation in Europe. 

The Merry Wives of Windsor has its fair share of slamming doors, silly pranks, and elements common to farce. In the end, t he merry wives succeed in making a fool of Falstaff (and the jealous husband sees the error in not trusting his wife), and Anne marries the man she loves. 

At the play’s conclusion, Anne’s husband tells her parents: 

“You would have married her most shamefully, / Where there was no proportion held in love. / The truth is, she and I (long since contracted) / Are now so sure that nothing can dissolve us. / Th’offence is holy that she hath committed, / And this deceit loses the name of craft, / Of disobedience, or unduteous title, / Since therein she doth evitate and shun / A thousand irreligious cursed hours / Which forced marriage would have brought her.” 

Final note: The Merry Wives is the only play Shakespeare ever wrote about England’s emerging middle class. 
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