Shakespeare Notebook 2023: “The Merry Wives of Windsor”

If anyone else out there is working through Matthew Franck’s “Shakespeare in a Year” reading plan, you’ll know that, after last covering The Comedy of Errors, I should next have been onto 1 Henry IV. Once I began jotting down thoughts on it, however, I realised that the things interesting to me about it this time around are tied up with how the themes and story play out in 2 Henry IV. So I’ve skipped Part 1 for now, and will bundle it in with Part 2 in my next post.

Between the two Henry IV plays, Franck schedules the comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor. Legend has it that Merry Wives was written at the specific request of Elizabeth I. She so enjoyed the charismatic and irrepressible Sir John Falstaff stealing the show in Henry IV that she insisted he be revived–and this time, she wanted to see him in love.

Falstaff is arguably Shakespeare’s greatest character, or at least his greatest comic character. This is curious, since Henry IV, in which he first appears, is not a comedy. The spin-off comedy of Merry Wives lets him loose somewhat. And yet, despite his comedic nature, Tolstoy controversially described Falstaff as “the only natural and typical character portrayed by Shakespeare.”[1]

To summarise the plot: Falstaff, short of cash, resolves to woo two wealthy married women, Mistress Ford and Mistress Page, sending them identical love letters. The women, however, rumble his plot, and Falstaff’s servants divulge it to their husbands. Page is unconcerned, but the jealous Ford wants to test his wife’s fidelity. Disguised as Master Broom, he wins Falstaff’s confidence so as to track his movements and catch him in the act. The wives, meanwhile, resolve to give Falstaff his just desserts.

When Falstaff arrives at the Fords’, the women get him to hide in a filthy laundry basket. Master Ford appears, and the women have the basket whisked away, with its contents (Falstaff included) being dumped into the river. Unperturbed, Falstaff returns to the Ford household. Master Ford approaches again, and Falstaff is this time disguised in the clothes of Mistress Ford’s obese aunt, “the fat woman of Brentford”, whom Ford proceeds to beat and banish from the house.

The wives let their husbands in on the secret, and a midnight rendezvous with Falstaff is organised in Windsor Forest. They meet him, but have organised a group of local children to appear dressed as fairies, terrifying Falstaff. Alongside this, a subplot involving the Pages’ daughter, Anne, culminates, and she steals away to marry her true love. All is revealed, with Falstaff sufficiently chided. He takes it surprisingly well, and all retire to “laugh this sport o’er by a country fire”.

On Not Banishing Falstaff

My main reflection on Merry Wives is something of a “meta-reflection”. Although I’m sure there is much to be said about the text of play itself–and it is quite underserved in Shakespeare scholarship–it is, it must be said, perhaps the prime example of Shakespeare comedy being hilarious to watch but often dull to read (not helped by this being the only Shakespearean play which is mostly written in prose rather than verse).

In 1 Henry IV, Prince Hal falls between Falstaff on the one side and Harry Hotspur on the other. As Paul Cantor points out in his excellent lectures on the play, Falstaff is eros and Hotspur is thumos. Falstaff is uninhibited in his pursuit of pleasure and fulfilment of desires; Hotspur is uninhibited in his pursuit of honour and fulfilment of his will. Hal, in short, must learn to master both eros and thumos to be a good king. 1 Henry IV ends with Hal slaying Hotspur, a kind of victory over thumos. Falstaff, however, lives on–indeed, he claims credit for slaying Hotspur, and Hal indulges him. The suggestion is perhaps that eros is rather harder to overcome than thumos.

Now, spoiler alert: 2 Henry IV concludes with Hal’s (by then, King Henry V) decisive rejection of Falstaff:

FALSTAFF   My King! My Jove! I speak to thee, my heart! 

KING HENRY V   I know thee not, old man. Fall to thy prayers. 
How ill white hairs becomes a fool and jester. 
I have long dreamt of such a kind of man, 
So surfeit-swelled, so old, and so profane, 
But being awakened I do despise my dream. 

Falstaff personifies untamed desire, and the abrogation of responsibility. It is established early on in 1 Henry IV that Hal knows he will eventually disown Falstaff and co, and yet it takes him the length of two plays to do it. Why? A couple of reasons suggest themselves.

Like Hal, we see in Falstaff part of ourselves: the erotic faculty, driven by desire. And we cannot bring ourselves to banish it. We keep it on, something like a pet we cannot part with though we know we cannot afford to keep it. I think the real source of Falstaff’s charisma is not so much in his evident eros, but in his perennial ability to recuse himself, resolving himself of all blame. He is so audacious and effective in this that we admire him for it, and see in it our own ability to justify the excesses of our eros. For Hal to condemn Falstaff, then, would be to condemn himself. This is suggested strongly in Act 2, Scene 4 of 1 Henry IV–a strong contender for the best scene Shakespeare ever wrote. Falstaff and Hal take turns in playing both King Henry IV and Hal himself, creating a mock-up of the King’s disapproval of Hal’s lifestyle. This concludes with Falstaff in the persona of Hal, interceding on Falstaff’s behalf:

“If to be old and merry be a sin, then many an old host that I know is damned. If to be fat be to be hated, then Pharaoh’s lean kine are to be loved. No, my good lord, banish Peto, banish Bardolph, banish Poins, but for sweet Jack Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff, valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant being as he is old Jack Falstaff, banish not him thy Harry’s company, banish not him thy Harry’s company. Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.


To banish Falstaff would be to banish the world–and so yourself.

Yet Hal also keeps Falstaff in his company, I think, because he senses that one cannot do without eros entirely–just as one cannot do without the thumos of Hotspur. There is a hope, perhaps, that Falstaff will change, living out a redemption of eros. Indeed, he resolves as much at the end of 1 Henry IV, but does not follow through. But the tantalising possibility of a redeemed Falstaff, a redeemed eros lingers over things. There are many ways in which Shakespeare deliberately links Falstaff to Socrates, history’s most renowned corrupter of the youth, and, in Plato, Socrates majors on using romantic and sexual eros as a picture for man’s ultimate eros for the Good. This illuminates another sense in which to banish plump Jack would be to banish all the world: it would mean banishing eros, without which we can never obtain our great end.

Yet it is clear that Falstaff cannot be kept in his current state. If he is to be banished, he will need to be brought back. If he is to be put to death, he will need to be raised again.

Resurrecting Falstaff

Now, what does this all have to do with The Merry Wives of Windsor? Well, The Merry Wives of Windsor seems to me like a brief, metafictional reprieve to Falstaff before his inevitable demise. Who, after watching Henry IV, wouldn’t want to see a spin-off–Falstaff Rides Again, or the Falstaff Cinematic Universe? We want this even though we know that Falstaff must, in the end, be destroyed. Yet, since this would mean destroying ourselves and all the world, we let it play on. Falstaff is chided at the end of Merry Wives, and yet he lives to see another day.

There’s a certain phenomenology to watching Falstaff: we simultaneously desire both his destruction and his eternity. How can both be had?

Pondering this question put me in mind of nothing more than a scene from C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce. The narrator–a dead soul on a daytrip to heaven–sees a fellow ghost, on whose shoulder sits a little red lizard: a picture of the soul’s desire, its eros. The lizard owner realises his lizard is incompatible with heaven, as he just won’t be quiet–his desires just won’t stop–and so says he better be off to hell. An angel, however, offers to quieten the lizard by killing it:

“Would you like me to make him quiet?” said the flaming Spirit – an angel, as I now understood.
“Of course I would,” said the Ghost.
“Then I will kill him,” said the Angel, taking a step forward.
“Oh – ah – look out! You’re burning me. Keep away,” said the Ghost, retreating. “Don’t you want him killed?”
“You didn’t say anything about killing him at first. I hardly meant to bother you with anything so drastic as that.”
“It’s the only way,” said the Angel, whose burning hands were now very close to the lizard. “Shall I kill it?”
“Well, that’s a further question. I’m quite open to consider it, but it’s a new point, isn’t it? I mean, for the moment I was only thinking about silencing it because up here – well, it’s so damned embarrassing.”
“May I kill it?”
“Well, there is time to discuss that later.”
“There is no time. May I kill it?”[2]

One can see Prince Hal here–perhaps even Falstaff himself. Banish the lizard, and banish all the world. The exchange continues, and eventually the ghost consents to the Angel killing the lizard:

“Damn and blast you! Go on, can’t you? Get it over. Do what you like,” bellowed the Ghost: but ended, whimpering, “God help me. God help me.”
Next moment the Ghost gave a scream of agony such as I never heard on Earth. The Burning One closed his crimson grip on the reptile: twisted it, while it bit and writhed, and then flung it, broken backed, on the turf.
“Ow! That’s done for me,” gasped the Ghost, reeling backwards[3]

The effect of this deathstroke is transformative. The ghost transforms into a real man, and the lizard transforms into a mighty stallion. What has happened is not eros destroyed, but eros redeemed–put to death, but resurrected.

The new-made man turned and clapped the new horse’s neck. It nosed his bright body. Horse and master breathed each into the other’s nostrils. The man turned from it, flung himself at the feet of the Burning One, and embraced them. When he rose I thought his face shone with tears, but it may have been only the liquid love and brightness (one cannot distinguish them in that country) which flowed from him. I had not long to think about it. In joyous haste the young man leaped upon the horse’s back. Turning in his seat he waved a farewell, then nudged the stallion with his heels. They were off before I well knew what was happening. There was riding if you like! I came out as quickly as I could from among the bushes to follow them with my eyes; but already they were only like a shooting star far off on the green plain, and soon among the foothills of the mountains. Then, still like a star, I saw them winding up, scaling what seemed impossible steeps, and quicker every moment, till near the dim brow of the landscape, so high that I must strain my neck to see them, they vanished, bright themselves, into the rose-brightness of that everlasting morning.[4]

This is what we want for Falstaff: not to know him in the swilling taverns of Eastcheap, but to see just how mightily his desires might bound up the foothills of heaven were they but rightly ordered. Yes, we will Falstaff on forever, willing him out of Henry IV and into The Merry Wives of Windsor, because we fear our destruction along with him, yet we also do so because we hope there may be both a having of cake and an eating of it. Yet the destruction and salvation of Falstaff, of us, or eros, are one in the Christian faith—and it is only there that eros, withs its effervescent, Falstaffian vigour, can be all that it is meant to be.

Falstaff is a Bacchanalian figure–a god of wine and revels. This puts me in mind of another point in Lewis, with which I’ll close. There is a baffling moment in Prince Caspian, when Aslan returns once more to the land and banishes the dreariness and drudgery of the Telmarines. As he does so, the pagan gods Bacchus and Silenus appear. Normally, this would be cause for concern. But, with Aslan ruling all, even the bacchanalian is redeemed:

“The boy with the wild face is Bacchus and the old one on the donkey is Silenus. Don’t you remember Mr Tumnus telling us about them long ago?”
“Yes, of course. But I say, Lu-“
“I wouldn’t have felt safe with Bacchus and his wild girls if we’d met them without Aslan.”
“I should think not,” said Lucy.[5]

  1. Quoted in P.H. Davidson, “Introduction” in Henry IV Part One, New Penguin Shakespeare (London: Penguin, 1968), 31.

  2. C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (London: Harper Collins, 2002), 107-108.

  3. Lewis, Great Divorce, 110-111.

  4. Lewis, Great Divorce, 112.

  5. C.S. Lewis, Prince Caspian, Ch. 11.

*Image Credit: Shakespeare’s Globe


Related Articles


Other Articles by

Join our Community
Subscribe to receive access to our members-only articles as well as 4 annual print publications.
Share This