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MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR.
There is more philological fun in this play than in any other work of Shakespeare. Language, the outer garment of thought, is distorted and torn, in order to make a comic drapery suitable to the characters. Most of the important persons in Merry Wives have some linguistic peculiarity, more or less pronounced; Sir John himself sets off the same tendency by turning critic of his mother tongue. Two foreigners, a Frenchman and a Welchman, are introduced, talking in a dialect which may well be able “ to fright English out of his wits.” In a different manner, Mrs. Quickly, though a native, “hacks our English” to very shreds. Ancient Pistol is full of theatrical bombast; Corporal Nym is overmastered by his one word, “humors; " mine Host of the Garter has his characteristic appellative,“ bully rook." Linguistic oddities Shakespeare has employed elsewhere, but never so many as in the present instance; the play_is_a_curiosity of perverted human speech. In consonance with the spirit of the entire drama, language itself is turned into a caricature of language, and the peo
ple speak not merely their own character, but their own jargon. The result is, the piece, though humorous, is prose and must be written in prose. With a true instinct, and in perfect accord with the subject, the poet has employed less verse than in any other of his works. The minimum of meter and maximum of caricature very properly go together.
Usually, though not always in Shakespeare's comedies, prose is spoken by the characters with English names, and is reserved for burlesque and rollicking broad humor, while poetry, with its elevated passion, is spoken by persons with Italian or Romanic names. But in Merry Wives there is not an Italian name, though an Italian source has been found for some of its incidents; one stray French character is the Romanic contribution, and that is stranded in England and is caricatured. The setting and atmosphere of the play are purely English ; there is through it a dash of English scenery with park, town, river, mead, and with a certain breeziness of the country. English jollity, too, we see throughout; merry England is here embodied, with its types in the merry wives, and in the men quite as merry. The world has turned to an English holiday, in whose pastimes business, work, the earnest ends of life have vanished. Yet not all England is here, but only the well-fed middle class of the country; the bigb and the low, the aristocracy
and the populace are absent; the court and city appear faintly in the distance. On account of these narrow limits which exclude the refined and elevated part of the social system, the broad comic vein can be indulged in, and the picture, in many of its shades, turns a caricature.
English we find it in another sense; there is plenty of good eating and drinking in the play, to which
no human being still in the bonds of the flesh ought to make objection. The drama at once finds “ dinner on the table," whereof the attraction is stated, “ a hot venison pasty,” and the wine has been brought in already with which the attempt is made to “ drink down all unkindness,” – a thing which in thirty throats requires quite a river of liquid. As the play begins with eating, so it ends with_eating; thus says Page, comforting the Fat Knight: “Yet be cheerful, Knight; thou shalt eat a posset to-night at my house, where I will desire thee to laugh at my wife that now laughs at thee.” So eating is the grand peace-maker. But what shall we say to the drinking, with Falstaff as hero? The center of Windsor is the tavern, the Garter, from which the influences radiate through the whole action. Fat, round, red-faced, merry English people are all the characters apparently, except one, Slender, who is ridiculed and nick-named because he is not like the rest; the national consciousness seems reflected in the fact that he is
slender in mind, since he is slender in body. A lean man probably had a small chance of appreciation in Windsor. In this respect, too, the Fat Knight is the hero of the piece and gives tone to it throughout, by his ponderosity; verily he is the bearer, the grand embodiment of eating and drinking. For once we see that the poet has given over to his realistic tendency an entire drama, and allowed his idealism to be utterly swept out of the field.
Like all the comedies of Shakespeare, this play rests on Mediation, which is brought about mainly by the women. As in the instances of Portia, Rosalind, Hermione, and many others, the poet makes his leading female characters mediatorial, though their texture in the present case be slighter than usual. The merry wives not only maintain their honor against Falstaff, but to a degree, they mediate him; that is, they unmask and punish him, and bring him to repentance, which at least is uttered by him, and may last for a time. A husband is also cured of jealousy by their comic penalty. Aune Page, too, mediates her love conflict against father and mother. Even Mrs. Quickly has a mediatorial function, that of go-between and match-maker, wherein the high vocation falls down to caricature. So the four women of Windsor, though humble, show their kinship to Shakespeare's grand dramatic queens. Mediation now drops
into the realm of low comedy, though it preserves its genuine spirit in an arabesque of laughter.
The plot is usually said to be Shakespeare's own, but it is made up of many well-known dramatic tricks and situations - the popular inheritance of the stage of all ages. The manifold disguises and concealments are changed somewhat, yet they essentially belong to the world's comic literature, be it story, legend, drama, novel. Dr. Caius pulling the messenger out of a hiding place, was not in Shakespeare's time, a new dramatic incident; Ford, the jealous husband, who in disguise gets from Falstaff's own lips, the scheme against the honor of his wife, is found under another name in Straparola, an Italian novelist; the Fat Knight hid in the buck-basket, and dressed as the old witch of Brentford, is very faintly suggested in the same quarter; the disguised Fairy World, as well as Herne the Hunter, seem to be the poet's application of a local legend sprung of English fairy lore. We must note that the marvelous here is not employed in its own right, as it is in Midsummer Night's Dream, but is something imitated, or in fact, burlesqued. But again we see that Shakespeare in the main borrowed his plot and incidents.
There are two very different texts of this play, that of the Quarto of 1602, and that of the Folio, of 1623. The first has about 1,400 lines, the second about 3,000; the difference in quantity