Wise Wives and Laundry Baskets
in The Merry Wives of Windsor
The first point to ponder is that this Falstaff is not the Falstaff of Henry IV Part One, in which his soliloquy on honor is, as I wrote earlier on this blog, one of the highlights of eloquence and wisdom in the Shakespearean canon. The question of why Shakespeare created this unpleasant unlikeable Falstaff I won't even begin to try to explore. (See “Shakespeare Sightings, May 28” on the blog for another angle to this question.)
Another striking aspect of the play is that Master Page is perhaps the only decent husband and father in all of Shakespeare. Not only does he trust his wife completely but he accepts cheerfully his daughter's choice of husband even though he had connived to have her marry another.
A third feature that deserves deeper analysis is the uniqueness of the emphasis on the bourgeois class in the play. As Walter Cohen points out in his introduction to the Norton edition, the play “retains a contemporary, domestic, and non-aristocratic feel unique in Shakespearean drama” and all the characters “ultimately function to underscore the assimilating power of the middle class”, that is, the bourgeoisie. “The play,” Cohen continues, “takes a jaundiced view of nearly every character with a claim to social standing” (p. 1255). This emphasis on the emerging power and increasing role of the bourgeoisie in the merchant-and trade world of the Renaissance is especially interesting when we get to the heart of the play.
This was and often still is considered by scholars to be Falstaff himself but I suggest, in concurrence with many current readers, that this play is in fact about – surprise, surprise – the merry wives themselves, Mistress Ford and Mistress Page. They deserve to have the play named for them. They good-naturedly but firmly put Sir John Falstaff in his place. In fact, they move him out of his place as a social superior into the dunce corner where he belongs. So what does he do to deserve this? A close look at this will comprise the heart of this essay.
What he does is he sends identical love letters to Mistress Page and Mistress Ford for the purpose of getting into their beds and their purses. Their reaction? Being neither young, frivolous, vain nor romantic they react wisely. Even before discovering that Falstaff has sent them identical letter, the two women are startled but amusedly skeptical and a little annoyed. Mistress Page says to herself, “What, have I scaped love-letter in the holiday time of my beauty, and am I now a subject for them?” (Norton explains that here “holiday” means “heyday”.) A few minutes later Mistress Ford arrives, joking about how she is about to be knighted – Mistress Page scoffs, “What?...Sir Alice Ford?” - and Mistress Ford goes on unheedingly, “...the truth of his words...do no more adhere and keep together than the hundred and fifty psalms to the tune of 'Greensleeves'.”
It seems the amorous and poverty-stricken knight is not to be so easily satisfied as he had anticipated. On the contrary, Mistress Page's immediate response upon actually reading her letter is to call Falstaff “well-nigh worn to pieces with age”, a “drunkard” and “unweighed” (i.e. unbalanced) to dare to make such a proposal. The solution? “I'll exhibit a bill in the Parliament for the putting down of men.” Mistress Page is about four hundred years before her time in proclaiming the private to be the political. Or is she? Could it be that we're four hundred years late in figuring this out? In the same breath Mistress Page takes her stand, “O God, that I knew how to be revenged on him! For revenged I will be...” To return to Mistress Ford's arrival, we see that her reaction is the same: “How shall I be revenged on him?” she asks while her friend reads the letter. On realizing that they've received identical letter Mistress Page declares, “I warrant he hath a thousand of these letters writ with blank space for different names...Well, I will find you twenty lascivious turtles ere one chaste man”. Mistress Page has no high opinion of men even though shes the one with the nice husband. So what to do? Not only do they see Falstaff as an unattractive fat old sot, they are affronted that he regards them as easy hits. Mistress Ford: “What doth he think of us?”
They are very quick in coming up with the perfect revenge. Mistress Ford: “I think the best way were to entertain him with hope...” Mistress Page: “Let's appoint him a meeting, give him a show of comfort in his suit, and lead him on with a fine bated delay...” (all quotes in this exchange are from Act 2.1). And so the plot is set. The particulars of their revenge has become one of the classics of European literature and music (most prominently in Verdi's opera Falstaff).
The willing and witty Mistress Quickly (of Henry 4 fame and well worth her own analysis) helps the two gentlewomen set up the tryst. Sir John rushes eagerly to the Ford residence where Mistress Ford slyly evades his advances while making him believe she is allowing herself to be wooed: “Well. Heaven knows how I love thee; and you shall one day find it” (Act 3.3). As arranged, Mistress Page comes running to warn them that Master Ford is on his way. Falstaff stuffs himself into the laundry basket and is transported out under the very nose of the jealous husband among “foul...stinking clothes...and thrown into the Thames” (Act 3.5).
Aside from being comical, the significance of Sir John's humiliation in the laundry basket is enormous. Laundry is one of the most important tasks in a household. Mistress Ford is the boss of the Ford household, as she tartly reminds her husband. When he attempts to interfere with the basket she sharply retorts “Why, what have you to do wither they bear it?” (Act 3.3) Some scholars interpret this as an example of how women, confined to the domestic sphere, use their limited power to perpetuate the patriarchal system (Well, p. 381). Possibly. Perhaps even likely. However, it cannot be denied that these two women use what means of power (or as Foucault would say, power slash resistance) to defend their position against a) a man and b) an aristocrat. And win. Funny, yes, but also a political statement of “affirm[ing] female domestic authority and middle-class ethics over and above an aristocratic male drive for power” (Well, p. 378).
And in a possible parallel to Shakespeare's view on his own strong and independent wife (see my review of Germaine Greer's Shakespeare's Wife), this is “the Shakespearean play in which women's power is most persistent and least contained and in which their status is most like that of Stratford women” (Carol Thomas Neely, quoted in Wells, p. 381). Furthermore, Mistress Ford and Mistress Page, in using the laundry basket – filled, remember, with dirty laundry – instead of, say, weeping and wailing and being ashamed and keeping it all a secret, “protect the property and propriety of their households by demonstrating their competence as disciplined, yet discreet, domestic supervisors” (Korda, p. 90).
The play could end here somewhere but it doesn't. There is more merriment to come. In brief, Falstaff is lured back to the Fords' again only to be beaten out of the house disguised as an old woman by the jealous Master Ford. What one should think of the violence used against an old woman even if she is considered by Ford to be a witch will have to be dealt with in some other essay. Still not satisfied, the two wives, now in cahoots with their newly informed husbands, humiliate Sir John publicly by having him scared half to death by children disguised as fairies. How embarrassing is that? Poor old macho scoundrel! However, Sir John recovers more quickly than he deserves and the two women show that once they have re-established their authority, they bear no malice and Falstaff is invited home for dinner.
Compared to other Shakespeare plays, the Merry Wives has prompted vastly less critical analysis than, for example, Hamlet (for good reason obviously),or most of the others. Most scholars who have looked at it have argued about whether or not this Falstaff is the same of the H4 Falstaff (Oxford Compendium, p. 294). Harold Bloom says absolutely not and calls him the pseudo-Falstaff throughout his chapter on the play. Bloom is probably right but as I pointed out earlier what does it really matter? Just because Shakespeare has created this quandary for us, that doesn't mean that he, as Bloom claims to know for sure, was ashamed of the play. On the contrary, in some ways The Merry Wives of Windsor is among his most interesting for the very reason that it's called The Merry Wives and not The Lascivious Knight. Mistress Page and Mistress Ford run the show. And they win. Bloom doesn't like that. I do. Why shouldn't Shakespeare? He seems to have generally known what he was doing.
- The Norton Shakespeare, based on the Oxford Edition. Ed. Greenblatt, Stephen et al. Second edition. 2008.
- Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare, the Invention of the Human. 1998.
- Cohen, Walter in The Norton Shakespeare, see above.
- Dobson, Michael and Stanley Wells, editors. The Oxford Compansion to Shakespeare. 2008.
- Korda, Natasha. “'Judicious oreillades': supervising marital property in The Merry Wives of Windsor,” in Marxists Shakespeares, edited by Jean E. Howard and Scott Cutler Shershow. 2001.
- Well, Wendy. “The Merry Wives of Windsor, Unhusbanding Desires in Windsor”, in A Companion to Shakespeare's Works, the Comedies, edited by Richard Dutton and Jean E. Howard. 2003.
- BBC, 1982. Directed by David Jones. Cast: Mistress Ford – Judy Davis; Mistress Page – Prunella Scales; Falstaff – Richard Griffiths; Master Ford – Ben Kingsley; Master Page – Bryan Marshall; Mistress Quickly – Elizabeth Spriggs. The cast makes the most of the play and makes it really funny. Ben Kingsley (who needs no further introduction) does an excellent wildly jealous husband and Prunella Scales perfects her already perfect role as Sybil in Fawlty Towers by adding a good sense of humor.
Seen on stage: No