The Merry Wives of Windsor (1597)
by William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
Fie on sinful fantasy!
Fie on lust and luxury!
Lust is but a bloody fire,
Kindled with unchaste desire.
The reality of the beautiful world that would otherwise be the context of the human experience has been “split” or shattered instead in the illusion of P-B. Instead of an interdependent and interrelated and perfect creation or universe, we have imaginary “discreet” elements that vie for attention and power in a story that will ultimately end in self-destruction. Human beings are mistakenly believed to be “separate” from each other, nature, their ego, their shadow and even the opposite sex. In The Merry Wives of Windsor Shakespeare has created a story that humorously illustrates how this illusion of separation can cause confusion and suffering.
Two married couples, the Fords and the Pages, illustrate the fear that can exist in a marriage when the husbands do not trust their wives. The rogue Falstaff is both the villain and the victim in the unfolding story where the worst fears of the anxious males is realized when the females in the play exercise power and control.
The false self, of course, provides the basis for the dysfunctional behavior on the part of each of the characters in the play. “[The] play focuses on marriage and the evils that prevent maintaining a good one: ‘greed, lust, jealousy and stupidity.’ Like Elizabeth [the Queen asked Shakespeare to write this play], the wives use love as a political device to shape, contain and deny male desire. The play suggests, ‘an ostensibly chaste woman may have an affinity for adultery which establishes the central theme of cuckoldry.’”
If Falstaff possesses these reprehensible behavioral traits, why is he one of Shakespeare’s most beloved creations? Perhaps the audience can vicariously identify their own repressed shadow and see acted out what they themselves were forbidden to express. Our own shadow has a hidden energy that can show up in the most embarrassing moments (The classic Freudian slip). “‘Falstaff seems actually to possess a mysterious inner principle of vitality.’ According to theatrical history, it was this ‘inner principle’ that Queen Elizabeth I admired. She supposedly urged Shakespeare to write a play showing Falstaff in love and thus, The Merry Wives of Windsor was written.” This request could have been the virgin queen’s need to find vicarious relief in seeing women successfully in control.
Shakespeare’s Falstaff epitomizes false self behavior as he indulges his survival strategy (rather unsuccessfully) in this play. Of course, Falstaff was also an entertaining character to be seen on stage. He is less entertaining when he shows up on the stage of American politics. Do the following traits remind you of anyone today? “In his letter to Mistress Page, Falstaff displays two aspects of his character: a braggart and a poor poet. He also is an egocentric, pleasure-seeking man, totally ‘ruled by his appetite for food, drink, sleep, women and money.’ He also is a thief, a liar, a drunkard, a sponger, a swindler and a coward who exploits others for his own welfare. ‘Devoid of morality, Falstaff is portrayed as self-seeking, unscrupulous and corrupt.’” Falstaff is the false self writ very large indeed.
One dominant and often expressed fear of male characters in Shakespeare’s plays is that of being a cuckhold. Falstaff’s role in this play is “to articulate the male viewer’s desires to see their anxieties represented and subsequently purged through the safe artifice of the theatre.”
The husbands Ford and Page as well as Falstaff all experience the anxiety caused by the illusion of vulnerability that characterize their relationship with women in P-B. “Falstaff, who considered women fair game, is now ‘put to shame and made to quake for fear by two women.’” The “split” built into P-B between men and women in Elizabethan England was more fear-driven than it is today. “In Elizabethan England men were supposed to be firmly in control. Husbands and fathers had almost complete authority over the lives of their wives and daughters; women’s rights were restricted legally, socially and economically. This practice of male superiority also was supported by the Church. The Elizabethan ‘Homily of the State of Matrimony,’ which ordered wives to obey their husbands, was frequently read aloud in services.’”
Nevertheless, perhaps partly because Elizabeth I was in power, many English husbands regarded their wives with love and respect. “Companionate marriage was a feature of a large number of Elizabethan homes: partnership and strong ties.” This was the English wife Elizabeth wanted to see on stage. She also wanted Falstaff in the play to show that as clever and articulate as he was, he was no match for English womanhood.
Let’s consult together against this greasy knight. Come hither. Act II-i
“The wives may be outspoken and enjoy bawd, but they are faithful both to their husbands and their reputations. Their husbands matter to them. They prove to be protectors of Windsor’s traditional values as they use their intelligence and inventiveness to teach Falstaff a humiliating lesson.”
Today, the women of the U.S. need to come together and elect a female president and then we can get rid of the Falstaff currently occupying the White House.
References and notes are available for this essay.
Find a much more in-depth discussion on this blog and in printed books by Roy Charles Henry.