Merry Wives of Windsor (1922) Yale/Appendix B


The History of the Play

The Merry Wives of Windsor was entered on the Stationers' Register on January 18, 1602. It was published the same year as a small Quarto, which was reprinted in 1619. The text of both is very corrupt. Comparison of them with the text of the Folio, published in 1623, seems to indicate that the publisher of the Quarto secured his version of the play by taking it down as best he could from the mouths of the players, perhaps with some assistance from one of them.

The play was probably written in 1599. In the epilogue to the Second Part of Henry IV (produced about 1598), Shakespeare had written: 'If you be not too much cloy'd with fat meat, our humble author will continue the story with Sir John in it . . . where for anything I know Falstaff shall die of a sweat, unless a' be killed already with your hard opinions.' The Merry Wives seems to offer the promised continuation of Sir John's adventures.

Two interesting traditions have long been current about the play. The first of these is that it was written at the command of Queen Elizabeth, and in a period of fourteen days. John Dennis, writing in 1702, says of the play: 'I know very well that it hath pleased one of the greatest queens that ever was in the world. . . . This comedy was written at her command, and by her direction, and she was so eager to see it acted that she commanded it to be finished in fourteen days; and was afterwards, as tradition tells us, very well pleased at the representation.' Howe repeated the story in his Life of Shakespeare, adding of Queen Elizabeth: 'She was so well pleased with that admirable character of Falstaff in the two parts of Henry the Fourth, that she commanded him to continue it for one play more, and to show him in love. This is said to be the occasion of his writing The Merry Wives of Windsor. How well she was obeyed, the play itself is an admirable proof.'

The other tradition is that in Justice Shallow, Shakespeare is satirizing Sir Thomas Lucy of Charlecote, near Stratford, who had prosecuted him in his youth for poaching. According to a note by Archdeacon Davies, written probably between 1688 and 1707, Shakespeare was 'much given to all unluckinesse in stealing venison and Rabbits particularly from Sr. Lucy, . . . but his reveng is so great that he is his Justice Clodpate, and calls him a great man and that in allusion to his name bore three lowses rampant for his Arms.' Rowe, in 1709, adds to this: 'Amongst other extravagancies, in The Merry Wives of Windsor he has made him a deer-stealer, that he might at the same time remember his Warwickshire prosecutor under the name of Justice Shallow; he has given him very near the same coat of arms which Dugdale, in his Antiquities of that county, describes for a family there, and makes the Welsh parson descant very pleasantly upon them.'

Of the earliest performances of the play we know from the title-page of the 1602 Quarto that it was 'divers times acted, both before her Majesty and elsewhere.' Shakespeare's company presented it at Whitehall before King James during the winter of 1604–1605; and another court performance occurred in 1612–1613. The play was presented before Charles I also; for in the records of Sir Henry Herbert is the entry: 'before the king and queene this yeare of our Lord 1638. . . . At the Cocpit the 15th of November. The merry wifes of winser.'

Of the actors in these productions we know nothing definite. John Heminge, a member of Shakespeare's company and one of editors of the 1623 Folio, is said to have been the original Falstaff; and after the Restoration John Lowen (1576–1659) was remembered as having excelled in the part 'before the wars.'

The Merry Wives was one of the first plays revived after the Commonwealth. On December 5, 1660, Pepys records seeing it with 'the humours of the country gentlemen and the French doctor very well done, but the rest but very poorly, and Sir J. Falstaffe as bad as any.' In 1661 he went again to the theatre 'such is the power of the Devil over me . . . and saw the Merry Wives ill done.' And in 1667 yet another production of the play 'did not please me at all in no part.'

When the Drury Lane Theatre opened in 1668 The Merry Wives was one of the productions which 'being well performed were very satisfactory to the town'; and forty years later John Dennis still remembered Wintersel's success as Falstaff 'in King Charles the Second's reign.'

In 1702 Dennis produced an adaptation of The Merry Wives under the title of The Comical Gallant, or the Amours of Sir John Falstaff. Falstaff's beating at the end of the play is shifted to Ford, to punish him for his jealousy, and Sir John is spared the humiliation of appearing in women's clothes, but he has a far more degrading part to play when he is bullied by Mrs. Page, disguised as a roistering captain. Dennis' piece 'was received but coldly,' and the original play was soon afterward successfully revived by Betterton, with Mrs. Bracegirdle, and later Peg Woffington, in the rôle of Mrs. Ford.

During the eighteenth century the part of Falstaff was ably interpreted by Quin, Henderson, and Cooke. Horace Walpole wrote on hearing of Quin's death, 'Pray, who is to give an idea of Falstaff, now Quin is dead?' John Henderson (1747–1785) won great applause in the part. Rogers in his table-talk says 'his Hamlet and his Falstaff were equally good.' Kemble revised the play in 1797, and successfully produced his version a few years later, playing Ford to the Falstaff of George Frederick Cooke. Cooke later visited the United States, where he died in 1811. The Merry Wives had already been produced in this country in 1770, at the Southwark Theatre in Philadelphia.

During the nineteenth century the play has been a favorite source for librettos for operas. In 1824 Frederick Reynolds was 'censured as an interpolator, for converting Shakespeare's plays into operas'; but his production of the Merry Wives ran for thirty-two performances at Drury Lane, and was a great success. In 1838 Balfe's opera, Falstaff, with an Italian libretto by Maggioni, was produced at London. Nine years later a German version, Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor, with music by Nicolai, was given in Berlin. Nicolai's work was soon afterwards produced in Paris with some amusingly Gallic touches—Fenton is transformed into a young poet; Caius becomes a bullying captain; and Anne Page's character suffers by being made deceitful and dishonest. Perhaps to balance these French features Rule Britannia was introduced into a chorus toward the end of the piece. The greatest of the operatic versions of the play is Verdi's Falstaff (1893).

During all this time the original comedy has main tained its popularity on the stage. Among innumerable modern productions may be mentioned that at the New Theatre in New York (1910), and those of Sir Herbert Tree, who 'made Falstaff such a merry rogue that you forgot his cowardice and his grossness in laughing at his conceit and his mock bravery.' Tree's productions of the play in England and America were elaborately mounted, and generally accompanied by the music for the lyrics composed by Arthur Sullivan in 1874. The play is a favorite for amateur performances. It was presented by the Yale Dramatic Association in 1909.