Shakespeare Uncut: The Merry Wives of Windsor

Shakespeare is arguably the most versatile writer of all time.  Across 39 plays, 150 sonnets and many other random spurts of writing, he writes on a wonderfully diverse range of fascinating subjects, from Danish princes and Scottish thanes to feisty lovers and mysterious dark ladies.

But let’s be honest – of Shakespeare’s complete works, how many are actually read? Most people are probably acquainted with Romeo and Juliet, and with the four great tragedies (Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, and King Lear, although even the last one is probably too dark to have been prescribed on many high school reading lists).  Many will also have encountered the famous comedies, such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night.  Fewer will have read As You Like It and Richard III.  Nobody (not even this writer) has bothered with King John and Cymbeline.

There is a reason for this lack of recognition for some of Shakespeare’s works: betwixt 39 plays, school curriculums have to prioritise the texts that are the most worthwhile and culturally relevant. Inevitably this will mean everyone reads Hamlet and Twelfth Night and their ilk, at the expense of everything else.  But what are the unread plays actually like?  Are there any secret treasures hidden away in the Folio and in the Quarto, away from the mainstream and the too-snobby eye of the critic?  This series, “Shakespeare Uncut”, will attempt to answer that very question by examining some of the less well-known Shakespearean works.

This edition, we will focus on The Merry Wives of Windsor.  Let it be known, first and foremost, that this play is not widely read mostly because of its quality.  It is bad.  Really bad.  Like, The Phantom Menace levels of bad, in the sense that it is actually still better than a lot of other tripe out there, but is distasteful on account of what it could have been.  The plot basically revolves around Falstaff (yes, that Falstaff, of Henry IV fame) bizarrely going to Windsor where, being poor, he decides to seduce two married women for their money.  As Falstaff is a fat drunk and the eponymous wives of Windsor are not morons, things do not go as planned – Falstaff basically gets into mishap after mishap, as the merry wives lay traps for him.

I might just be biased against this play:  the only production of it I saw was in England, where I stupidly forgot to bring a raincoat to an outdoors production (predictably, it rained).

Nevertheless, it is profoundly vapid.  The highlight of the play’s comedy features Falstaff falling into a river in a dirty laundry basket.  It is the sort of cheap humour that characterises Home Alone (and even then it’s worse than that – hell, I liked Home Alone).  There is a romantic subplot featuring a Welsh priest, a French doctor and a young man trying to woo Anne Page, one of the merry wives’ daughter.  Shakespeare was no stranger to racism, and there is a curiously offensive caricaturing of France and Wales in these characters, in a scenario already merely one step away from a “walked into the bar” joke.

In one of the most bizarre sequences in all of Shakespeare, the play’s ending features Falstaff being harassed by small children and the rest of the cast dressed as fairies.  Then some people get married, and all is well.  Legend has it that this play only exists because Queen Elizabeth loved Falstaff so much that she demanded another play written featuring him: perhaps the fact that the next play featuring Falstaff (Henry V) has him dying is an apt representation of how she would have taken this tribute to Her Majesty.