The Everyday Comedy
By Kathryn Neves
If there’s one rule to writing, it’s this: write what you know. Ask any writer and they’ll tell you: it’s easiest (and the most fun) to write about your own life, your own culture. And as for the best writer in all of English literature, he definitely followed that rule too. See it for yourself in this season’s The Merry Wives of Windsor. William Shakespeare put references to his times and life into all of his plays, but nowhere is that more obvious than in this zany comedy.
The star of this play is, undoubtedly, Sir John Falstaff— companion to the rowdy Prince Hal, thieving rogue, and womanizer extraordinaire. However, despite Shakespeare firmly placing the character in the early 1400s (in Henry IV Part One, Henry IV Part Two, and Henry V), The Merry Wives of Windsor really doesn’t fit into that century at all. In fact, there are only a couple of references to Prince Hal and King Henry IV; other than that, the play could be set completely in the 1590s, the decade in which it was written (or in the early 1900s, the time period this year’s Festival production will be set in). And even though this annoys some avid historians, it definitely gave the Bard a chance to stuff as much of his own pop culture into this play as he could. For one thing, Shakespeare mentions several books that were written during his own lifetime. The Book of Songs and Sonnets is one, as well as The Book of Riddles. And during the Latin-teaching scene of the play, most of what Sir Hugh teaches is based directly on A Shorte Introduction of Grammar by Lilly and Colet. Besides all that, there’s references to currency that didn’t exist until long after Falstaff should have been dead. References to dances and wines popular in the late 1500s are strewn throughout the play. There’s even a couple of allusions to the song “Greensleeves.” Even though he technically set “Merry Wives” in the 1400s, Shakespeare clearly wanted the play to reflect his own times.
Even more telling, though, about Shakespeare’s own culture are the numerous references to some of his contemporaries. In act 3, scene 1, Sir Hugh quotes, almost verbatim, Christopher Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love.” And later on in the play, Falstaff directly alludes to a sonnet sequence by Philip Sidney called Astrophil and Stella. Shakespeare was well-read, and his audience likely caught these references quite easily. Marlowe, especially, was extremely popular. It would be almost like Stephen Sondheim referencing Rogers and Hammerstein! Those poetry references were definitely relevant.
And then there’s the setting of the play. Windsor was not Shakespeare’s hometown— he was the Bard of Stratford-upon-Avon, after all. But even so, he was very familiar with Windsor and the surrounding area. It may not have been the most important town in England, but it was still a rather influential place in Elizabethan culture. Windsor was, and is to this day, the sometimes-home of England’s sovereign. It generally houses a large court, and its proximity to London makes it a fairly popular tourist spot. So it’s no wonder that Shakespeare knew the town. It’s definitely the perfect setting for the wacky pranks of Mistresses Ford and Page.
The play’s cultural references and allusions often center around Windsor. There’s one allusion, specifically, that you can track throughout the entire play. Much of the language, setting, and even plot elements focus on the Order of the Garter. This society, still in existence today, was founded in Windsor, and the town was a common meeting place for its members. Shakespeare undoubtedly knew quite a bit about the organization. In fact, in 1597 (around the time this play was written) the Order inducted a new member into its ranks: George Carey, the second Baron Hunsdon, who happened to be the patron of Shakespeare’s acting company. So it makes sense that The Merry Wives of Windsor has allusions to the Order all through its pages. Some people even speculate that the play itself was written in celebration of Lord Hunsdon’s induction. It was a current event that most people in Shakespeare’s circles would have gossiped and speculated about constantly.
Though many of Shakespeare’s plays take place in fantastical lands and ancient times far removed from reality, The Merry Wives of Windsor is more down-to-earth. It’s a play written for Elizabethan audiences. One of the only plays to reflect on Shakespeare’s everyday life so clearly, “Merry Wives” provides a glimpse into the pop-culture that the Bard knew and lived. This play, one of Shakespeare’s most delightful and relatable comedies, gave his audience a chance to feel represented. They could see themselves in Page and Ford, Shallow and Slender. By showing his audiences their own lives back at them, Shakespeare held “as t’were, the mirror up to nature.” The Merry Wives of Windsor really is the essential Elizabethan English Comedy.