There can be little doubt about when Shakespeare’s knavish knight Sir John Falstaff was born–1597. He came to life in that year on the stage of the Globe Theatre in Henry IV, Part I, and Londoners immediately took him to their hearts. Falstaff appeared again in Henry lV, Part II, and when the epilogue promised more Falstaff in Henry V and then he didn’t appear but was killed off-stage, his scenes remained so popular that Shakespeare may have regretted the necessity of dispensing with him.
Demand for more comic scenes with the roguish knight may have induced him to write one more play utilizing the fat old turkey cock.
Thus, The Merry Wives of Windsor is and has been for almost 400 years one of Shakespeare’s more popular comedies. It is the only play Shakespeare wrote that takes place in the England of his own time. It is a fractured tale of middle class chicanery and romance. resembling a first class television situation comedy. It brings together an assortment of sure-fire theatrical elements: an inept con-man, a jealous husband with a mischievous wife, a pair of young lovers, a dose of disguise, slapstick, elopements, and a forgive-and-forget ending. Shakespeare sets out, in short, to give the audience a good time.
Victorian critics found the Falstaff of The Merry Wives of Windsor too gross for their tastes and condemned Shakespeare for writing a play lacking in those genteel qualities that literary men of the nineteenth century thought Shakespeare ought to have displayed. Forgetting that Shakespeare was a practical man of the theatre, ready to capitalize upon the popularity of a character who had already won the plaudits of Elizabethan audiences, even later scholar-critics have worried about the “degeneration” in Shakespeare’s concept of the fat knight and the “claptrap” introduced in The Merry Wives of Windsor.
The truth is that this play is highly effective upon the stage and has enjoyed a more continuous life in the playhouse than most of Shakespeare’s comedies. It was written to be seen on the stage rather than to be read in the study, although its dialogue is funnier in reading than that of many plays more esteemed by critics. Shakespeare, the successful producer, knew precisely what he was about when he put together The Merry Wives of Windsor, and we too can share the enjoyment experienced by the Elizabethan audience if we disregard “literary” criticism that misses the point of Shakespearean farce.
Early in the eighteenth century a story gained currency that Queen Elizabeth herself commanded Shakespeare to write a play showing Falstaff in love. John Dennis, who made an adaptation of The Merry Wives of Windsor in 1702, was the first to publish this tale; he declared that the Queen was so eager to see it acted “that she commanded it to be finished in fourteen days.” Nicholas Rowe in 1709 repeated the story, either taking it from Dennis or from their common source.
This explanation of the composition of The Meny Wives of Windsor cannot be proved, but it is easy to believe. From what we know about Queen Elizabeth, she had a robust sense of humor capable of appreciating Falstaff and it is not out of character for her to order the dramatist to show Falstaff in love.
This is the most English of Shakespeare’s comedies, and the queen herself was proud to declare herself “mere English.” And it is also not out of character for Shakespeare to supply scenes of boisterous comedy portraying the lecherous old braggart discomfited by the two virtuous wives of Windsor, who themselves loved a practical joke.
Profound lessons are implicit in this play, and no refinements of aesthetic theory can be found by the most diligent searcher, for Shakespeare was not only a poet and analyst but also, and primarily, a practical playwright who himself would have greeted the worry of the aesthetes about Falstaff’s degeneration with a roar of gusty laughter.