The Merry Wives of Windsor was written at the end of the 16th century, and is what I would call – using the technical term – one of Shakespeare’s “puff-ball” plays. Like Comedy of Errors, the play is a farce: it’s about action, not about the deep questions that keep people up at night. These are characters who just seem to bump into each other and bounce off each other—human beings as billiard balls. Human beings in the dark.
The French philosopher Henri Bergson wrote a wonderful treatise on comedy in which he said these stories acquaint us with the mechanical side of our interactions. A lot of things we do without really thinking about it. And in that way, we’re a bit like wind-up toys. We just do certain things automatically. If you look at a play like The Comedy of Errors or Love’s Labor’s Lost, I think those satisfy this definition of being plays where part of the point is to let people bump into and off of each other so that by the end, hopefully they learn something. That’s part of what’s going on in this play.
But Merry Wives also satisfies one of the requirements of a comedy, because it ends in wedding. Weddings are non-negotiable in Renaissance comic theory: they are the capper at the end of the story. The fuller definition of comedy is that it draws characters from mixed social positions and then ends in a marriage. We may not recognize that definition, since in the intervening 400 years, we have come to think of comedy as funny “ha ha.” But the earlier formula is about creating an obstacle between two people, an erotic obstacle, and then sending them off to work it out — usually in the woods.
Away from the city or court, people become confused and something that was stuck gives way. The obstacle dissolves and the lovers are able to get out of their own way. “Away time” is “get out of your own way” time. Shakespeare’s repeated insight in the comedies is that humans are their own worst enemies when it comes to courtship; they do the opposite of what will bring them closer to the one they love. Getting out of your own way is the comic struggle.
Then we come to the second part of the definition: depicting social classes beyond royalty and nobility. The Merry Wives of Windsor is a play that has characters of mixed social standing, by which I mean that you’ve got a knight, Sir John Falstaff, but you’ve also got people from what we would now call the middle classes, people who do something for a living. What’s the first thing that most Shakespeareans will say to you about The Merry Wives of Windsor? Maybe a few of them will say, “well, that’s a puff ball of a play,” as I said.
But then they’ll say it is a “bourgeois comedy,” or a “city comedy.” What does that mean? It means that this type of story takes place in a town or a city. This was becoming a popular form of comic writing in the late 16th century. Such plays were called city comedies, and they were plays about tinkers, joiners, and merchants—some of the kinds of people you see in A Midsummer Night’s Dream with the mechanicals—but they all revolved around intrigues, money, seduction, and bad behavior. For the most part, Shakespeare really wasn’t interested in that type of play.
Of the 38 plays that he writes (either alone or as a collaborator), there is only one that takes place exclusively in a townie setting with people who are not remarkable in terms of being noble. It’s just people getting on with life, in a town, and the town is Windsor. Bad behavior and small-town life. That’s the world of this play, and it’s the only one of its kind in Shakespeare’s canon.
One dramatic reason for depicting life in a tight knit community is that it points you toward bad behavior. And bad behavior is entertaining. If you’ve ever lived in a small community for a long time, you know that people become very, very interested in each other. They become annoyed with each other and they can’t help but notice when other people are doing things that are irritating. Alongside this tendency to notice irritating behaviors, then, comes the desire to punish people who misbehave.
A lot of the social comedy of city comedy is about people behaving badly, and then getting their just desserts. That’s the arc. The story tends to be less focused exclusively on courtship, as in romantic comedies. Sure, there are weddings in city comedy —you know, the merchant’s daughter is being courted by a rich guy and a poor guy, and the father insists she should go with the rich one. Whom she despises. Mayhem ensues. But in this play, it really is about bad behavior rather than marriage. And the bad-behaving person is Sir John Falstaff.
This post is adapted from a talk by Folger Director Michael Witmore on January 29, 2020. Find out about future talks and other programs.