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”Ablaze with energy … a delight”; (The Independent): “Giggles galore”; (The Times)
“The Merry Wives”, while it’s never acclaimed by Professors, is one of its authors most popular and most performed plays. It’s also one of the most often filmed (in varying adaptations) of his plays. It’s Shakespeare having some fun and its knockabout comedy has made it ever-loved. There are many ways to acquire money, and Falstaff hits upon a very neat device – in straitened times, he decides to seduce the wives of two wealthy husbands as his means of succour.
In his two King Henry 4th plays, William Shakespeare created Falstaff, one of the greatest comic creations in all drama – a character who, it has been maintained, is more alive than many real life people could ever be. The fat knight is a “lovable rogue”, an indefatigable source of endless wit, mischief and good humour in adversity. Mistress Quickly’s description of his death (in “Henry the Fifth”) is one of the most beautiful and poignant in all literature. For many of us, Orson Welles’ black and white film based, “Chimes at Midnight”, based on the rascally, fat old knight, is one of the glories of the cinematic art.
Legend has it that Queen Elizabeth 1, having seen the King Henry 4th plays and having delighted in the ageing knight’s antics, asked Shakespeare to write a comedy around his further exploits – if true, she must have been a mere Princess at the time because all the evidence suggests that the earlier plays were written between 1596 and 1598 and “The Merry Wives” in the years before the turn of the century; and, of course, she didn’t accede to the throne till 1603.We know that she saw the play performed, in 1597.
This hilarious comedy, its author’s only domestic comedy, is the most laugh-out-loud of all his plays – Shakespeare having some fun, in this case at Falstaff’s expense. He had promised something along these lines in the prologue at the end of “King Henry the Fourth: Part Two” but omitted the fat reprobate in the succeeding play. But it must be said that the Falstaff in “Merry Wives” is only a pale shadow of his previous selves.
In the play, convinced that no woman could resist his charms, woos two prosperous married women, Mistresses Ford and Page, and sends them identical letters. They ‘compare notes’ and decide to arrange separate assignations with him so as to humiliate him. Ford, on learning of Falstaff’s attempted adultery with Mistress Ford, goes to him in disguise and pretends that he seeks a liaison with the same woman (his wife). Falstaff tells him of his own plans to meet her. It all ends badly for the would-be seducer and he makes his escape in a laundry basket, later to be dumped ignominiously in the Thames. There are also many episodes around the many suitors trying to win Miss Anne Page and it all amounts to Shakespeare’s happiest play.
But “all’s well that ends well’ and at the end all, including the put-upon hero, are happy. All is forgiven. It has all been a sport. From the famed RSC, it should leave us clutching our sides in laughter. A great author, a marvellous play, a world-famous company and all Live at SGC – what more could any theatre-lover ask for!