Part of my effort to see every Shakespeare play.
Merry Wives of Windsor was the first Shakespeare I’ve ever encountered that made no pretence to be literature, and is not treated as such by teachers and people who would make me study what are living, breathing texts. Allegedly it was written at the behest of Elizabeth I, who loved the character of Falstaff in Shakespeare’s earlier plays and demanded a play where he was the main character.
It is one of Shakespeare’s lesser known plays, which probably explains why this RSC production opens with an actual introductory credits on a projector, presumably because they couldn’t rely on the audience knowing who everyone is. And that is a shame, because it was absolutely hilarious and I think one of my favourite plays.
Falstaff is a knight who has gone to seed and arrives in Windsor short on money and determined to marry well in his old age. He therefore attempts to woo the wives of two gentlemen in Windsor by sending them identical loveletters, but the two women are friends and, after swapping notes, decide to have fun with this rapacious, gross man. Unfortunately their husbands find out about the loveletters too, and one of them takes it seriously, and commissions Falstaff to seduce his own wife, so he can know she is an adulterer. The stage is set, as it were, for a ridiculous comedy of people trying to hide from each other while spying or seducing someone else, and eventually realising they are the dupe themselves.
There are minor changes – the play is set in Essex and this was reflected in the scary mother-in-law being referred to as the Widow of Brentwood rather than Brentford. There also an entire farcical scene around Falstaff hiding in a wheely bin that in the original play is some kind of laundry basket that I presume would have made sense to an Elizabethan audience that made no sense to me when I looked it up. Other than that, I believe they went through the text as is, and, as I said to my fellow theatre-goers in the interval, I could barely believe it had been written by Shakespeare. We talk about this guy as this eloquent, high culture wit who has shaped the entire English language, but he also wrote a play in which I just spent ten minutes watching a man in a fatsuit trying to hide under a sun lounger. It was at that point that I began to understand why the proles flocked to the Globe. These plays were never written to be studied, or read for pleasure, they are written to be performed and to entertain.
And entertained I was. There is a subplot about three men vying for the hand of one of the merry wives’ daughters while she is smitten with someone else entirely that plays out in between farcical Benny Hill scenes of people hiding in wheely bins and dressing up as tyrannical women that largely carries on undisturbed until the grand finale where suddenly everyone is running around on stage getting lost and mistaking each other in the dark, which ends happily.
The only minor criticism we had was really the RSC’s decision to give the whole thing a The Only Way is Essex vibe is that there was some elements that appeared to be mocking Essex working-class people. But this was minor, and for the most part, the characters are ridiculous and written to be so. Great show, great production.