Though Titus Andronicus is probably felt to be Shakespeare’s worst play by many, The Merry Wives of Windsor is held in a special place of low esteem for appearing at a time when Shakespeare was elsewhere exploiting and evolving his powers of verse and character. It is also the only Shakespeare play that has become firmly attached to the circumstance of its failures: the fortnight deadline for composition imposed by Elizabeth I. So much has the occasion being written become a part of the play that the brilliant recent (2018) RSC production included the Queen’s order in the play itself, as an opening scene of sorts. In that production, the scene thankfully does not feel like an apology or excuse, and instead captures the ramshackle energy, extending it to the circumstance of its production. And it is symptomatic too of what is so different about this play, compared to others by Shakespeare: that it looks beyond itself not only for energy, but for meaning; it glances at the bear pits of London, the geography of London, the mythology of the Queen, and of course other plays in Shakespeare’s corpus. It is not in the least derivative but it is very happily parasitic; its wit feeds off the waste of the world, feels itself to be at one with waste—as in excess, abundance, and left-overs—and without redeeming that waste, it suggests how reconciliation with it might be had, in comedy. Hence it is an ideally Falstaffian play. I found myself reading with warm pleasure, despite the sheer difficulty of the colloquialisms (its language being knotted in the time, rather than, as in the late Shakespeare, its own metaphors).
Frank Kermode has a few persuasive remarks that, without attacking anyone (Harold Bloom), attempt to redress the criticism that has been leveled against it: “Composed largely in prose, it is lively and resourceful in language and briskly efficient in construction. Falstaff has not yet lost his force, though it is diminished.” And he quotes approvingly, Anne Barton’s insight that the play represents a cast of characters, most of whom are, in one way or another (Welsh, French, fools, pompous) “engaged in a desperate grapple with the English tongue.” And she points out that “Falstaff stands out as a man who can do exactly what he wants them to do.” Kermode corrects her, pointing out that the claim is “belied by the failure of Falstaff’s ‘cony-catching’ letters”.” Fenton is perhaps the most linguistically adept, and given to speaking in verse, to set off not only is class but also his ease with the language.
Barton’s remark and Kermode’s partial assent interest me for two reasons: first, because there is a crucial difference in the letters he writes and the words he speaks—not only that they are written, but that they are copied, and seem even to be printed, and not spontaneous. And second, because I think it is not self-evident what it means to want words to do something, not least for the vastly corporeal, gluttonous, and lusty Falstaff.
In the case of the first, Mistress Page and Mistress Ford suggest immediately that the letters almost seem to have been printed, with the funny suggestion of Falstaff toting around a case of them (the play is funnier than lots of other Shakespeare comedies, and gives the opportunity, as RSC in 2018 showed, for being very funny, without needing to skirt cruelty or hatred). The point about printing should immediately make the ears perk up, not for the old reason that Shakespeare was not really interested in the rapidly emerging book market and printed diffusion of his plays (thanks to Lukas Erne, we can do away with that myth), but because Shakespeare would nonetheless have been keenly aware of the relation of the spontaneity of voice and the relative fixity of printed texts (with apologies to David McKitterick, and acknowledges that, yes, indeed, early printed texts were not stable, but which have a fundamentally different temporality than voices). This is a play that very much wants to give special place to the specificity, temporal, geographical, and cultural, of language as it bubbles forth; hence its range of (non-literary) allusions, its slang, and even I think, its abundance of prose, for although blank verse is intimate with the spoken word in one way, it is obviously removed from its everyday practice in another—the pattern of language in this play extends more often to the parts of life that are not literary or staged than to those that are.
Falstaff is not illiterate, but in some way defanged by the written word; he cannot do what he will with words. And one way of thinking about that might be to consider not the written word as fixed or stable and the spoken word as malleable, but instead the written word as economical (“I am about thrift,” says Falstaff when he announces he will make love to Ford’s wife, before sending the letter), of a determined quantity, with a set beginning and end, and the spoken word as ongoing, as always potentially starting up again, or flowing down again. And second, to consider that the written word is bound by the body of the page, whereas the spoken word is bound by the flesh of the man. When Falstaff is hidden in a basket of dirty laundry, there might be a joke that he is equated with the cloths that will become the rags from which paper will be made. When he is disguised as a fat witch, on the other hand, he takes on an entirely different relationship to language; in that case, equally foreign to him, but manipulated with his “wit” as he boasts, words have special unearthly power. We are arriving now at my second reason for thinking the Barton/Kermode point interesting, and that has to do with what Falstaff would do with words anyway, and that is, I think, what he would do with anything else: consume them, digest and incorporate them into his body (even more here than in the Henry plays). He can and will feed on any words at all; that is one reason Shakespeare loved him, and also why, when the order came that he be featured in another play, Shakespeare gave him one that would satisfy his appetites. Though he is foiled also in his third and final attempt at winning Mistress Ford, his final appearance is truest to him: Falstaff as animal, the horns on his head not making a cuckold of him, but bodying forth his harmony with the most bodily aspects of human life. Here too he strikes the genuine Falstaffian note, ending on the wastage of urine:
You were also, Jupiter, a swan for the love of Leda. O omnipotent Love! how near the god drew to the complexion of a goose! A fault done first in the form of a beast. O Jove, a beastly fault! And then another fault in the semblance of a fowl; think on ‘t, Jove; a foul fault! When gods have hot backs, what shall poor men do? For me, I am here a Windsor stag; and the fattest, I think, i’ the forest. Send me a cool rut-time, Jove, or who can blame me to piss my tallow? Who comes here? my doe?
And again, with words for love as aphrodisiac food:
My doe with the black scut! Let the sky rain potatoes; let it thunder to the tune of ‘Green Sleeves’, hail kissing-comfits and snow eringoes; let there come a tempest of provocation, I will shelter me here.
And again, all of these in close succession, here his body as feast for the women, sex made digestible in the figure of his body being devoured; but also the words offered them to chew upon, in his performance that would seduce—all while it is Falstaff that chews on the words:
Divide me like a bribe buck, each a haunch: I will keep my sides to myself, my shoulders for the fellow of this walk, and my horns I bequeath your husbands. Am I a woodman, ha? Speak I like Herne the hunter? Why, now is Cupid a child of conscience; he makes restitution. As I am a true spirit, welcome!
And, later still:
I think the devil will not have me damned, lest the oil that’s in me should set hell on fire; he would never else cross me thus.
In none of these does Falstaff suggest the equation of words as food directly, but the suggestion of everything with food hangs around Falstaff, and the Host warns Simple before knocking on Falstaff’s door at the inn:
There’s his chamber, his house, his castle, his standing-bed and truckle-bed; ’tis painted about with the story of the Prodigal, fresh and new. Go knock and call; he’’ll speak like an Anthropophaginian unto thee: knock, I say.
An “Anthropophaginian” is Cannibal and a remarkably sophisticated word for the Host to use; it is Falstaff who occasions it, showing himself to be here in this play again the “cause of wit in others.” But why “speak like” a cannibal? Do cannibals speak differently? In one sense, yes, they (or at least the Hannibal Lecters) speak to entice others into their bellies perhaps; in another sense, it is outright baffling, and comes closest to what I think is present throughout the play, the equation of people and language and food, with Falstaff devouring and discarding, consuming and wasting all three (and four if we add wealth), and showing how the waste may, in the case of words, though not of life, be tolerable, life-sustaining even (again, without really redeeming or polishing the words). In Merry Wives, there is no waste of life, though—not terrible scene of men being fed into war for profit.
Anne Barton says Falstaff can get words to do exactly what he wants them to do; maybe better would be to say that he can do with words exactly what he wants to, which is to devour them, and to expel them—waste them not as the waste that is foul excrement, but as waste that we all must, perforce, by virtue of living in the midst of one place, one time, with others, live by.
The play ends on a feast; it has been a feast, for Falstaff at least. The price he pays is the punishment he suffers; the bruising to his body, the nips and pinches of children (childless Falstaff would copulate but not reproduce; the waste that Shakespeare half-deplores in the Sonnets). Mistress Ford and Mistress Page are, if not his equals with words, at least able to vie with him for what they can make of them, and how they can savor them. Even though they would not satisfy his appetite for sex, they perhaps satisfied his appetite for language—for which of course his body must suffer, as his body always suffers, hangovers, indigestion, urgings, and which he takes in stride, accepts, as the price of always resolutely being bodily.