Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

SHAKESPEARE: The Merry Wives of Windsor

Wives may be merry and yet honest too… All Shakespeare’s plays revolve around common human themes. Macbeth has ambition. Othello is jealous. Hamlet wants revenge. Romeo wants Juliet. In The Merry Wives of Windsor Sir John Falstaff wants money. He’s broke and needs money. Fortunately for Falstaff there are a couple of women living in Windsor who have plenty of money. Unfortunately they’re both married. For Falstaff this isn’t a problem. He tells his drinking buddies: My honest lads, I will tell you what I am about… Briefly, I do mean to make love to Ford's wife… Falstaff doesn’t rise as far as Macbeth. He doesn’t fall into a rage of jealousy like Othello. He doesn’t think too much as Hamlet does. He hasn’t fallen head over heels in love like Romeo. Falstaff has a much simpler concern: he needs money.

Shakespeare’s plays can reach majestic heights of philosophical meaning. No writer has ever portrayed the human condition more poignantly than he did in King Lear, for example. But what sets Shakespeare above all other writers is his ability to also descend to the lower depths of human nature. It would be hard to find worse people than Iago and Lady Macbeth. In the real world most folks don’t rise too high or fall too low. Their weaknesses are human and therefore understandable. Falstaff needs money. There are two women in town who have money. If he can seduce one of them, good. But if he could seduce both of them, then life would really be good. So what’s the best way to go about this seduction? Falstaff decides to write them love letters. These may be the worst love letters in the history of literature. His wooing goes something like this: You are not young, no more am I; go to then, there's sympathy: you are merry, so am I; ha, ha! then there's more sympathy: you love sack, and so do I; would you desire better sympathy? In other words, we’re both getting old, we both like to have a good time, and we both like to get drunk. Why don't we get drunk and jump in bed? How romantic.

To make matters worse, Falstaff sends the same letter to both women. He just changes the names. To make matters still worse, these two women are good friends. This is not good. Can a man know less about women than Falstaff? The reaction of the two ladies is predictable. Mrs. Page says What, have I scaped love-letters in the holiday-time of my beauty, and am I now a subject for them? All that time I was young and beautiful I didn’t get any love letters. Now that I’m middle aged and beauty has faded I get this half-baked love letter from some guy I barely even know. I don’t even like him. Mrs. Page says Falstaff is well-nigh worn to pieces with age and on top of that he’s a Flemish drunkard and on top of that he hath not been thrice in my company! In short, Falstaff’s attempted seduction of both Mrs. Page and Mrs. Ford failed miserably. The only question they have is what should we do in return? In modern terms they don’t get mad, they get even. Poor Falstaff doesn’t stand a chance with these ladies.

And yet in spite of everything there’s something about Falstaff that’s likable. We laugh with him rather than at him. Of course he’s an idiot, but how many of us have never acted like idiots? He’s middle-aged, fat, and drinks too much. Yet he still thinks women will fall for him, just like Juliet fell for Romeo. Fat chance. But many (most?) middle-aged men still hold on to the same fantasy. Macbeth, Othello and Hamlet were all alone pursuing ambition, jealousy and revenge. These weren’t ordinary men. Falstaff is very ordinary; and he’s shown up to be just another aging, bungling schemer when he tries to hook up with the two wives in Windsor. In the end it’s the women who come out on top. Falstaff is in over his head. He’s a little older, and hopefully a little wiser, by the time Mrs. Page asks him: Now, good Sir John, how like you Windsor wives?


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