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The Merry Wives of Windsor was almost certainly required at short notice for a court occasion in 1597: Shakespeare threw into it all the creative energy that went into his Henry IV plays. Falstaff is here, with Pistol, Mistress Quickly, and Justice Shallow, in a spirited and warm-hearted 'citizen comedy'. Boisterous action is combined with situational irony and rich characterization. In his introduction T. W. Craik discusses the play's probable occasion (the Garter Feast of 1597 at court), its relationship to Shakespeare's English history plays and to other sources, its textual history (with particular reference to the widely diverging 1623 Folio and 1602 Quarto), and its original quality as drama. He assesses various interpretations of the play, topical, critical, and theatrical. In the commentary he pays particular attention to expounding the literal sense (he proposes some new readings) and evoking the stage business.
Written around 1597, critics believe that The Merry Wives of Windsor was written to capitalise on the popular success of the corpulent, knavish Sir John Falstaff in the two parts of Henry IV. Falstaff takes centre stage again in this play, hard up for money and planning to pay off his debts by seducing the wives of two rich citizens, Ford and Page. As in the earlier Henry IV plays, Falstaffs elaborate plans go awry, with disastrous and humiliating consequences. Ford is furious with Falstaff's attempt to woo his wife, whilst both Mistress Ford and Mistress Page have the measure of Falstaff, and repeatedly dupe him, first hiding him in a laundry basket and dumping him in the river, then tormenting him in the forest of Windsor with children disguised as fairies.Often dismissed as a hasty and mechanical play lacking in depth, The Merry Wives of Windsor is in fact a wonderfully inventive farce. Falstaff is a ludicrous mock hero, dressed as a mythical hunter in the forest, declaiming "powerful love that in some respects makes a beast a man, in some others a man a beast!" Mistress Ford and Page are also great comic creations, witty and resilient women who drive the comedy, no longer "in the holiday time" of beauty, but wise and streetwise women who are always one step ahead of the absurd Falstaff. A greatly underrated play. --Jerry Brotton