When Giuseppe Verdi was looking for source material for what would be his last opera, he made what might be considered an odd choice: a farcical, episodic play, written almost entirely in prose, about ordinary citizens in sixteenth-century England called The Merry Wives of Windsor. Of course, this unremarkable play had something going for it: it was penned by William Shakespeare. Verdi had just enjoyed remarkable success with his production of Otello based on Shakespeare’s work, and he was looking for something a good deal lighter to bring to his audiences. He settled on The Merry Wives (libretto by Arrigo Boito) to reprise the larger-than-life character of Sir John Falstaff, the shameless, womanizing drunkard who had been delighting audiences for almost three hundred years.
The enduring popularity of Falstaff may well have frustrated his creator. Shakespeare invented the corpulent, swaggering, and amoral knight as a foil for Henry IV – competing for the attentions of the young Prince Hal. In those plays, Falstaff’s drinking, stealing, and other antics provide a comedic contrast to the serious business King Henry faces as his country plunges into a civil war. But Shakespeare includes some important details that complicate the otherwise amusing character; most importantly, Falstaff’s egregious misuse of his power as a knight, enlisting men for the war that he is certain will end up as cannon fodder. When Prince Hal expresses his concern about the “pitiful” recruits, Falstaff retorts, “Tut, tut, good enough to toss, food for powder, food for powder; they’ll fill a pit as well as better” (4.2.65-67). Falstaff’s importance as a character diminishes significantly after Prince Hal fully accepts the responsibilities of kingship at the end of Henry IV Part 2. And in Henry V, the culmination of the plays known as the Henriad, Shakespeare didn’t write a single line for Falstaff, having him die offstage in the second act. There is a persistent (though often challenged) strain of scholarship that holds that Shakespeare reluctantly brought Falstaff back from the dead for The Merry Wives of Windsor at the behest of Queen Elizabeth I who, like many of her citizens, wanted to see more of Falstaff and his antics despite his monstrous qualities. This view helps critics explain the “falling off” in the characterization of Sir John, who is absurdly reduced in Merry Wives to a lustful, greedy fool who is repeatedly duped and humiliated by the women in the play.
Falstaff’s impudence is nevertheless evident in The Merry Wives of Windsor. His ego is such that he believes he can improve his financial situation by seducing at least one married woman (though hopefully two) and then blackmailing her into silence. But his transparent plot is immediately discovered, and the play presents a series of situations where the knight is shamed and debased by the machinations of Mistresses Page and Ford with help from the tavern hostess Mistress Quickly. The central conceit of the play seems to be to see just how much abuse Falstaff can be tricked into taking, as he by turns is hidden in a dirty laundry basket and thrown into the Thames, disguised as the witch of Brentford and beaten black and blue, and in the final scene, pinched and burned by women and children masquerading as fairies while he himself is costumed as a horned beast. The spectacle of this culminating scene may well have been what inspired Verdi to look to this play for the inspiration for his final opera. However, it may also be the case that he was drawn to the dynamic of a network of resourceful women turning the tables on a would-be sexual predator.
In Merry Wives, Shakespeare highlights the inventiveness and agency of the married women who are the targets of Sir John’s plot, creating a trope that would feature prominently in city comedies in the ensuing Jacobean era. What’s more, Shakespeare’s play demonstrates the power of female networks to oppose the oppressive patriarchal structures that reduced women to property and kept them subjugated to men. In Windsor, as Falstaff knows, married women run the household, and therefore control the family finances. In act 1 scene 3, Falstaff brags to Pistol and Nym that both Mistress Ford and Mistress Page “bear the purse,” and as such, are “all gold and bounty” (68-9). But Falstaff does not anticipate the closeness of the women or their willingness to join forces to fight him and the chauvinistic values he represents. In fact, when the women discover that Falstaff has written the exact same love letter to them both, they are outraged that he would think them that simple, and they vow to take their revenge. Falstaff’s assumptions reflect a view common at the time that women were “weaker vessels” both physically and mentally, and therefore they would be easy to take advantage of. But Shakespeare seems intent on demonstrating the falseness of this assumption, as the wives in the play prove both unassailable and adept at managing both Falstaff and their husbands.
The husbands of Shakespeare’s merry wives, Mr. Page and Mr. Ford, reflect two extremes of patriarchal control. Ford is absurdly jealous, and Page is the opposite. Ford immediately believes his wife will succumb to Falstaff’s advances, and he goes so far as to ingratiate himself (in disguise) with Falstaff in order to get information about the supposed seduction. This, of course, backfires because Falstaff misrepresents his success, and Mr. Ford furiously tries to catch them in the act. Mr. Page has the opposite reaction, telling Mr. Ford: “If he [Falstaff] should intend this voyage toward my wife, I would turn her loose to him; and what he gets more of her than sharp words, let it lie on my head” (2.1.181). While Page’s apparent nonchalance is preferable to the violent rage of Ford, his response nevertheless reflects the misogynistic assumption that his wife is a scold. Neither husband seems to be much of a prize, but what is exposed in the play is the flawed nature of an ideological structure that assumes female inferiority. Both husbands, in effect, need some correction which they receive in the culminating forest scene where Falstaff is chastened, and the husbands are shown the error of their ways.
The theatricality of the cathartic final scene, where everyone goes to the woods in disguise to punish—but also to forgive–the intruding Falstaff, translates wonderfully to opera, particularly with the happy resolution of the plot involving the young Anne (renamed Nanetta in Verdi’s version) and her love interest, Fenton, of whom neither of her parents approves. In the play, Anne is the Pages’ daughter, and they don’t agree on a suitor: Mr. Page insists that she marry the well-appointed Abraham Slender, while Mrs. Page prefers a French doctor named Caius. Anne has other ideas, however, as she is in love with young Fenton. The Pages separately tell their chosen suitor what their daughter will be wearing in the forest, therefore supposedly enabling them to capitalize on the confusion and carry Anne off (against her will) to a justice of the peace. Fearing her parents’ plot, Anne switches her costume and tricks the suiters into marrying each other, while she and Fenton elope together. Just like the other women in the play, Anne cleverly avoids the worst outcome supported by the patriarchal structure of her town. Shakespeare effectively shows his audience the flaws of an ideology that assumes male superiority in this play and celebrates the inventive ways that women evade and improve it.
Verdi’s opera (Boito’s libretto) retains the resourcefulness of the female characters but streamlines the plot to focus more on the young lovers. In the opera, Nanetta is the Fords’ daughter, and she has already been betrothed to Dr. Caius. In the last scene, all of the women join together to facilitate the switch, and Mr. Ford himself unknowingly performs the marriage. The opera more fully develops the attraction between the young people, having them kissing in act 1 and getting caught kissing by Mr. Ford in act 2. Reorganizing the plot to focus on the young lovers provides the excuse for some of the more beautiful arias, including the love duet Bocca baciata non perde ventura.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Verdi’s opera is also easier on Falstaff. While he is tricked into hiding in a laundry basket and thrown out a window, he doesn’t wind up in the river, and the opera omits entirely the beating he suffers while dressed as the witch of Brentford. Falstaff’s rich baritone anchors the opera as his character’s brazenness and self-conceit are on full display in the tavern scenes. The absurdness of his costume in the final act adds to the hilarity and draws the audience into the infectious laughter that lingers long after the curtain falls.
In both the play and the opera, the tensions characters experience due to patriarchal assumptions are released during the masked ritual in the woods, and everyone goes home in happiness, laughing at themselves and one another. The final message of both Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor and Verdi’s Falstaff seems to be that people should find laughter and love where they can. Complications of the socially-imposed hierarchies of class and gender may interfere in finding happiness, but they should not prevent it. Perhaps this message is best conveyed by Verdi as all of the voices intertwine in the finale singing, “Life is just burlesque and we are born buffoons.” Shakespeare would doubtless have agreed.
Adrienne L. Eastwood
San Jose State University