After my sojourn in the rotten state of Denmark, the innocent foils and fights of a country village were a little hard settle into. I read the play and thought, Ok what did I miss? The BBC did a wonderful job with this play. Prunella Scales, Judy Davis, Elizabeth Spriggs, Ben Kingsley, Alan Bennett, and Ron Cook brought it to life. After watching these old pros, I read the play again and had a good time with it. It prefigures not only Restoration comedy but television comedies like “Keeping Up Appearances.” All the zany characters are here.
Sir John Falstaff is one of the characters. There seems to be a general lamenting among the commentators that he is not the brilliant Falstaff of Henry IV Parts 1 and 2. Yes, he is. The lovable, incorrigible, lord of misrule who said funny things is also an irresponsible, alcoholic, arrested adolescent who is incapable of love or intimacy. But Falstaff isn’t my favorite in any play. Is it a guy thing? Because I’m with Mistress Ford when she says, “What tempest threw this whale with so many tuns of oil in his belly ashore at Windsor?” (II, i)
In any case, the play is not about him. It’s about the merry wives: Mistress Ford and Mistress Page. John Falstaff needs money. He thinks he can (literally) screw some out of Mrs Page and Mrs Ford. To this end he sends each of them a love letter. Class act that he is, he copies out the exact letter twice but changes the names in the salutation. The women are onto him before they even finish reading the letters.
Mrs. Quickly is the “she-mercury” for just about everyone. She runs messages between all the plotters and planners. (Quickly, get it?) She also pimps for nearly everyone. She has a courtesy title and is full of malapropisms:
*She’s a fartuous a civil modest wife (II, ii)
*Her husband has a marvelous infection to the little page (II, ii)
Mrs. Quickly arranges for Falstaff to meet Mrs. Ford at her home during hours when her husband is away. Falstaff’s associates, Pistol and Nym, unrepentant petty criminals, think Falstaff’s plan is too low even for them. They tell the husbands. Master Page doesn’t expect his wife to fall for it but Master Ford, a “very jealousy man,” is suspicious of that his wife might, for no good reason, I might add. He has the same disease as Othello but this play doesn’t have any creepy murder scenes.
Mr. Ford disguises himself as someone he calls Mr. Brook (Ford/Brook. Get it?) who pays a call on Falstaff and flatters (but also pays) the old fool into setting up an assignation for him and his own wife, Mrs. Ford. Falstaff tells Mr. Brook about his appointment with Mrs. Ford.
Falstaff’s page tattles to Mrs. Ford and Mrs. Page. The women hatch a plot. When Mr. Brook shows up for the assignation the wives are smuggling Falstaff out in a load of dirty laundry with instructions to dump everything in a ditch. In this exchange following the dumping of Falstaff, Mistress Quickly means to use the word direction.
*Falstaff: Mistress Ford? I have had ford enough; I was thrown into the ford; I have my belly full of ford.
Mistress Quickly: Alas . . . that was not her fault. She does so take on with her men—they mistook their erection.
Falstaff: So did I mine. . . (III, v)
At the next attempt at an assignation, the women dress Falstaff in women’s clothes and shove him out the door while the suspicious Mr. Ford is pawing through the dirty laundry. Finally they persuade Falstaff to go the old oak tree at night as Herne, the Hunter, the subject of a local myth, and keep an assignation with Mrs. Ford. They dress him up and put horns on his head. Now the old fool imagines himself “a Windsor stag,” and Zeus disguised as a bull. Mistress Quickly dresses the children of the town like fairies, ouphs and witches and sends them out to torment Sir John at the old oak tree where he’s trying to get into Mrs. Ford’s pants.
A second plot has involved the wooing of the Page’s daughter, Anne. Anne has no interest in the three men trying to court her. Her choice is one Master Fenton. Mistress Quickly has been pimping for all four of them. They all think they have a chance with Anne but she is planning to run off with Master Fenton the evening of the denouement at the old oak tree. Everyone ends up dancing, singing and tormenting John Falstaff who finally concedes, “I do begin to perceive that I am made an ass.” (V, v)
Here’s how the play ends:
“Let us every one go home
And laugh this sport o’er by a country fire,
Sir John and all.” (V, v)
Here are some lines I liked along the way:
*She has brown hair and speaks small like a woman. (I, i)
*Thou art the Mars of malcontent. (I, iii)
*Here will be an old abusing of God’s patience and the King’s English. (I, iv)
*I’ll exhibit a bill in parliament for the putting down of men. (II, i)
*Thou hast some crotchets in thy head now. (II, i)
*The world’s mine oyster
Which I with sword will open. (II, ii)
*Falstaff: Of what quality was your love?
Ford: Like a fair house built on another man’s ground, so that I have lost my edifice by mistaking the place where I erected it. (II, ii)
*I cannot tell what the dickens his name is. (III, ii)
*A woman would run through fire and water for such a kind heart. (III, iv)
*As good luck would have it. (III, v)
*Have I laid my brain in the sun and dried it? (V,v)