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  • Two Ways to Tell a Story
  • Alexander Leggatt (bio)

Giuseppe Verdi's Falstaff concludes with a great choral fugue, a final statement not only about the opera but about life itself. Like other large statements about life made in romance languages, Arrigo Boito's words do not translate well into English, but the gist is: the whole world's a joke ('Tutto nel mondo è burla'), man is born a comic actor, pushed here and there by faith or reason. We're all dupes. Mortals all laugh at each other, but he laughs best who has the last laugh ('La risata final'). Everyone on stage joins in, and they're singing about everybody in the world, including of course the audience. Franco Zeffirelli, when he staged Falstaff at the Metropolitan Opera, wanted at this point to have the scenery whisked away, as the singers whipped off their wigs and pointed, laughing, at the audience. It didn't happen. But the Canadian Opera Company's 2004 production ended with an equivalent effect, as on 'Tutti gabbàti!' ('all dupes!') the house lights went on, Falstaff pointed at the audience, and several singers ran into the auditorium. There is a similar moment at the end of Gogol's The Government Inspector when the Mayor turns on the audience and asks, 'What do you think you're laughing at, eh!? You're laughing at yourselves, do you know that?' (105). The final vision is comprehensive, universal: 'tutto nel mondo è burla.'

The ending of The Merry Wives of Windsor contains a similar note, when Mistress Page issues what sounds like a general invitation:

Good husband, let us every one go home
And laugh this sport o'er by a country fire -
Sir John and all.


This is not the final note, however, and even if it were it would be less comprehensive than the opera's ending. It draws together not the whole world, but the relatively small community we have seen in the play. And at the risk of being literal-minded, we may ask: how many people in a middle-class English house can actually gather around the fire? Mistress Page's 'every one go home' may suggest that what she has in mind is not a single communal celebration but a series of private parties as each participant in the sport retires to his own home for a private chuckle.

Whether that is true or not, the play's final couplet, its actual ending, narrows the focus still further. Ford, whose jealousy has led him to disguise [End Page 714] himself as Master Brook, a fictitious character who wants to have an affair with Mistress Ford and who hires Falstaff to break down her chastity by seducing her first, has the play's last words:

           Sir John,
To Master Brook you yet shall hold your word,
For he to-night shall lie with Mistress Ford.


We end not with universal laughter, not with the whole world, but with one couple in bed. And we end with a teasing question about that couple: when he offers to lie with his wife in the person of Master Brook, her fictitious lover, is Ford trying to spice up his marriage? Something like this happens in Harold Pinter's play The Lover (1963), but we do not need to go to the kinky '60s for examples. Ben Jonson in his 1629 comedy The New Inn includes a tailor who, whenever he has made a new gown, dresses his wife in it; they go off for a naughty weekend at a country inn in which she pretends to be an aristocratic lady and he pretends to be her footman. Is Ford up to something similar? Verdi's opera has a decisive ending: 'la risata final.' Shakespeare's play ends, characteristically, with a teasing question it refuses to answer.

The two endings are a clue to the fundamentally different ways in which The Merry Wives of Windsor and Falstaff tell a similar story. Verdi's librettist Arrigo Boito did not just adapt Shakespeare's play. He created a new work with a vision of its own, a vision that is...


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