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  • "Gentleness" and Social Class in The Merry Wives of Windsor
  • Maurice Hunt (bio)

First performed almost certainly on a date in the last two or three years of the sixteenth century, The Merry Wives of Windsor in its Folio text is remarkable, among other things, for the frequency with which forms of the word gentle appear, mainly in the singular and plural compounds of gentleman and gentlewoman. All told they appear thirty-seven times. This frequency is even more singular when one considers that this comedy is often cited as the playwright's middle-class drama, in which members of the aristocracy are least apparent. One suspects that the play may be partly concerned with describing, perhaps defining, authentic gentleness. That this possibility should have preoccupied Shakespeare at the end of the sixteenth century is not surprising, once one remarks the relatively recent elevation of Shakespeare's father in 1596 to the ranks of armigerous gentry. Taking up and considering the senses in which forms of the word gentle, notably gentleman, occur in The Merry Wives comprises the substance of this essay, with the result that the traits and figures of unconventional Shakespearean gentleness emerge from the analysis.

On 20 October 1596, William Dethick, Garter Principal King-of Arms, granted John Shakespeare's application for armigerous status, which included a coat of arms showing a falcon supposedly shaking a spear, the motto Non sanz droict (Not without right) and gentleman status for himself and—after his death (in 1601)—his playwright son.1 Apparently John's son William commissioned this particular heraldic device and paid the considerable expenses—about one hundred pounds—involved in acquiring armigerous status.2 After 1601, William regularly signed himself "gentleman," even though in 1602 Ralph Brooke, York Herald, "prepared charges against Dethick and [William] Camden for having improperly [End Page 409] granted arms to some twenty-three 'mean' individuals, among them John Shakespeare (by then dead)."3 The legal privileges entailed by a grant of the coat of arms, that of armigerous gentle status, become Shakespeare's focus in the opening prose of The Merry Wives of Windsor. At the beginning of the Folio text of this comedy, an octogenarian Justice of the Peace, Robert Shallow, assures Sir Hugh Evans, the Welsh parson of Windsor, that the fat knight Falstaff, who has "beaten [his] men, killed [his] deer and broke open [his] lodge" (1.1.104–5),4 shall not abuse an "esquire," that is to say, "a gentleman, one degree below a knight, entitled to bear heraldic arms."5 Shallow's foolish nephew, Abraham Slender, self-importantly picks up on his uncle's reference to his high gentleman status, further defining it and focusing its armigerous dimension in a comic dialogue also involving the Welsh parson Sir Hugh Evans:

Slender: In the County of Gloucester, Justice of Peace and Coram.

Shallow: Ay, cousin, Slender, and Cust-a-lorum.

Slender: Ay, and Rato lorum too; and a gentleman born … who writes himself Armigero, in any bill, warrant, quittance, or obligation —Armigero.

Shallow: Ay, that I do, and have done so any time these three hundred years.

Slender: All his successors—gone before him—hath done't; and all his ancestors—that come after him—may. They may give the dozen white luces in their coat [-of-arms].

Shallow: It is an old coat [-of-arms].

Evans: The dozen white louses do become an old coat well. It agrees well passant. It is a familiar beast to man, and signifies love.

Shallow: The luce is the fresh fish—the salt fish is an old coat.

Slender: I may quarter, coz.

Shallow: You may, by marrying.

Evans: It is marring indeed, if he quarter it.


Butchering Latin, Slender says that Shallow is "Corum" (a corruption of the Latin quorum, "from the formula with which justices were installed: quorum vos … unum esse volumus, i.e. 'of whom we wish you to be one'").6 Shallow then smugly replies, in a contraction of the Latin custos rotulorum, that he is also keeper of the county rolls, the records of trials. Slender keeps up the elitist game with the born gentleman uncle by noting that Shallow...