Shakespeare Quarterly 52.1 (2001) 138-141
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The Merry Wives of Windsor
The Arden Shakespeare The Merry Wives of Windsor. Edited by Giorgio Melchiori. Walton-on-Thames, Surrey: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 2000. Pp. xx + 344. Illus. $45.00 cloth, $12.95 paper.
"Sir Hugh, persuade me not." Shakespeare's Merry Wives of Windsor opens onto the middle of an unappeasable argument about Falstaff's alleged deer-killing. The row develops over the following 180 lines, only then to be appeased with a hot venison pasty and so completely forgotten, Page anticipating that "we shall drink down all unkindness." The striking lack of sequel is characteristic. Episodes happen that go nowhere and make little sense. In Shakespeare's Windsor the most nonsensical utterances and inconsequential events can generate humor, geniality, and idiosyncrasy for their own sakes, identify a social and existential space for characters to inhabit by marking out their peculiar brands of connectedness and isolation, or navigate an unsteady and indirect way to some apparently lost end.
That is one perspective on the play. Another, taking the same point of departure, might note that the opening dialogue is present in the 1623 Folio text but not the Quarto of 1602. Behind the printed texts lies a convoluted and murkily visible history of textual alteration, and its major events are not confined to Q. Nevertheless, the two versions, though radically different, share some striking features, most notably that neither provides a coherent account of the "horse-stealing" episode. Here again, but in a different way, stolen animals seem to have gone textually astray. Search in this play for what Kristian Smidt has usefully called "unconformities," and one will hunt down many such Windsor stags. And if unconformities are treated as textual clues, they can be used speculatively to fill in the gaps in the play's preprint history.
Here, then, are two hermeneutics, one that values unconformities, noting, perhaps, that they melt into delight when the play is performed on stage; another that seeks out evidence that something has gone wrong and sets out to demonstrate what that might be. Perhaps the primary task in editing Merry Wives is to navigate between these conflicting hermeneutics of textual surface and textual strata. Neither approach can safely be ignored. [End Page 138]
Giorgio Melchiori's edition in the Arden3 series certainly recognizes that this is a play about wayward language--and languages. Nevertheless, it leans heavily toward what Melchiori calls a "genetic" account of the play (19). He bases much of his introduction on the theory, first briefly articulated by George Hibbard in his New Penguin edition (1973) and developed at much greater length in Melchiori's Shakespeare's Garter Plays (1994), that Merry Wives originated as a much shorter verse entertainment performed in 1597 to mark the annual feast celebrating the Order of the Garter. By this account, the play in its full form, as manifested differently in Q and F, dates from no earlier than 1599. Melchiori accepts that the case for the short Garter entertainment is unverifiable but nevertheless makes it a central plank of his critical approach to the play.
Melchiori agrees with most other commentators that Q has passed through a stage of memorial reconstruction--though he provides limited discussion of the theory and does not cite W. W. Greg's pioneering exposition. Although he equally does not engage with recent critiques by Paul Werstine and others who have pointed out the problems in verifying the theory, Melchiori is justified in accepting memorial reconstruction as the most compelling account we have of many of Q's most distinctive features. Behind Q's memorial text and F's scribally modified text Melchiori discerns the outlines of three or more antecedent performance versions. The short Garter entertainment is held probably to lie behind all. The Folio represents the first version of the full-length play (though Melchiori is sometimes, as on page 79, open to the possibility that it rather than the Quarto is the "later re-elaboration," a suggestion that is hard to sustain). The pre-memorial...