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  • What Do Women Want? The Merry Wives of Windsor
  • Jonathan Goldberg

The question that titles this essay (as I’m sure will be recognized) comes from a letter of Freud’s to Marie Bonaparte: there he refers to it as “the great question that has never been answered and which,” he continues, he “has not been able to answer despite . . . thirty years of research into the feminine soul.”1 “Was will das Weib?” Perhaps the question is impossible to answer precisely because of the way it is couched—or, better, because of the words in which it is couched. Woman is “das Weib”: in Freud’s German, it is impossible to distinguish wife and woman, an impossibility only furthered by the other German word that means woman, “die Frau,” which also means “Mrs.” If there is something like an inherent desire of woman, a feminine soul, as Freud puts it, the question of desire has already been constrained and predetermined in a language that equates woman and wife. It appears as though the answer to the question of feminine desire must lie in marriage, as though the fulfillment of a woman’s desire is bound to that institution. If so, the “feminine soul” to which Freud alludes must be the gendered back-formation consequent upon the equation of woman and wife.

This equation of wife and woman prevails, as well, in Shakespeare’s English. It is highlighted early in Merry Wives of Windsor when Falstaff first meets Mistress Quickly acting as go-between for Mrs. Ford and Mrs. Page as an assignation is being arranged:

Quickly: Give your worship good morrow.

Falstaff: Good morrow, goodwife.

Quickly: Not so, an’t please your worship.

Falstaff: Good maid then. [End Page 367]

Quickly: I’ll be sworn, as my mother was, the first hour I was born.

Falstaff: I do believe the swearer.


This conversation plays on the difference between being a married woman and being the mistress of a household, between being unmarried and being unsexual, between marriage as a condition for having a child or not, and between moral uprightness and its limitation to marital chastity. Falstaff believes that Quickly must be as unchaste as her unwed mother was because she confuses the various meanings that govern the sex-gender system that regulates women’s sexuality by means of marriage. The sexuality adduced in these lines—when Quickly cannot readily occupy either the position of wife or of maid—would seem rather beside the point of that marital system and hence would baffle the terms of Freud’s question. But it needs to be said, too, that Freud’s question might itself have been baffled by the fact that “das Weib,” the word that conflates wife and woman, is grammatically neuter. It’s difficult to know how speakers of languages with grammatical gender are affected when so-called natural gender and grammatical gender abrade in this fashion. Here it seems worth at least entertaining the possibility that the neutralization of gender goes hand in hand with the equation of woman and wife. If the question “was will das Weib?” is unanswerable it may be precisely because “das Weib” has been denied the gendered form of desire produced by the sex-gender system; “das Weib” instances a form of desire marked by the neuter.3

Linguistic questions like these are everywhere on display in Merry Wives. When Falstaff tells Pistol that he “spies entertainment” in Alice Ford and construes her behavior “Englished rightly” as tantamount to her saying “I am Sir John Falstaff’s,” Pistol comments, “He hath studied her well, and translated her well, out of honesty into English” (1.3.40–46). Later in the play, when young William Page gets a Latin lesson from Sir Hugh Evans, the Welsh pastor, Quickly, in a series of asides, translates Latin into an English in which the “cases and the numbers of the genders” (4.1.60) lead in precisely the direction that Falstaff read in Quickly’s inability to distinguish maid and wife, one where Latin horum is English “whore,” and the cases are gendered insofar as “case” is...


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pp. 367-383
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