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Money Changes Everything: Quarto and Folio The Merry Wives of Windsor and the Case for Revision PETER GRAV While countless stagings of TheMerryWives ofWindsorhave been set in a bucolic"merrye olde England," Bill Alexander's 1985 RSC rendition tookShakespeare's representation ofa 1590s English bourgeoisie, numerically anagrammatized its temporal setting, and placed it in the 1950s Macmillan years of postwar prosperity in Britain. Alexander depicted a suburban middle class enjoying the power of newfound affluence in an era whose watchword was "you never had it so good." Mistresses Ford and Page plotted their revenge on Falstaff while sitting underhair dryers and sipped gin and tonics in a comfortable living room while Ford ransacked the infamous buckbasket. One of the underlying concerns of this much-lauded production was the materialism of the time; theater programs even carried real period advertisements for consumer goods such as televisions, complete with prices. Alexander's vision was entirely apropos, as the idea that wealth had become both the measure of personal worth and a societal linchpin lies at the heart of Merry Wives, a play in which economic imperatives are never far from the surface. Falstaff dissolves his retinue and pursues the titular wives because he is penniless; Ford throws money at Falstaffto test his wife's fidelity; and Anne Page's matrimonial fate is governed by the wealth she represents and the capital she attracts. In the only work wherein Shakespeare ostensibly depicts his own contemporary society, it seems evident that cash values, rather than human ones, are firmly in control. Whileoften neglected in discussions ofShakespeare's comedie oeuvre, Merry Wives is both an intriguing and important play that warrants inclusion in any discussion of the dramatist's underlying attitudes toward 217 218Comparative Drama the role played bymoneyin society.The inclination ofsome to place it in the genre ofCitizen Comedyseems apt,given that genre's preoccupation with economic motivations and the cozenage required to accumulate wealth. In both the main and subplot ofMerry Wives, subterfuge driven by greed appears to be a societal norm. Yet the cynicism of Comedy is belied to a degree by the somewhat predictable resolution of the play's main plot,in which lessons arelearned and the forces ofavarice are turned back. In fact, the defeat ofFalstaffseems so effortless that one might ask whether he ever did represent a threat to Windsor's values. Perhaps of greater interest is the much more opaque Anne Page subplot, which, in the end,offers none ofthe comfort engenderedbythe comeuppance ofa humbled fortune hunter.This seeminglystandard New Comedytale ofa young woman defying her parents to wed the man she loves is, upon closer examination, a consistently cynical exploration of the pervasiveness ofeconomic imperatives in interpersonal relationships. Ofparticular interest here are the very different ways that the Anne-Fenton love storyunfolds in the MerryWives Quarto and Folio texts. Comparing the two versions reveals that the Folio foregrounds economic themes largely absent in the 1602 Quarto. While the differences between the Q and F versions have longbeen widelyconsidered the result ofthe former being either a memorial reconstruction or an abridgement, the argument advanced here is that the Folio text is more likely a revision of the Quarto and that Shakespeare's motivation was to strengthen the indictment of cash and exchange values that lies at the heart of Merry Wives. As noted above, MerryWives is the only playthat Shakespeare set in a recognizable, contemporaryEngland, and its singularityin this respect suggests it contains his reactions to the economic world in whichhelived. The Pages, the Fords, Shallow, Slender, Evans, and Doctor Caius collectively represent an English bourgeoisie (the latter two in spite of their Welsh and French pedigrees, respectively1) that grew in strength and numbers over the sixteenth century, and, in Shakespeare's only"English" comedy, their value system is shown to be sorely wanting. Over the years, a good deal ofMerry Wives criticism has focused on how Falstaffs presence poses a threat to Windsor from the outside. For example, Anne Barton argues that the Windsorites view Falstaff as "the intruder from another social and moral sphere ... a threat to the estab- Peter Grav219 lishedorderofa community''2Yet it is arguablethatthe"threat"ofFalstaff exists more in the minds of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 217-240
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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