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Falstaff's False Staff: "Jonsonian" Asexuality in The Merry Wives of Windsor Grace Tiffany The Folger Shakespeare Theater's use of a female actor as Falstaff in its 1990 production of The Merry Wives of Windsor, besides its witty reversal of the Elizabethan convention of allmale casting, had this to recommend it: the "distaff" Falstaff, an embodiment of sexlessness, confronted audiences with the curious absence of regenerative possibility which distinguishes Merry Wives from "Shakespearean" romantic comedy. Unlike, for example, A Midsummer Night's Dream, which creates a world capable of transformation and renewal by means of a sexual energy that dominates language and fuels action, The Merry Wives of Windsor presents a static community for which transformation is a threat, language lacks creativity, and a dearth of real sexual desire parallels the characters' linguistic barrenness. In bourgeois Windsor, the unsavory characters— Ford and Falstaff—are impelled by jealousy or greed masquerading as sexuality, while the heroes—Mistresses Ford and Page—are motivated to protect rather than change their world by frustrating Ford's and Falstaff's damaging vices and expelling them from the community. The play's language correspondingly is not imbued with the poetic power to transform; it serves instead repetitively and prosaically to express the villains' unchanging humors, or alternatively is employed medicinally by the heroes to deflate those humors. The consequent absence of transformative and regenerative possibility in both plot and language marks Merry Wives as an early experiment in what we now call Jonsonian humors comedy. This characteristic demonstrates Shakespeare's early participation in the fashioning of that genre.1 GRACE TIFFANY is Assistant Professor of Shakespeare and Renaissance Drama at the University of New Orleans. This article is part of a larger study of the thematic and staged presentation of androgyny in the English Renaissance theater. 254 Grace Tiffany255 The Merry Wives of Windsor seems in fact to have been the first or second humors comedy performed in Elizabethan England and may well have functioned as something of a dramatic archetype for Jonson's Every Man in His Humour, which appeared a year later (and in which Shakespeare the actor played a leading role) .2 Merry Wives, which is thought to have been written for the 1597 spring Garter Feast at Westminister ^ was composed about the same time as George Chapman 's An Humorous Day's Mirth, long considered the first humors play. Whatever the true order of composition, the chronological proximity of Chapman's, Shakespeare's, and Jonson's plays suggests the theater's general interest in the formation of this new type of comedy in the late 1590's; and Shakespeare's appearance in Jonson's Every Man in His Humour in 1598, coupled with the fact that it was Shakespeare's own Lord Chamberlain's Company which first staged Jonson's play, suggests Shakespeare's particular interest in the form.4 In participating in the formation of humors comedy, Shakespeare was developing a drama which used language in a way antithetical to its use in romantic comedy. Broadly speaking, the language of romantic comedy opens up realms of imaginative possibility for its characters, while the language of satiric humors comedy serves mainly to express a humor character's imaginative limitations or, in the mouth of the wit, mockingly to deflate another's humor. Thus Helena's declaration of love for the churlish Demetrius in A Midsummer Night's Dream, which asserts that "Things base and vile, holding no quantity,/ Love can transpose to form and dignity" (I.i.232-33), contrasts jarringly with the contemptuous sentiment expressed by Truewit toward Jack Daw and Amorous La Foole at the close of Jonson's Epicoene: scoffing at Daw's and La Foole's "own imagin'd persons" as valiant lovers, Truewit asserts that the two are in fact merely "they, that when no merit or fortune can make [them] hope to enioy [women'] bodies, will yet . . . make their fame suffer" (V.iv.233-34, 237-39) .5 Where Helena's ennobling poetry endows imagination with the power to transform a "base and vile" man to "form and dignity," Truewit's deflationary prose punctures Daw's and La Foole's imaginary form and dignity and...


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