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The Merry Wives of Windsor: Classical and Italian Intertexts Robert S. Miola Current theory has distinguished between two opposite intertextual perspectives, synchronic and diachronic. Dismissing all notion of temporality and hence of sources, the synchronic perspective views all texts as existing simultaneously with each other. "An endless ars combinatoria takes place in what has been variously termed 'musée imaginaire' (Malraux), 'chambre d'échos' (Barthes), or 'Bibliothèque générale' (Grivel)." Contrarily , the diachronic perspective recognizes temporality and thus constructs well-ordered "archives" (Foucault) of intertextuality that meticulously chronicle "every code and register its continuities and discontinuities."' The latter perspective opposes the former's endless Derridean deferral and dispersion, that kind of detheologized hermeticism in which all signifiers ultimately signify nothing. It enables criticism by affording more spacious perspectives —perspectives which stretch beyond the familiar landscapes and delusory comforts of verbal echo and the parallel passage to newer vistas composed of ancient and evolving topoi, conventions, and traditions.2 Mapping these vistas in Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor begins with recognition of its New Comedie substrata. Wives draws on the braggart soldiers oí Miles Gloriosus and Eunuchus and on enormously popular descendant traditions. Moreover , the play, fluently recombining other New Comedie themes, motifs, and characters, draws on configurations and conventions originating in Plautus' Casina? Though R. S. Forsythe overstated the case, he set forth persuasive evidence for this influence, well observing that both Casina and Wives feature a husband and wife who support different suitors to a young girl, that this girl loves a third person and eventually marries him, that both sets of wives similarly conspire against a foolish husband, that both dramas work to the climax of a mock-wedding in which the bride is discovered to be a male. Here we need not succumb to 364 Robert S. Mióla365 the fallacy of misplaced specification to recognize important affinities. In Wives, as elsewhere, Shakespeare arranges the New Comedie elements in Italian style.4 Oscar James Campbell notes the Italianate triple wooing of Anne Page and observes the pedante in Falstaff and Sir Hugh Evans, the zanni in the Host, the medico in Dr. Caius, and the fantesca in Mistress Quickly. Leo Salingar remarks Shakespeare's use of the Italianate double plot "with its confusions of identity and crossed complications," his preference for multiple marriages and subordinate deceptions (like beffe), and concludes: "paradoxically, the play in which he comes nearest to a wholesale adoption of Italian methods and an Italian manner is The Merry Wives of Windsor, his only comedy set in England."5 These observations suggest an approach that can justly evaluate Shakespeare's wide-ranging eclecticism in this play and assess its complex topography. The central alazon, Falstaff, descendant of Pyrgopolynices and Thraso, resides in a world created by Italian dramatists. The Merry Wives of Windsor belongs specifically to that family of plays that adapt Casina, mixing in other contemporary and classical elements, often a braggart soldier . Beatrice M. Corrigan first noted the common elements and variations in this group of plays—Machiavelli's Clizia (1525), Berrardo's La Cassina (1530), which is a translation of Plautus, Dolce's // Ragazzo (c.1541), Delia Porta's La Fantesca, Lanci's La Ruchetta (1584), Cecchi's / Rivali, and the anonymous and unpublished Sienese // Capriccio (1566-68).6 To this list we may also add a descendant of Clizia, Gelli's Lo Errore (1556). Offering a wide range of dramatic and interpretive possibilities, these plays represent a related series of ingenious adaptations rather than a coherent group; together they gather contemporary responses to a seminal classical play and present a lexicon of theatrical possibilities. Shakespeare need not have studied this lexicon directly to have picked up the language; in this regard traditions speak much louder and longer than individual texts. Shakespeare 's reworking of Casina, The Merry Wives of Windsor, freely recombines all the important constituent elements of the Italian versions: the emphasis on jealousy, sometimes embodied in a scheming wife; a ridiculous senex amans; a boasting soldier; romantic young lovers; and, the signature motif, a male disguised as a bride. (There are also echoes in Wives of other Italian innovations—an impudent boy and a...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 364-376
Launched on MUSE
2016-10-05
Open Access
No
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