(My Rowse surrounded by two of my precious possessions...Both filled only with junk unfortunately...)
“I smell a man of middle-earth.”
Act 5, Scene 5.
Incidentally, did Tolkien take possession of this noun for his Middle-Earth stories…?
Merry Wives is the only full play of Shakespeare's to be located in the England he knew. And it takes rich delight in its social and geographical small-town provincial life setting. But Shakespeare was equally at home depicting kings and queens and the lives of their courtiers. In terms of the monarchy, I feel some of the issues haven't changed to this day.
It's been well documented in academic circles that there is a difference in tone and patriotic confidence between the plays written during the reign of Elizabeth I, before the accession of James I to the throne, and those written once he was King. Macbeth and King Lear tell dark tales that question the effectiveness of the monarchy and the nature of power.
There was a definite Elizabethan social hierarchy, within Shakespeare's plays as much as in real life. It seems as though Shakespeare himself bridged different strata of society by being a successful dramatist as well as becoming a gentleman with his own coat of arms. He achieved a high degree of status - he'd well and truly made it, in terms of the world in which he lived. Ralph Brooke appears to embody the politics of envy!
It tells of the dilemma within the system of control through social engagement and money and title, that an ordinary man without title or money will have a socially difficult time, falling in love with a titled woman with money. Falstaff tells it greedily because of his title being a knight 'she is in a region of Guiana all gold and beauty, I shall be cheator to them both and they shall be exchequers to me, they shall be my East and West Indies and I will trade to them both' Act 1, scene 3, line 74-77. The male idea of having more than one woman. Yet followers of Falstaff double cross him 'and I to Ford shall eke unfold how Falstaff, varlet vile, his dove will prove, his gold will hold, and his soft couch defile' the other agreeing 'I will incense Page to deal with poison' Act 1, scene 3, lines 102 -108.
It isn't overstating it to say that the rise of John Shakespeare to high civic office was the most important contributing factor to the works of Shakespeare as we know them today. The son of a farmer would have had little opportunity to get an education of any kind. Although the life of an Elizabethan scholar was harsh compared to modern times it was the key to opportunity and worth the bruises. When we look at the effort John put into improving his station and William into getting a coat of arms we should realise how acutely aware they were of the opportunities these efforts could bring. We should be willing to view their lives through the prism of their times rather than our own.
It`s very impressive to realize that during Henry VII kingdom, England was at the Middle Ages and only around fifty years later his grandchild Queen Elizabeth I took over measures that transformed the country into a Modern Kingdom by encouraging young middle class boys to study . As a consequence England was ahead compared to most of the countries in Europe in educating the middle class so they could serve the Crown. In my opinion this was a turning point in England`s growth. Early Christian education with its emphasis on reading to be able to read the Bible is similar to Islamic education with its focus on young students learning to read the Koran. The social fabric was not to be altered. Learning to write meant recognition of individual worth and the opportunities to disrupt society by changing leadership.
In a nutshell, this play is very much a middle-class comic romp with women presented as much wiser than the men; characters pretending to be who they are not; cross-dressing galore; double-entendres by the shedful; randy Falstaff getting his come-uppance; a jealous husband cured; and true young love redeemed. Comic capital is made of the Welsh, and French characters - even Slender from Gloucestershire comes in for a bit of a bashing from the Windsor inner-circle. Have to say I found the language Shakespeare uses very simple compared to some other loftier plays - less poetry than seventeenth century prose - combined with dashes of school boy humour (e.g. Latin declensions) and bawdy humour - Falstaff's two yards'. As part of William Shakespeare, celebrations at the weekend (24th April) the BBC showed Sir Ian Mackellan addressing a live audience and asking them to name the 37 plays. As each one was mentioned he would discuss aspects of the play, the cast, successful productions etc. When "The Merry Wives of Windsor" was named he merely said something like "HOW UNMERRY IS THAT PLAY!"...
NB: All pictures taken from my Rowse.