Review: Merry Wives of Windsor

Last night, we saw the penultimate performance of Chicago Shakespeare Theatre’s Merry Wives of Windsor. Sadly, it closes tonight and I think it is sold out. There are spoilers ahead.   It was quite a lovely comedy that they set in post-World War II England. The basic plot is that two married women avenge themselves of Falstaff for his lascivious advances against them. One of the things that I love about Chicago Shakespeare is their creative interpretations of the plays in wondrous new settings. In high school, I saw a production of Richard II, my favorite history,  that took place in the 1970s with a touch of dictatorship. Several years ago, Twelfth Night was mostly set in Shakespeare’s period but there was a giant, wondrous pool in the middle of the stage. You haven’t lived until you have seen someone in full Elizabethan dress jump into a pool and spend 10 minutes dripping on stage.

In this production, each act or major scene) began with a little song and dance number from classic swing time hits in the 1940s. I’m a huge fan of the 1940 music (and well, everything else) so it worked well for me.

Several things struck me about the story of the play itself. First, the female characters are really strong and clever throughout the play. They plot and scheme and thankfully, they are celebrated for it. Their husbands and generally society applaud them for their actions It’s an interesting contrast between Merry Wives and  Taming of the Shrew, my least favorite of Shakespeare’s plays. Kate is bullied into submission while the Merry Wives are admired for their plots. I’m not sure where Shakespeare decides to draw the line of female conduct. Are the Merry Wives’ actions accepted because they are married and Kate’s are ridiculed because she is unwed? Did society allow married women freedoms that unmarried women could not have? This is a different reading from my understandings of Elizabethan history.

Or could we chalk up the difference to the beauty of Shakespeare? He doesn’t have a single agenda about these overarching themes about gender or class. He writes about people and their messiness.

Second, it amuses me to know that the origin of the play is with allegedly a demand by Elizabeth I. She loved Falstaff so much that she ordered Shakespeare to write a comedy about him. It’s kind of like the first studio executive demanding a sequel with a star. But unlike sequels of today, this was enjoyable and quick witted. (Would that we have a Shakespeare of our own day). I’m not actually a huge fan of Falstaff as a character. I certainly like chaotic characters but I find Falstaff to be a bit too oafish and cowardly for me to love his brand of mischief. I prefer Feste in Twelfth Night, but that may be added by a wondrous mystery series staring Feste called the Fools’ Guild Series. Feste is both wise and foolish, as it should be. Falstaff seems all fool.

Third, I do appreciate how Shakespeare really seems to understand the power of lust. After two catastrophic attempts to satiate his lust, characters still convince Falstaff against his better judgment to go into the woods dressed in antlers for a amorous encounter. While standing in the forest, Falstaff aptly comments,

“Remember, Jove, thou wast a bull for thy Europa; love/ set on thy horns. O powerful love! that, in some/respects, makes a beast a man, in some other, a man/ a beast. You were also, Jupiter, a swan for the love/ of Leda. O omnipotent Love! how near the god drew/ to the complexion of a goose! A fault done first in/the form of a beast”

How lust or love makes beasts of us all. Falstaff knows better but here he is in the middle of the woods hoping for some love.

Fourth, there is the interesting dynamic of the public shaming of Falstaff. The entire town comes out to embarrass Falstaff for his ill-suited lust at two married women. However, after they thoroughly ridicule him, they bring him back into the fold. He may have deserved public humiliation but he’s still part of the community. It’s a dynamic that I am not sure if it still exists in current society. Do we welcome the shamed into our fold after they have been exposed? It made me think of some of our politicans undone by sex scandals, like Anthony Weiner. Does his return in the NY mayoral election count as accpetance back into community? But then his next scandal with “Carlos Danger” “ostracized” him again. Maybe it has to do with the size of the community and/or the offense.  Maybe it only works on a local scale, not national level. Or maybe you can find redemption for one mistake, but not for more than that.

On a less serious note, there is a lovely moment about cheese. Right now, I’m collecting humorous moments involving cheese. At one point in the play, Falstaff is the woods and is being assaulted by fairies, village folk dressed up. Falstaff shouts, “Heavens defend me from that Welsh fairy, lest he transform me to a piece of cheese!” Why the concern about cheese? Why such a sad fate to have? Is it the smell?  Later the chastened Falstaff complains, “’Tis time I were choked with a piece of toasted cheese.” This begs the question, why cheese? Does this refer to the prevelence of cheese in Elizabethan cuisine? Or am I reading to far into it? Cheese sometimes is cheese?

That’s all for now.

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