Friday, April 28, 2017

Michael5000 vs. Shakespeare: The Merry Wives of Windsor

In February, I used a "Reread Something Before Goodreads" in The Game of Reading to read Snow Falling on Cedars.  I drew Card #514, “Shakespeare.” I played it a few weeks ago to read Merry Wives of Windsor.  (I drew Card #326, Middlesex

The Play: The Merry Wives of Windsor
Edition: The Folger Shakespeare Library, Edited by Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine, 2004.

Genre & Setting: Comedy set, for practical purposes, in the present-day England of Shakespeare's time, the only of his plays so situated.

The Gist, which will obviously involve spoilers: Sir John Falstaff, last seen in the Henry IV plays, wants to have sex with two nice women he has noticed while staying in Windsor, both for the sake of the thing itself and also in hopes that it might be used as a lever for financial gain.  The women are not even a little tiny bit interested, but enjoy contriving a series of tricks to punish and humiliate him.  A jealous husband gets a lighter comeuppance, and a genial daughter manages to avoid her parents' competing matrimonial plans for her and end up with the husband she actually wants.  And then they all hang out companionably.

The Edition: The Folger Library is a terrifically prestigious collection of Shakepeare material.  The Folger Editions, at least the ones I've seen, are throwaway paperbacks with pretty good interpretive material and a lot more attention paid to textual matters than most other paperback printings.  My particular copy has about 20% of the words and phrases underlined in very thick pencil, according to no logic that I was able to puzzle out.  I enjoyed pretending that it was used as the text for a book code in some sort of unsavory skullduggery.

I thought that in a set of Shakespeare editions, you had one scholar (or duet) per play, but in the case of the Folger series it looks like Mowat and Werstine have edited most or all of the whole dang canon.  The blog Shakespearean tells me that they are big cheeses.  I guess that, plus the cheapo format, means that the Folger is trying to bring good interpretation to the masses, or something.  I'm in favor of that.

Prognosis: They say [citation needed] that comedy doesn't age well, a point my high school English teacher [there's a citation for you] illustrated by referring to the then already-old, already-puzzling Saturday Night Live parodies of Gerald Ford's once legendary clumsiness.  The more topical and contemporary the humor, the more difficulty it has in the aging process.  For instance, to fully appreciate the significance of Mr. Ford's physical ineptitude, you really need to be aware that he was the stopgap President of the United States in the mid-1970s, something that may have escaped the attention of many of the Youth of Today, or for that matter the Youth of Yesterday.  But I digress.

The point is, since Merry Wives is a possibly hip, sly contemporary comedy, it is chockablock with clever references that no longer carry any meaning.   There are footnotes along the lines of "this line might be riffing on the name of a coffeehouse or brothel or something."  At one point a character mentions a famous bear that was regularly baited just down the street from the Globe Theater!  This kind of thing was probably a real laugh riot for those in the know, but nobody's been in the know since around the time of the Guy Fawkes execution.

There are some broader comic elements -- it's Shakespeare, after all.  There's a guy with a crazy Welsh accent, and a guy with a crazy French accent, and a woman who says lots of crazy nonsense, and a guy who might be an early pioneer of camp.  None of this is at all funny to read, but good comic actors could almost certainly squeeze good laughs out of it, particularly if you'd been drinking before the show.

It's not a particularly important point, but I was bothered that Falstaff has to fire two of his servants in Act I because they are outraged by his plans to get inside the corsets of the two married women.  How could such a thing come as a surprise to people who work for Sir John Falstaff?  Hadn't they read the Henry IVs?  You'd think that assisting in seductions would be right there in the job description.

All in all?  As a text, it's hard to read and not terribly rewarding for the effort involved.  You'd get a better payoff from reading three or four of the naughty bits from The Decameron.

1 comment:

mrs.5000 said...

I got all worked up to read that the play was set more or less in the time of its writing, thinking you'd stumbled onto an early example of time travel in literature. Sounds like (according to Wikipedia, anyway) it makes one quick reference to "the wild prince and Poins" but otherwise ignores its own, you know, history. Trippy.