Shakespeare’s comedies leave themselves wide open for exhibitions of sexuality, nowhere more so than The Merry Wives of Windsor. Legend has it that after seeing I Henry IV, Queen Elizabeth commissioned Shakespeare to write a play in which Falstaff falls in love. A creature of such loose morals, though, cannot just fall in love.
The result is a play in which Sir John tries to convince two married women to forsake their husbands by sleeping with him, while these wives end up leading Falstaff on in order to take revenge on their husbands, who believe that if their wives remain “merry”, they cannot possibly be chaste.
While I didn’t make it to Shakespeare’s Globe or to see the Royal Shakespeare Company while I was in England, I saw two fantastic productions by local theatre companies in Cambridge and Oxford. Yesterday, I posted on Cambridge Shakespeare Festival‘s The Comedy of Errors, and below is a review of Oxford Shakespeare Company’s spectacular outdoor production of The Merry Wives of Windsor.
The most impressive part of this production was the actor doubling: the ladies playing Mistress Page and Mistress Ford (the merry wives) also played the roles of Falstaff’s henchmen, Bardolph and Pistol! The director chose to make these characters chavs: think silly English “gangstas” like Ali G. They wore low-waisted pants and never stood straight: they were constantly moving as they spoke, which makes more sense when you see it yourself, but also reminds me of hype men at rap concerts. These performances were impressive on their own, but the director amped up the comedy by having these actresses then portray respectable housewives, one dressed in Hunter Boots and a handkerchief in her hair like the Queen at Balmoral, and the other in hot pink high heels. It took me a couple of acts to realize that the same women played such different characters; such a transformation just didn’t seem possible!
This play, like so many Shakespearean comedies, revolves around mistaken appearances. Mr. Ford catches onto Falstaff’s lechery, and decides to disguise himself as “Mr. Brook” in order to get Falstaff to inadvertently assist in his own plot to prove that his wife is indeed unchaste. To do so, he pretends to be a Texan, but in the most parodied way possible. “Brook” walks like a bow-legged cowboy, and every time his mustache threatened to fall off, the audience awarded him with laughs.
Smaller outdoor productions also necessitate smaller casts. In order to circumvent child labour laws, for instance, this company got audience members themselves to act as the children who dress like woodland nymphs and scare Falstaff into admitting his misdeeds. As much as I’ve been known to mutter at my paperback copies of Shakespeare’s plays, there was something much more fulfilling about wearing a child’s mask and getting to hiss at Falstaff myself!
It’s that lightheartedness that I’ve been missing over the past year. Going to England, for me, is always a mix of business and pleasure. I always make time to return to England because these trips are even more important as opportunities to study on my feet. No matter how much of a bibliophile I insist to be, by returning to England and watching these productions, I’m reminded to enjoy the wider world of Shakespeare that exists off the page.