Friday, January 22, 2010

The Merry Wives of Windsor, Act 1, Scene 4

Legend has it that Queen Elizabeth asked for a play about Falstaff in love and that it be ready for her to watch in fourteen days. Fourteen days from conception to presentation. Conceive, write, cast, rehearse, perform. It’s not that tall of an order, right? I mean, an opossum gives birth to baby opossums after only thirteen days of gestation… but then again opossums are marsupials, and the newborn babies crawl right into their mother’s pouch for two more months of nurturing and protection. It’s not like they go traipsing about in front of the queen.

Shakespeare wrote The Merry Wives of Windsor. Which is set in a real English city, completely outside of the historical context in which the character of Falstaff is established in Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, but somehow it still manages to be a pretty great play.

For example, let’s look at the opening line of dialogue of Act 1, Scene 4. Mistress Quickly enters with Peter Simple and calls to John Rugby.


Quickly: What, John Rugby!

            (Enter JOHN RUGBY)

I pray thee go to the casement, and see if you can see my master, Master Doctor Caius, coming. If he do i’ faith, and find any body in the house, here will be an old abusing of God’s patience and the King’s English. (1:4)


When this play was first performed there were no sets and of course no set changes, so the first line of dialogue of almost every Shakespearean scene had to establish the setting. This line tells us we’re in Dr. Caius’s House. The line also establishes who the characters are. It tells us that Mistress Quickly and John Rugby are servants who work for Doctor Caius. We know that Dr. Caius owns the house and we can surmise that English is his second language since she says he’ll abuse the King’s English. And furthermore, it anticipates a tension in the scene, since we know that if he finds anyone in the house, he’s certain to be upset. And present on stage is Peter Simple, who -- we know from a previous scene -- is a visitor.

There are modern writers who can be equally efficient and who also obscure their moments of exposition with action or humor. Shakespeare’s veil is his lyricism: “here will be an old abusing of God’s patience.” If I could turn a phrase like Shakespeare I’d butter over all the tensions in the world and set minds at ease with soft, golden words.

The scene goes on: Simple delivers his message to Mistress Quickly, asking her to speak with the lovely Anne Page and convince her to marry Simple’s master: Slender. Then Dr. Caius returns and Simple has to hide in the closet. There’s some hijinx, Dr. Caius finds him, abuses the King’s English, finds out what Simple’s purpose is and gets mad because he wants to marry the lovely Anne Page. Dr. Caius sends Simple off with a challenge to the person he believes is really behind Slender’s courtship of Anne Page. Just when things quiet down, Fenton (another suitor for the lovely Anne Page) shows up and asks Mistress Quickly to put in a good word with Anne for him.

In 165 lines we get all of this action and set up. What’s going to happen in Dr. Caius’s duel? Is Quickly going to advocate for Slender, Fenton or her boss, Dr. Caius? We already know that Slender and Dr. Caius are ridiculous, but is this new character Fenton a legitimate suitor or another bozo after Anne’s cash money? And this isn’t even the main story of the play!

Shakespeare wasn’t reinventing the wheel with this comedy and I’m sure the play was polished somewhat after it’s initial presentation, if that story of the 14 days is even true. But you have to marvel at the ingenuity of his craft. Sheesh. There’s me going out on a limb.

Newsflash: Shakespeare was a great writer. 

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