Year of the Bard: The Merry Wives of Windsor

Some books should be tasted, some devoured, but only a few should be chewed and digested thoroughly. – Sir Francis Bacon

The Merry Wives of Windsor was not on any syllabi in any of my classes, whether in secondary school, or post-secondary.  It is one of the plays I’ve heard the least about.  It’s also the first Shakespeare play I’ve not really gotten into.

The “wives” are Mistress Page and Ford.  Both are pursued by John Falstaff.  Both want to be caught by him, and they conspire to make a fool of him.  Complications arise (as they usually do).  Everything ends up as they should, despite the scheming, and even Falstaff has a relatively happy ending as he’s invited to drink and be merry by his would-be conquests.

The characters didn’t enthrall me.  Not as Shylock had, or Helena, or Viola.  When I’m not invested in the characters, it is subsequently difficult to be invested in their pitfalls and triumphs.

What really struck me, again, was the strength of the female characters.  These women were shrewd, but not shrewish.  Nor were they perfect.  Mistress Page wished her daughter to marry a certain man.  Her husband wished his daughter to marry someone else.  Their daughter wanted to marry someone completely different.  The Pages schemed against each other to make sure they each got their way. (SPOILER: Young daughter wins.)   Both women had a good natured attitude about their trying to “one-up” Falstaff.

In Merry Wives, the women don’t get their way because their women and that’s just how it’s supposed to be, they get their way (that is, they are NOT successfully wooed and bedded by Falstaff) because a) they love their husbands and are faithful; and b) they outwitted the man.

I find in some modern stories in film, TV, and literature that the ending is not suited to the lead up.  There’s almost a new form of Deus ex Machina.  I noticed it especially in LOST.  Kate could do EVERYTHING.  “Oh, I can track.”  “Oh, I can shoot a gun”.  Whenever there was a problem and something needed to be done, guess who suddenly was able to help out.  I’m all for making sure women have a strong voice in all these mediums, but not to the detriment of good storytelling.  Don’t just retcon and say such and such a character has all these qualities because you need to fill a quota.  Create the strong character, and let her (or him) develop naturally.  I find that’s exactly what Shakespeare has done in this play.  None of these strengths were out of the blue, because he had already established these women as intelligent, loyal, and with a great sense of humour.

This play, while not especially enjoyable for me, just reiterated we still need to have more strong, well-rounded women and when we do have these characters, such as Stella Gibson in The Fall, or Sarah Linden in The Killing, the media should not ask “Why do you write these characters?”  These characters are written because such women exist in real life.

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