Merry Wives of Windsor
One of the best loved comic characters in Shakespeare is Falstaff. He gives life and colour to the plays (Henry IV and Merry Wives of Windsor) with his vices – eating, drinking, womanising. Here is Hal’s description of Falstaff:
Thou art so fat-witted with drinking of old sack, and unbuttoning thee after supper, and sleeping upon benches after noon….
Full of wit and self-irony, Falstaff takes on different poses – the young man, a religious man etc. Never admitting defeat, even when caught on the spot for lying, he is full of farcical self-admiration when explaining how he tackled his robbers –‘if I fought not with fifty of them, I am a bunch of radish’. The audience easily warms towards him because of his youthful attitude to life, humour and ability to get himself out of tight corners. He enjoys the good things in life and is full of merriment and cheer. His tough appearance, however, is hiding a more poetic side which shines through even when he is planning his next crime:
Marry, then sweet wag, when thou art king, let us not that are squires of the night’s be called thieves of the day’s beauty. Let us be Diana’s foresters, gentlemen of the shade, minions of the moon…..
Shakespeare’s comedies continue the medieval tradition of chivalry, public punishment and satire. Merry Wives of Windsor is centred around the de-masking and public humiliation of the male sexual criminal – Falstaff. Here the keen adulterer Falstaff suffers a series of defeats at the hands of mistress Ford and mistress Page. In the first one he is carried out of the house in a basket of dirty linen and dumped in Themes:
Have I lived to be carried in a basket like a barrow of butcher’s offal, and to be thrown into the Themes? Well, if I be served such another trick, I’ll have my brains ta’en out and buttered, and give them to a dog for a New Year’s gift.
Time after time he gets bitten and thrown out for his mischief. His last indignity is caused by the Windsor children, dressed as goblins and fairies, which give him a fright while waiting for his meeting with both wives. In the good old comic tradition he is made a scapegoat, getting what he deserves as a way of public punishment and law enforcement.
Shakespeare comedies are brought alive by Falstaff, Touchstone and the other jesters/fools/larger than life characters. But laughter is delivered by many other comic devices which Shakespeare borrows with mastery from the Elizabethan dramatic tradition. He takes on the traditional comedy format where the comic element comes from the audience appreciating the convention (the comedy should be light-hearted, full of jokes and end happily). His dramatic talent, however, shines in the way he stirs the action towards surprising conclusions, introducing some serious thought and themes on the way and multi-level experiences rather than just pure amusement.