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MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR.
A few of the incidents of this comedy might have been taken from an old translation of N Pecorone di Giovanni Fiorentino.
The same story is to be met with in “ The Fortunate, the Deceived, and the Unfortunate Lovers, 1632.” A somewhat similar one occurs in the Piacevoli Notti di Straparola. Notte iv. Favola iv.
The adventures of Falstaff seem to have been taken from the story of the lovers of Pisa in “ Tarleton's Newes out of Purgatorie,” bl. l. no date, but entered on the Stationers' books in 1590. The fishwife's tale, in “Westward for Smelts," a book from which Shakspeare borrowed part of the fable of Cymbeline, probably led him to lay the scene at Windsor.
Mr. Malone thinks that the following line in the earliest edition of this comedy, “Sail like my pinnace to those golden shores,' shows that it was written after Sir Walter Raleigh's return from Guiana in 1596.
The first edition of the Merry Wives of Windsor was printed in 1602, and it was probably written in 1601, after the two parts of King Henry IV., being, as it is said, composed at the desire of Queen Elizabeth, in order to exhibit Falstaff in love, when all the pleasantry which he could afford in any other situation was exhausted.
It may not be thought so clear that it was written after King Henry V.
* This story seems to have been first mentioned by Dennis in the Dedication to his alteration of this play, under the title of “The Comical Gallant.” “This comedy,” says he, “was written at Queen Elizabeth's command, and by her direction ; and she was so eager to see it acted, that she commanded it to be finished in fourteen days; and was afterwards, as tradition tells us, very well pleased at the representation.” The information probably came originally from Dryden, who, from his intimacy with Sir W. Davenant, had opportunities of learning many particulars concerning Shakspeare. VOL. I.
Nym and Bardolph are both hanged in that play, yet appear in the Merry Wives of Windsor. Falstaff is disgraced in King Henry IV. Part ii., and dies in King Henry V. Yet in the Merry Wives of Windsor he talks as if he was still in favor at court—"If it should come to the ear of the court how I have been transformed,” &c.; and Page discountenances Fenton's addresses to his daughter, because he kept company with the wild Prince and with Poins. These circumstances seem to favor the supposition that this play was written between the first and second parts of King Henry IV. But that it was not written then may be collected from the tradition above mentioned. The truth probably is, that, though it ought to be read (as Dr. Johnson observed) between the second part of Henry IV. and Henry V., it was written after King Henry V., and after Shakspeare had killed Falstaff. In obedience to the royal commands, having revived him, he found it necessary at the same time to revive all those persons with whom he was wont to be exhibited—Nym, Bardolph, Pistol, and the Page; and disposed of them as he found it convenient, without a strict regard to their situations or catastrophes in former plays.
Mr. Malone thinks that the Merry Wives of Windsor was revised and enlarged by the author after its first production. The old edition, in 1602, like that of Romeo and Juliet, he says, is apparently a rough draught, and not a mutilated or imperfect copy. The precise time when the alterations and additions were made, has not been ascertained; some passages in the enlarged copy may assist conjecture on the subject, but nothing decisive can be concluded from such evidence.
This comedy was not printed in its present form till 1623, when it was published with the rest of Shakspeare's plays in folio. The imperfect copy of 1602 was again printed in 1619.
The bustle and variety of the incidents, the rich assemblage of characters, and the skilful conduct of the plot of this delightful comedy, are unrivalled in any drama, ancient or modern.
Falstaff, the inimitable Falstaff, here again “ lards the lean earth "_" a butt and a wit, a humorist and a man of humor, a touchstone and a laughing-stock, a jester and a jest—the most perfect comic character that ever was exhibited.” The jealous Ford, the uxorious Page, and their two joyous wives, are admirably drawn—Sir Hugh Evans and Doctor Caius no less so—and the duel scene between them irresistibly comic. The swaggering jolly Boniface, mine host of the Garter, and last, though not least, master Slender and his cousin Shallow, are such a group as were never yet equalled by the pen or pencil of genius.
* Mr. Boaden thinks that the chasms which occur in the story of the drama in this old copy afford evidence that it was imperfectly taken down during the representation.