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CHRONOLOGY AND STATE OF THE TEXT. HE first edition of this play was published in 1602, under the following title: “A most pleasaunt and excellent conceited Comedy of Syr John Falstaffe, and the Merry Wives of Windsor. Entermixed with sundrie variable and pleasing humors of Sr Hugh the Welch Knight, Justice Shallow, and his wise Cousin M. Slender. With the swaggering vaine of Ancient Pistoll and Corporal Nym. By William Shakespeare. As it hath bene divers times acted by the Right Honourable my Lord Chamberlaines Servants; Both before her Majestie and else where. London:
Printed by T. C. for Arthur Johnson, &c. &c. 1602.” The same copy was reprinted in 1619. The comedy as it now stands first appeared in the folio of 1623. Knight is of opinion that the quarto of the MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR was piratically published, after the play had been re-modelled by its author. The copy of the folio contains very nearly twice the number
of lines that the quarto contains. The succession of scenes is the same in both copies, except in one instance; but the speeches of the several characters are greatly elaborated in the amended copy, and several of the characters not only heightened, but new distinctive features given to them. We point out these differences, for the purpose of showing that, although the quarto of 1602 was most probably piratically published when the play had been re-modelled, and was re-printed without alteration in 1619, (the amended copy then remaining unpublished,) the copy of that first edition must not be considered as an imperfect transcript of the complete play. It stands precisely upon the same ground as the first copy of HENRY V. The differences between the two copies are produced by the alterations of the author working upon his first sketch. The extent of these changes and elaborations can only be satisfactorily perceived by comparing the two copies, scene by scene.
The opinion that this comedy was written after the two parts of HENRY IV. is not quite in consonance with the tradition that Queen Elizabeth desired to see Falstaff in love; for Shakespeare might have given this turn to the character in HENRY V., after the announcement in the Epilogue to the second part of HENRY IV.:—“our humble author will continue the story, with Sir John in it." Malone's theory, therefore, that it was produced after HENRY V., is in accordance with the tradition as received by him with such an implicit belief. George Chalmers, however, in his “ Supplemental Apology,” laughs at the tradition, and at Malone's theory. He believes that the three historical plays and the comedy were successively written in 1596, and in 1597, but that HENRY V. was produced the last. He says “In it (HENRY V.) Falstaff does not come out upon the stage, but dies of a sweat, after performing less than the attentive auditors were led to expect : and in it, ancient Pistol appears as the husband of Mistress Quickly; who also dies, during the ancient's absence in the wars of France. Yet do the commentators bring the knight to life, and revive and unmarry the dame, by assigning the year 1601 as the epoch of the MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR. Queen Elizabeth is said by the critics to have commanded these miracles to be worked in 1601,-a time when she was in no proper mood for such fooleries. The tradition on which is founded the story of Elizabeth's command to exhibit the facetious knight in love, I think too improbable for belief.” Chalmers goes on to argue that after Falstaff's disgrace at the end of the second part of HENRY IV. (which is followed in HENRY V. by the assertion that “the King has killed his heart”) he was not in a fit condition for “a speedy appearance among the Merry Wives of Windsor ;” and further, that if it be true, as the first act of the second part evinces, that Sir John, soon after doing good service at Shrewsbury, was sent off, with some charge, to Lord John of Lancaster at York, he could not consistently saunter to Windsor, after his rencontre with the Chief-Justice. Looking at these contradictions, Chalmers places “the true epoch of this comedy in 1596;" and affirms “ that its proper place is before the first part of HENRY IV.” Knight conjectures that it was produced before the Histories; and that the characters were subsequently heightened, and more strikingly delineated, to assimilate them to the characters of the Histories.
After all, we have endeavoured, while we have expressed our own belief, fairly to present both sides of the question. The point, we think, is of interest to the lovers of Shakespeare; for inferring that the comedy is a continuation of the history, the inferiority of the Falstaff of the MERRY Wives to the Falstaff of HENRY IV., implies a considerable abatement of the Poet's skill. On the other hand, the conviction that the sketch of the comedy preceded the history—that it was an early play—and that it was subsequently re-modelled—is consistent with the belief in the progression of that extraordinary intellect which acquired greater vigour the more its powers were exercised.
There is a prodigal and glorious throng of incident and character in this very admirable comedy: for variety, and broad, unceasing effect, it stands perhaps unrivalled. Each individual member of the breathing group-the Wives, the Husbands, the Doctor, Parson, mine Host of the Garter, Shallow, Slender; every character, in short, from Falstaff and his satellites to Simple and Rugby—stands out in the clearest light, and assists in reflecting the sunshine of the author's intellect for the delight and instruction of the reader or spectator. It has been said, and truly, that Falstaff, in this play, is not so unctuous and irresistible as in the two parts of HENRY IV.; but, if the Falstaff of Windsor must succumb to him of Gadshill and Shrewsbury, it should in fairness be added,
“Nought but himself can be his conqueror." Even the gullibility of the unfortunate old boy, (as drawn forth of him by the witcheries of the wicked wires,) places him in an amiable point of view, and raises a new sensation in his favour. Our choler would rise, despite of us, against Cleopatra herself, should she presume to make a dupe and tool of regal old Jack, the natural lord and master of all about him: and, although not so atrociously immoral as to wish he had succeeded with the Windsor gipsies, we yet plead guilty to the minor turpitude of sympathy, when he tells his persecutors, with brightening visage and exultant twinkle of eye, —“I am glad, though you have ta’en a special stand to strike at me, that your arrow hath glanced.”
The serious part of this play bears but a small proportion to the facetious, but is equally good in its kind. The softer sentiment is confined to Fenton and Anne Page, both of whom give indications of possessing very loveable natures, although their persons seem thrust into a corner (an arrangement to which the lovers themselves would probably start no objection) by the crowd of comic roysterers.
There are various old stories and dramas froin which Shakespeare may have gathered hints for the dilemmas in which Falstaff is involved in the present play: but the tale of “ The Lovers of Pisa,” in a collection called “ Tarleton's Newes out of Purgatorie," appears to have been the immediate source of his inspiration in this particular. The coincidences, however, do not extend to the characters. The lover in the tale is a handsome youth, and really favoured by the young lady, who plots with him to deceive her husband, a jealous old physician. In the play, literally speaking, the lover is old, the wives not young, and their husbands of corresponding ages : but, poetically considered, they and the whole dramatis personæ are all dainty juveniles together, and can never lose their freshness while the language lasts in which they are embodied.