As usual once or twice in a school-year we teachers of English Language and Literature go to the theatre in Rome with our 4th year students (17-18 year-old). Yesterday afternoon we were at the Teatro Eliseo to see “The Merry Wives of Windsor” (Le Allegre Comari di Windsor)  by Shakespeare. It was an Italian translation, of course, with Italian actors on the stage.
Falstaff was Leo Gullotta, very popular for his comic skills in popular TV shows but also a refined stage performer in more dramatic roles. The other actors in the pi├Ęce were not as popular as him (and many neither as good). Among them  I particularly liked the actresses acting in the roles of Mistress Page, Mistress Ford, Mistress Quickly and Ann Page.
There was music, songs and dance to enrich the hilarious sequences of misunderstandings, disguises, tricks and funny puns. The costumes were beautiful and the scenery was dominated by a giant semi-movable Virgin Queen. Queen Elizabeth was part of the show.
According to theatrical legend, Elizabeth saw Henry IV, Part I and so liked the character of Falstaff that she asked Shakespeare to write another play about him, allegedly allotting him only 14 days. Shakespeare may have put aside Henry IV, Part 2 to complete Merry Wives, and he included several characters who reappear from both plays, including Pistol, Nim, Bardolph, Mistress Quickly, and Shallow. Falstaff and his entourage supposedly were good friends with Prince Henry, later Henry V, which lends a monarchal touch to the more suburban events of Merry Wives.
The first performance of this play was said to have occurred in London on April 23, 1597, at a feast of the Order of the Garter (an aristocratic fraternity), which Queen Elizabeth attended.
Merry Wives is Shakespeare's most middle-class play in setting, subject matter, and outlook. It's also one of his most farcical works, using physical gags and linguistic jokes to establish a comic tone that influence the play's ultimate spirit of reconciliation, after all the intrigues have been sorted out.
Merry Wives gives an impression of life in an English provincial town as it was lived at the time of the play's first performance. It refers to other, older plays; the main plot closely resembles Il Pecorone, a 1558 Italian play by Ser Giovanni Fiorentino. This plot and the primary subplot also draw on ancient Roman comedy (Plautus) and medieval farce. Though the play does contain characters both above and below the middle class, as well as culturally stereotyped foreigners, ultimately everything functions to demonstrate the assimilating power of the middle class.
Key themes of Merry Wives include love and marriage, jealousy and revenge, social class and wealth. Explored with irony, sexual  innuendosarcasm, and stereotypical views of classes and nationalities, these themes help to give the play something closer to a modern-day view than is often found in Shakespeare's plays.
The play is centered on the class prejudices of middle-class England. The lower class is represented by characters such as Bardolph, Nym, and Pistol (Falstaff's followers), and the upper class is represented by Sir John Falstaff and Master Fenton. Shakespeare uses both Latin and misused English to represent the attitudes and differences of the people of this era. Much of the comedic effect of the play is derived from misunderstandings between characters.
Another prominent Elizabethan theme that runs through the play is the idea of the  cuckold. Elizabethans found the idea of a woman cheating on her husband absolutely hilarious and seem to have assumed that if a man was married then his wife was cheating on him. Because a cuckolded husband was said to "wear horns", any reference, no matter how oblique, to horns or a horned animal (for example, the "buck" basket where Falstaff finds himself) probably brought down the playhouse.

Falstaff is hailed by Harold Bloom and other literary scholars as one of Shakespeare’s greatest creations.
What makes Sir John so entertaining? How is it, when his actions would repulse many in both a modern and medieval context, we find ourselves so attracted to this lying tub of lard? Speculation over the years has produced many possible answers, one no more likely than the next. Whether or not the Queen of England truly requested Merry Wives... for herself because she was so fond of the "huge hill of flesh" (Henry IV pt I, Hal, Tavern Scene), most do find some sort of affectionate connection. Possibly his openness in his crimes, his lack of loyalty being so apparent — essentially his frankness (not so much honesty) in life, and his grinning self-determination, self observance. 
At best, it can be said that Shakespeare's Falstaff reaches beyond merely making the audience laugh. “He is aware that life is a charade” and is markedly responsible for his situation. He besets our hearts, yea deeper still, to our diaphragms. We are his. He has been too great a humoristic character to forfeit all good impressions within the length of one play.
(—MacLeish, Kenneth, Longman Guide to Shakespeare’s Characters, Harlow, England: Longman, 1986. pp87-88)

The character of Falstaff seems to have been inspired by the theatrical forerunners Vice and miles gloriosus (Plautus), but Falstaff has a unique, and undeniable depth of character. Beneath Falstaff’s contagious panache, he is a Homeric burlesque, an iconoclast, a philosopher, and a paradox. Falstaff is closely scrutinized because his character is a revolution on the stage; he represents the transition from flamboyant, 'carnivalesque' comedy to the modern, aesthetic character. Leo Gullotta ended the play as a not-completely defeated Falstaff. I mean, he got his lesson, but before leaving the stage  he quotes from this sonnet :

'Tis better to be vile than vile esteem'd,
When not to be receives reproach of being,
And the just pleasure lost which is so deem'd
Not by our feeling but by others' seeing:
For why should others false adulterate eyes
Give salutation to my sportive blood?
Or on my frailties why are frailer spies,
Which in their wills count bad what I think good?
No, I am that I am, and they that level
At my abuses reckon up their own:

I may be straight, though they themselves be bevel;
By their rank thoughts my deeds must not be shown;
   Unless this general evil they maintain,
   All men are bad, and in their badness reign.


Judy said...

This is a really interesting posting, MG, a lot of fascinating material there about the character of Falstaff and I really like the trailer, too.

I just recently saw 'Henry IV Part 1' at the Globe in London and also watched Orson Welles' adaptation of the two Henry IV plays, 'Chimes at Midnight', which I wrote about at my movie classics blog. I've also studied the two plays in the past for exams... but must admit I've never seen or read 'The Merry Wives of Windsor', something I really need to put right while the character of Falstaff is still fresh in my mind. Thanks again for this posting!

Mystica said...

I hope your literature class appreciates this. I would have loved it if my school had organised trips like this.

Phylly3 said...

I haven't had the pleasure of seeing very many Shakespearean plays, but one I did see was Henry IV, part II when I was in high school and lived close enough to Stratford, Ontario where there is the Canadian Shakespeare theatre. Our high school English teacher took us there, much like you did for your students! Unfortunately Part II is a tragedy. I am sure I would have enjoyed Part I better, and it looks as though Merry Wives was very enjoyable too!