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THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR.
TRCIUS AND CRESSIDA,
I CLASS these two pieces together, and remove them out of the ideal connection into which I have attempted to arrange Shakspeare's other comedies, because, it seems to me, that as regards character they are entirely different from the others. For instance, they are the only comedies in which Shakspeare has made use of satire, and therefore, in my opinion, they must be looked upon as satirical dramas. The idea of the comic does, it is true, itself contain the satirical element, and in so far comedy is always satirical as well, but satirical in the wider and more general sense. It is objective satire that makes itself felt in comedy, inasmuch as comedy ridicules itself as the representation of human weaknesses and perversities, and makes human life in general ludicrous as a world of contradictions and absurdities. Such general, objective satire, however, is not satire in its narrower and actual meaning. This, in all cases, can be met with only where ridicule attaches itself to the personal tendency of the poet, not to the thing itself. Now a drama cannot exhibit the subjective tendency in a direct manner, for the drama is that
form of poetical art which wholly excludes the poet's personal intervention. (The poet can at most—as in the parabasis of the Aristophanic comedy-place himself between the play and the spectator in the form of some assumed personality, a proceeding which will increase the satirical tendency, but at the cost of the dramatic form.) Hence satire, in accordance with the nature of dramatic art, must always assert itself only indirectly; the tendency of the poet must not shine forth from the background of the representation except as from beneath a veil, or must be so intimately eonnected with the subject that it appears to belong to it. The more subtly, therefore, the satirical element is con.
cealel, and the more that which—owing to its definite subjective tendency—is always inartistic and exists rarely without a disagreeable flavour, disappears behind the general significance of the representation, the finer and more poetically perfect is the satire. And in this respect we shall again have to admire the masterly skill with which Shakspeare has contrived so ingeniously to ve:l his satire, that we only have the reflex, not the direct exhibition of it.
1. THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR. The very cause which gave rise to the composition of • The Merry Wives of Windsor' intimates at once that this play is different in character from the poet's other works. As far as we know, it is the only one of Shakspeare's dramas that does not owe its origin to the free inclination of his poetic genius, but, to an outward instigation. According to an indeed unauthenticated report,* Queen Elizabeth is said to have expressed the wish to see the doughty Sir John Falstaff-whom she had learned to know and esteem in ‘Henry IV:—represented in love. Shakspeare is said to have thereupon written the piece in a fortnight, which in my opinion is as little unlikely as the above wish of the Queen. This supposition would, on the one hand, explain the different character of the drama, and the hasty and sketchy appearance which it exhibits, notwithstanding the re
* See vol. i. 219.
+ The tradition, although from a late source, gains considerably in probability, if the old quarto of 1602 (republished by Halliwell in his already mentioned First Sketch of Shakspeare's Merry Wives of Windsor) be somewhat more closely examined, and compared with the reprint of the piece in the folio edition. In all probability the quarto is one of those “piratical editions,' to which so many old quartos belong. But its deviations from the text of the folio, are throughout so important and yet generally so Sbakspearian in character, that—as Halliwell and Knight justly maiutain—they cannot be explained as mere oversights and misunderstandings, omissions and alterations of the copyist. Probably, therefore, the quarto edition is founded upon the piece in its orig.oal form, a shorter and more carelessly finished work, which Shakspeare had written as a hurried sketch ; whereas the text of the folio gives a later remodelling, which, however, would act have en. Lirely done away with the original character of haste and carelessness.
modelling it probably received at a later day; would account for the loose external connection in which the main action-Falstaff's love-affairs—stands with the secondary parts—the affair between Dr. Caius and the Welsh parson, the loves of Fenton and Anne Page, the horsestealing, etc. ;—further would account for the want of a careful and detailed delineation of the characters (who appear too little individualised, drawn too much like genre-pictures, and in many instances verge upon caricatures), and for the wearisome repetition of Falstaffs unlucky courtships (which are always interrupted in the same manner); in short, would account for the want of the thorough working-out of the details. On the other hand, Falstaff's individuality is, throughout the piece, silently assumed to be well known; the 'merry wives' alone, would obviously not have sufficed to make the character intelligible, the less so as the drama is also distinguished by the fact that it is the only one of Shakspeare's comedies where the whole play is, so to speak, staked upon one throw which is played by the one person of Falstaff. In fact, Falstaff is the bearer of the whole action, the centre round which everything turns ; without him and his
individuality the whole drama would have no meaning. For the story of the love and marriage of Mistress Anne Page is evidently but a kind of by-play, in Shakspeare's usual style; we have seen in various instances that he is fond of exhibiting the fundamental thought which guided him in planning a drama in a number of variations, in the most different kinds of subjects, and in appropriate modifications. Besides, this loveaffair does not even possess an independent course of development; it is but a simple situation, the relation of one girl to several suitors, which, without internal development, without any actual history, merely contains two moments, the beginning and the end. Moreover, the principal moment — the end — although introduced by a special intrigue, appears, nevertheless, only woven into the result of Falstaff's own love adventures. Thus in this case, also, Falstaff and his fortunes ayain step into the foreground; in fact, he is the lever of the dramatio action, the centre of the whole play.
Hence it will be all the more necessary to give a fuller and more careful delineation of this character—both as we have him portrayed by Shakspeare here and in 'Henry IV.
-than we shall offer of any of the other personages. It is only a careful analysis of Falstaff's character that can decide the question as to whether, and how far, this single figure is justified in being the bearer of a whole drainatic poem. And he deserves this examination, if only from the fact that Shakspeare has treated him with unmistakable partiality, and worked his character out with more care and more in detail than is the case with
others of his comic figures.
Two features strike us at a glance as being clear and prominent in Falstaff's character; on the one hand, his great wealth of wit, his inexhaustible store of happy devices, plots and pranks, and the indestructibility of his good humour; on the other hand, his equally great amount of sensuality, love of pleasure and excessive carnal lusts. The point de vue of his life, and the centre upon which all his aims and actions turn, is, that his wit, his inventive talents, and his shrewdness shall in all cases furnish him with the means of gratifying his sensual desires, and protect him in case of need. Enjoyments of every description he must have; and it is only a good joke, a successful piece of mischief—to him the greatest of all enjoyments—that he thinks even more attractive than a glass of sack and the charms of Dolly Tear-sheet. Falstaff is the most consummate epicurean, in the form of a kniglit of Shakspeare's day but-owing to a halo of ingenious and irresistible wit, and an ideal mental freedom, which humourously disregard all difficulties, and even the whole seriousness of life-an epicurean who appears to a certain extent spiritualised, sublimated into a sort of poetical ideal, which raises him far above the usual run of common rakes, and prevents moral indignation from casting its judgment upon him. Falstaff does not possess any great passions, because to gratify them would cost him too much trouble, and afford an indeed great, but after all only a passing enjoyment. He has also nothing in common with actual wickedness and gross crimes and vices, because the former undermine their own enjoyment, and also because they are inseparably connected with hate; moreover, great crimes
are accomplished only with trouble and exertion, and are always followed by a dread of punishment; gross vices, lastly, necessarily blunt and deaden the sense of enjoye ment. Neither is he at all jealous or envious - for envy is its own tormentor-he is more inclined to be glad to see others enjoying themselves, and even helps his booncompanions in attaining their desires, as long as these do not cause himself any inconvenience or annoyance. But as regards the lesser sins, such as bragging, lying and deceiving, he is not over-particular, and has even no great objections to a little thieving, when it can be done easily, and especially when connected with some good joke. He trusts to his wit to save him from any unpleasant consequences of such bagatelles ; such things he considers natural and unavoidable because he cannot find any enjoyment or procure the means of any enjoyment without them. If this were possible he would rather not be guilty of a single transgression, except as a joke, and even though not altogether good and virtuous, still he would like – without a struggle, however-to be upright and honest. It is true he likes virtue even less than vice, because it demands a greater amount of energy, and, worst of all, self-denial and self-control. He does not believe in virtue; he thinks it a delusive piece of sophistry, a mere illusion to suppose that any one should give up enjoyment and pleasure against the instincts of nature, in order to obtain so-called true happiness. To him, therefore, virtue, like honour, is a mere.word,' a thing that no one possesses, that has 'no skill in surgery,' but at most is an honour to the dead who are insensible to it; hence a merescutcheon,' so ‘he'll none of it.' And yet, at the same time, he knows very well that he must appear to possess certain virtues such as bravery, honesty, and above all things honour and authority; for without the appearance of these he would find it impossible to live. Accordingly his wit and shrewdness have here again to come to his aid, together with his consummate impudence. In the same way as his inventive genius is inexhaustible when wanted to help him out of scrapes, and other difficulties, so the manner in which he contrives to impose upon blockheads and simpletons is inimitable. And as the aim