When the Queen of England commands you to write a play, you do it. Especially when you are a loyal subject of the realm and She gives your theatre more money than El Pomar. Elizabeth, a very royal fan of the stage, was so taken with the Falstaff who ran away with the Henry IV plays that she demanded Shakespeare write something more—something showing “Falstaff in love.” And write it fast, she added. You’ve got two weeks! That’s the story that has passed down over the years about the genesis of The Merry Wives of Windsor. It’s a pretty good yarn, isn’t it? The image of the greatest playwright in the English language sitting at his desk furiously writing a play on the Queen’s deadline is rich. But like many of the best stories, it probably isn’t true. The tale was first reported in the early 18th century, over 100 years after the play was published—and really only to promote a new edition of the play that had just been published. So, to this day the story of the development of Merry Wives remains shrouded in mystery and confusion.
However the play was occasioned, Merry Wives is a wonderful little gem in the Shakespearian canon. This August, THEATREWORKS proudly returns to the tent with this work, one of Shakespeare’s most beloved comedies. The Merry Wives of Windsor tells the tale of a couple of mischievous (and perhaps bored) wives who hoodwink the equally mischievous (and lecherous) Falstaff. Desperate and destitute, the fat knight launches a plan to court Mistress Ford and Mistress Page in a futile attempt to gain access to their great fortunes. Of course, the merry wives are on to him from the beginning, and with their wiles and his buffoonery, hilarity ensues. It is entertaining theatre of the first order. But part of the reason that this play is always so fun and so successful can actually be uncovered in the mystery alluded to earlier. Where did this play come from and for what purpose was it written?
Several scholars now note that a version of the play was most likely written as royal entertainment in celebration of the elevation of five new Knights of the Garter on St. George’s Day in 1597, an event that the Queen attended. But this version was probably only a short masque performance for royalty, not a five-act play. That masque is largely intact and appears as the fifth act of what you will see at Rock Ledge. After the 1597 performance, the play was revised and added to and by 1602 was written down in an early “complete” version. The 1623 folio version of Merry Wives, the one most commonly played today, is twice as long as the 1602 version and contains all sorts of mistakes and inconsistencies. What happened to the play in those twenty-one years? Well, we think that new versions were constructed, actors and acting companies took liberties with the text and the structure, and the pages and various versions piled up. When folio editor Ralph Crane sat down to compile the “official” version, he had a mess of acts, scenes and monologues to sift through. If anyone tells you that any one version of Shakespeare is entirely “true” and “authoritative,” think again!
The goofiness of Merry Wives is thus matched by the strangeness of the play’s structure. It is clearly a text that has been added to, subtracted from and tinkered with based on the audiences that it was being performed for. There are several scenes that take place simultaneously on two different days. A couple rollicking and hysterical scenes, when looked at from afar, seem to have nothing to do with the plot of the play. There are many inside references to mysterious knights of the Garter that were added purely for the joy of the original audience in 1597 (and now you know too!). There is a bawdy Latin lesson filled with naughty innuendo and a scene that will forever change the way you look at your laundry basket. It looks as if the folio editors picked from the various scripts and scraps and compiled a play packed full of as much fun as possible… who cares if small pieces don’t always make a whole lot of narrative sense? What has been passed down to us is a character study of a collection of delightful townsfolk from Windsor, England at the end of the 16th century. And Windsor is a pretty fun place.
The Merry Wives of Windsor is generally considered Shakespeare’s most English play. Not a difficult jump since it is in fact his only play set in contemporary England. It beautifully displays a cross-section of Shakespeare’s England and watching it must have felt like looking into a portrayal of one’s everyday life; a tad more rollicking and silly perhaps, but recognizable nonetheless. To that end, it is our goal to provide a similar experience for you, though I am well aware that most of you do not know any lecherous knights! Our Merry Wives will be set in Colorado Springs. How could it not be? After all, our town originally fancied itself very English indeed—Colorado Springs was founded in 1871 as a high-quality resort community, and was soon nicknamed "Little London" because of the many English tourists who came here. Since we are setting our play outdoors on August evenings at historic Rock Ledge Ranch, this Merry Wives will have a hint of the Colorado Springs frontier town of the late 1800s. But much of the fun will still come from the play’s Englishness; the humor is very British and the textual allusions to 1597 England are painted on thick in Shakespeare’s text. Therefore, with both communities and our “special relationship” in mind, we welcome you to Windsor, Colorado.
If there is one word that describes the heart and soul of this play, it is “community.” I view Rock Ledge Ranch and the gathering audience eating picnic dinners on the lawn as equally important as the play itself. We hope that the show is the culmination of an evening of reunions with old and new friends and mingling with neighbors. So, come early. Enjoy the fun. Plan a picnic on the lawn. Don’t worry about the little pinching fairies. They have fatter prey in mind.
We look forward to seeing you out at the Ranch.
Director, The Merry Wives of Windsor