This will be short. I wish the play had been. This comedy, whose plot borrows heavily from Love’s Labour’s Lost and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, only confirmed my problems with the comedies. The Ass’s head would have more befit Falstaff than the horns he ends up with.
Perhaps Shakespeare penned this one – the only comedy set in England in a town likely very familiar to audiences – quickly and for mass appeal, but it shows. Lamentably, he resurrects Falstaff and several other provocatively named characters (Quickly, Shallow, Slender, and Pistol, for example) from the Henriad, where they had a much better showing than they do here. Elizabethan audiences might have found it uproarious, but for me, it falls flat.
For a play that bandies about words like honest, true, and honor quite a bit, it does everything it can to discredit these purported virtues: Falstaff embodies dishonesty in every breath he takes and every move he makes (thank you, Sting). But rather than highlighting his transgressions with more exemplary behavior, the others use deception to combat his deceit.
– Mistress Quickly promises support to everyone who asks that she champion their campaign to court Mistress Anne Page, rather than show loyalty to one suitor only.
– Despite Mistress Page’s claim that “wives may be merry, and honest too:” (IV,ii,105), she and Mistress Ford concoct an elaborate ruse to foil Falstaff’s attempts to woo them into adultery…
– And an even more complex charade to reveal his offenses in an inane forest romp, complete with fairies who would be better relegated to A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
– Frances Ford disguises himself to dupe his wife to uncover what he believes to be her disloyalty.
It may all make for good theater (although I’d argue not especially), but it only encourages lying, cheating, and deceit to portray them as amusing pastimes. While Anne does end up with “Mr. Right,” he also stoops to subterfuge to conquer. There are no consequences – save minor embarrassment – for the reprehensible Falstaff.
It may be that I’m sour on Falstaff and hence the play because of late I’ve been irritated by fellow humans whose entitled and seemingly oblivious actions imply that they believe, as erroneously as pre-Galilean astronomers, that the solar system revolves around them. While I wish no one ill, I do wish there to be consequences that might lead to more awareness and compassion. And for Falstaff, at least, being made to wear the horns that he tried to impose upon Page and Ford, made little if any impression on him. “Disgrace is the only consequence,” (IV,iv,15), and that is really of no consequence.