Six days of the Merry Wives of Windsor

Falstaff and the Wives
The Merry Wives of Windsor is one of Shakespeare’s less well-known, and less well-regarded, plays. Some believe this to be because Queen Elizabeth instructed Shakespeare to write a play featuring Falstaff (the lecherous main character, who also appears in the two King Henry IVs) and complete it in fourteen days, in which case it’s a remarkable achievement.

Thanks to my son’s class putting it on as the school’s annual Class 9 Shakespeare, and me taking the opportunity to see more of him than usual, I went to see it 6 days in a row, as well as read the play for the first time.

In spite of at least one online review stating that the play is highly unsuitable for a family audience due to its adult themes, it’s a great play for teenagers, starring the hopeful Falstaff as he attempts to woo two married women, and the desirable Ann Page being wooed by multiple, mostly unsuitable, suitors.

Unsurprisingly, I’ve never seen a Shakespeare, or any other play, 6 days in a row, and I really enjoyed the intense experience of seeing it daily. Each time I picked up more subtleties, plot features I’d missed, and more puns that had previously gone over my head. And I got to see the students grow in confidence and develop into their roles.

There were two casts, so each student got to play a reasonably major role, and it was fascinating to see the different dynamics on stage, and the different touches both casts brought. The students were clearly told to express themselves, and many had fun improvising in the last performances in particular.

The purpose is not to put on the best play possible, but as part of the curriculum for the children, who’re around 15 years of age. They learn to express themselves in new ways as they take on their own unique roles, all as part of something much larger.

I read the play over the last two days, and seeing it in text helped me understand even more, as well gain a greater appreciation for the edits that the director made to the script and how it was directed on stage. Parts that would read quite drily on the page came alive on stage.

The director did an excellent job. Most of the audience are parents, relatives, friends and the greater school community, unfamiliar with Shakespearean English. So the play lives to a greater degree on the children’s physical performances, rather than their verbal expression.

Take Sir Hugh, a Welsh parson in the original, and Doctor Caius, a French physician. Much of their time on stage involves having fun poked at their accents. With the school version being set in the 70’s, and with most unlikely to distinguish a Welsh accent these days, Sir Hugh became an Afrikaans priest, and many of the lines were rewritten.

From the original:

Pless my soul, how full of chollors I am, and
trempling of mind! I shall be glad if he have
deceived me. How melancholies I am! I will knog
his urinals about his knave’s costard when I have
good opportunities for the ork. ‘Pless my soul!

To shallow rivers, to whose falls
Melodious birds sings madrigals;
There will we make our peds of roses,
And a thousand fragrant posies.
To shallow–
Mercy on me! I have a great dispositions to cry.

The first part works quite well with an Afrikaans accent, but the song…

Here’s a version of the song I could find:

Probably pushing it!

In the school’s version, the song is changed to “By the Rivers of Babylon”, with some comic relief added by Simple, a servant.

While Welsh cuisine would have gone over most people’s heads, jokes about biltong and koeksisters hit the spot.

Or take this piece, which pokes fun at Caius’s French accent:

Sir Hugh
If there is one, I shall make two in the company.

Doctor Caius
If dere be one or two, I shall make-a the turd.

The joke is easy to spot written, but could easily be missed when spoken out loud. A small minority in each audience got the joke immediately, but thanks to a pause and a helping hand from the band, everyone had time to realize what had been said.

Some lines I just couldn’t understand, even after the multiple viewings and reading the play.

There’s a part where the boy William is being tested by Sir Hugh.

William, how many numbers is in nouns?


Truly, I thought there had been one number more,
because they say, ‘Od’s nouns.’

I had no idea what Od’s nouns was referring to, but it turns out that in Shakespeare’s time, nouns and wounds would have rhymed (it seems English once made more sense) and Mistress Quickly has misheard the colloquial form of the oath, “God’s Wounds”, or “Od’s ouns”.

She then mishears “pulcher” as “polecat” (a slang term for a sex worker), “vocative” (as in vocative case) as “fuckative”, “horum” as “whore”, and “genitive case” as “Jenny’s case”. “Case” euphemistically means vagina, so “Jenny’s vagina”. She’s outraged at what Sir Hugh is teaching the child!

Naturally none of this was understood or garnered many laughs, and I’m not sure how it would have been possible to convey without major rewriting.

Although those ones would have been missed, the play is full of suggestive jokes, often physically highlighted by the children, and part of the humour for me was in seeing the reaction of some of the more shocked members of the audience, as well as how the cast gained in confidence, embarrassed and very aware of the audience in the first performances, to confidently playing up the jokes in their later performances.

I found myself enjoying the play more with each viewing.

In writing this post I almost got side-tracked and watched a 2011 version by the Royal Shakespeare Company. I did however come across The Cockerel Song. I suppose the line had to be drawn somewhere, and this wasn’t performed by the children, but some of them may have had fun with this version!

While some of the cast, and probably most of the staff, may have been relieved when the run finally came to an end, I found myself mildly depressed the next night, and wishing for more. I’ve never come close to wanting to go back to my own schooldays. But wanting to go to Dorje’s school? I think Dorje and I would be happy to trade…

Since it did take up about 24 hours of my week, it’s probably a good thing it came to end when it did.

Well done to everyone involved for what I thought, in my totally objective opinion, was a magnificent showing.

And if you do happen to be in London, this version looks hilarious too:

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Image from Wikimedia Commons