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THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR.
THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR, as we have it, was first printed in the folio of 1623, where it occupies the third place in the list of Comedies. An imperfect and probably fraudulent edition, however, came out in 1602, and was reprinted in 1619. In this edition the play is but about half as long as in the authentic copy of 1623; the scenes following each other in the same order, except in one instance; and some prose parts being printed in the manner of verse. Much question has been made, whether the impression of 1602 were from a correct copy of an unfinished play, or from a report stolen at the theatre and mangled in the stealing.
Of course every reader of Shakespeare has heard the tradition that Queen Elizabeth, upon witnessing the performance of Henry IV., was so taken with Falstaff that she forthwith requested the Poet to represent him in the quality of a lover; in compliance with which request he wrote The Merry Wives of Windsor. Queen Elizabeth was indeed a great woman, and did some great things : but if it were certain that she was thus the occasion of this play, there are many who would not scruple to set it down as the best thing she had any agency in bringing to pass; and another many who might regard it as the best but one. If this be wrong, there is no help for it; for such, assuredly, will always be the case so long as men can “ laugh and grow fat."
But there is much diversity of judgment touching the amount of credit due to this tradition. Mr. Collier says: “ When traced to its source, it can be carried back no further than 1702: John Dennis in that year printed his Comical Gallant, founded upon • The Merry Wives of Windsor,' and in the dedication he states that the comedy was written at the command of Queen Elizabeth, and by her direction; and she was so eager to see it acted, that she commanded it to be finished in fourteen days. Dennis gives no authority for any part of this assertion : but because he knew Dryden, it is supposed to have come from him; and because Dryden was acquainted with Davenant, it has been conjectured that the latter communicated it to the former. We own that we place little or no reliance on the story, especially recollecting that Dennis had to make out a case in favour of his alterations, by showing that Shakespeare had composed the comedy in an incredibly short period, and consequently that it was capable of improvement."
All which is clever and spirited enough, but strikes us as a rather too summary disposing of the matter; the tradition not being incredible in itself, nor the immediate sources of it unentitled to confidence: for, granting that “ Dennis had to make out a case in favour of his alterations," would he not be more likely to avail himself of something generally received, than to get up so questionable a fabrication? The date of his statement was but eighty-six years after the Poet's death ;-a time when much traditionary matter, handed down from the reign of Elizabeth, was doubtless in circulation, that had not yet got into print: Dennis moved more or less in the literary circle of which Dryden was the centre; and that circle, however degenerate, was the lineal successor of the glorious constellation gathered about Shakespeare. It is considerable that Dennis gave no reason for the Queen's alleged request; which reason Rowe a few years later stated to be the pleasure she had from Falstaff in Henry IV.; - a difference of statement that rather goes to accredit the substance of the tradition, because it looks as if both drew from a common source, not one from the other; each using such and so much of the traditionary matter as would best serve his turn. Their account, or rather, perhaps, the general belief from which it was taken, was received by Pope, Theobald, and other contemporaries, - men who would not be very apt to let such a matter go unsifted, or help to give it currency unless they thought there was good ground for it.
An excellent and pleasant conceited comedy of Sir John Falstaff and the Merry Wives of Windsor " was entered in the Registers of the Stationers' Company, Jan. 18, 1602. The title-page of the edition which came out soon after reads thus : “ A most pleasant and excellent conceited comedy of Sir John Falstaff and the Merry Wives of Windsor ; intermixed with sundry variable and pleasing humours of Sir Hugh the Welch Knight, Justice Shallow, and his wise Cousin M. Slender; with the swaggering vein of Ancient Pistol, and Corporal Nym. By William Shakespeare. As it hath been divers times acted by the Right Honour. able my Lord Chamberlain's servants; both before Her Majesty, and elsewhere." We may set it down, therefore, as tolerably certain that The Merry Wives of Windsor was performed before The Queen near the close of 1601, notwithstanding the opinion of
Chalmers, that “ she was then in no mood for such fooleries.' And probably one reason for getting up the piratical edition of 1602 was, that the play had been “divers tres acted, both before Her Majesty and elsewhere.” Now, that Queen Elizabeth was capable of appreciating the genius of Falstaff, will hardly be questioned; that she had been present at the performance of Henry IV., is quite probable, considering the great popularity of that play as evinced in that five editions of it were published between 1598 and 1613; that, having seen the irresistible Knight as where presented, she should desire to see more of him, was cer!ainly natural enough : all which being granted, there appears nothing to hinder, either that she should request the Poet to continue the character through another play, or that he should hasten to comply with the request. Moreover, we learn from the “ Accounts of the Revels at Court," that The Merry Wives of Windsor was acted before King James, in Nov. 1604. May we not justly conclude, then, that this was probably one of the plays re. ferred to by Ben Jonson in his noble poem, “ To the Memory of my beloved Mr. William Shakespeare, and what he hath left us ? "
« Sweet Swan of Avon, what a sight it were,
To see thee in our waters yet appear;
So that, upon the whole, we can by no means bring ourselves to regard the forecited tradition with the contempt which Mr. Collier seems to think it deserves. The only part of it that much tronbles us to digest, is that concerning the time wherein it makes the play to have been written : this, we confess, staggers us somewhat: yet, supposing it to be false, it does not greatly invalidate the substance of the tradition ; and we are well assured that the play, as published in 1602, might well enough have been written by Shakespeare within the time alleged. The question, therefore, turns somewhat upon the point, whether that edition was from a correct copy of an imperfect and unfinished play, a sort of rough draught hastily gotten up for the occasion, or from a false and mutilated copy stolen from the actors' lips by incompetent reporters, to gratify the cupidity of unscrupulous publishers. This question we have not room to discuss; and, if we had, the long discussions, indalged in by former critics to little purpose, shut us up from all hope of being able ever to determine it. We may remark, how. ever, there can be little doubt that the edition of 1602 was fraudulent and surreptitious; though this need not infer but that it may have been from a faithful copy fraudulently obtained for the press. Yet there are some things in it, such as the printing of prose so as to look like verse, which go to show that it was partly taken down as spoken, and partly made up from memory; the pirates ap
parently having no ---on distinguish prose and verse, and so pre suming it to be poetry, -ucause written by a poet. That such frauds and piracies were practised with some of Shakespeare's plays, scarce admits of dispute. But, for aught appears. The Merry Wives of Windsor may have been at that time very imper. fect and inferior to what it is now, and yet the first edition a stolen and mangled copy of the play as it then was. And, whether from a correct or from a mutilated transcript, that edition contains pas. sages of which no traces are discoverable in the play as it now stands. Such is the following from the fifth act:
“ Sir Hugh. Go you and see where brokers sleep,
And fox-ey'd serjeants, with their mace;
But such whose nose looks blue and red.
And look that none of you stand still :
There being no corresponding passage in the later edition strongly argues that the play, at least in this part, was entirely rewritten after the first copy was taken for the press; for men, whether purloining a manuscript or reporting it as spoken, would obviously be much more apt to omit or alter words and sentences, than to make additions or put in quite other matter. On the other hand, the authentic edition has some passages that can hardly be explained but upon the supposal that the play was revised, and those pas. sages inserted, after the accession of James in the spring of 1603. Such is the odd reason Mrs. Page gives Mrs. Ford for declining to share the honour of Knighthood with Sir John: “ These knights will hack; and so thou shouldst not alter the article of thy gentry :" which can scarce bear any other sense than as referring to the prodigality with which the King dispensed those honours in the first of his reign; Knighthood being thereby in a way to grow so hackneyed that it would rather be an honour not to have been dubbed. And, indeed, perhaps it may as well be noted here, that many of Shakespeare's plays apparently underwent so many revisals and improvements between the first sketching and the last finishing of them, that any allusions they may contain to the events of his time afford a very uncertain clew to the date of their original composition.
There remains a question of some interest as to the time when T'he Merry Wives was first written ; whether before or after Henry IV.; for, if before, this at once upsets that part of the tradition which assigns the huge delight the Queen had at seeing Falstaff in wit and war, as the cause od requesting to see him in love. Knight and Halliwell, taking the edition of 1602 as a faithful, though perhaps surreptitious, copy of the play as then written, date “the original sketch” as far back as 1592 or 1593. In proof of this they urge what passes between Sir Hugh Evans, "I mine Host de Jarterre," and Dr. Caius respecting “a duke de Jarmany; " because in 1592 a German duke actually did travel in England, with such special privileges and accommodations as are indicated in the play. Mr. Knight's argument runs thus : « Now, if we knew that a real German duke had visited Windsor, (a rare occurrence in the days of Elizabeth,) we should have the date of the comedy pretty exactly fixed. The circumstance would be one of those local and temporary allusions which Shakespeare seized upon to arrest the attention of his audience. We have before us a narrative, printed in the old German language, of the journey to England of the Duke of Wurtemburg in 1592; which narrative, drawn up by his secretary, contains a daily journal of his proceedings. He was accompanied by a considerable retinue, and travelled under the name of “ The Count Mombe liard.”
From the resemblance of this name to Garmomble, an apparent anagram of Mumpelgart, which occurs in the copy of 1602, Mr. Knight justly infers the identity of the person. Yet the force of his reasoning is not altogether apparent, as it proceeds by a very uncertain measure between the date of an event alluded to and the date of the allusion itself. Surely, in proportion to the rareness of an occurrence and the sensation it caused, it would naturally be remembered and remarked upon afterwards : nor is it easy to see how so rare and remarkable a thing as Mr. Halliwell represents this to have been, was “ a matter to be forgotten in 1601." Shakespeare's “local and temporary allusions," be it observed, were not merely for novelty and popularity, or used as ear-catchers to his audience; but for whatsoever matter he saw in them that could be made to serve the general purposes of art : and that the thing in question would not so soon be spoilt for his use, appears in the interest it has for us; and would have, even if we had never heard of any such event occurring in his time.
In further proof of his point Mr. Knight alleges several passages from the finished play, which are not found in the “ original sketch," and which apparently refer to things occurring after the supposed date of that sketch. But all such arguments are at once nonsuited by the supposition, which, to say the least, is a probable one, that the edition of 1602 was not from a faithful transcript, however obtained, of an unfinished play, but from a copy fraudulently taken down and made up by unskilful reporters. - There appears no good reason, therefore, but that The Merry Wives of Windsor may have been written after Henry IV., the First Part of which was first published in 1598, and probably