Rumor has it that Queen Elizabeth once asked William Shakespeare to write a play in which her favorite character of Sir John Falstaff (featured in “Henry IV”) falls in love. Shakespeare delivered, but it was far from what the Queen expected.
“Falstaff in ‘Merry Wives’ is in love alright, but mainly with himself and money,” said director John Neville-Andrews.
Humor, revenge, girl power and a ritualistic fairy dance: The play has all the elements to captivate the audience and leave them laughing to the end. Put on by the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance at the Power Center this past weekend, “The Merry Wives of Windsor” is one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known works, and his only farce — a play of complete buffoonery.
The plot centers on two married women, Mistress Paige and Mistress Ford, who receive identical love letters from the same guy, Sir John Falstaff. Unfortunately for Falstaff, these women are best friends, realize his fraudulence and make plans for revenge.
Retribution is a beautiful thing. In a time where women had little power, Paige and Ford seem to create their own rules for humiliating Falstaff time and time again. They pretend to respond to his advances but have no real intention of pursuing the fat, ageing man as a suitor.
The play resembles your classic “girls-get-revenge-on-the-guy” movie. In “John Tucker Must Die,” one guy dated several girls simultaneously; when the girls find out, they decide to seek vengeance. They scheme embarrassing scenarios for Tucker, like tricking him into putting on women’s underwear. Similarly, Falstaff is forced to put on women’s attire at one point. While less regarded among critics, “The Merry Wives of Windsor” has certainly left an impression upon the cinematic world since many similar plotlines have manifested themselves into the movies of today.
The play is “considered intellectually slight, having little or no depth to the characters— just a bunch of country bumpkins posing as middle class,” Neville-Andrews said. But he disagrees with the critics. “I think Shakespeare has given us a play of true comic depth; he bestowed upon us a gallimaufry of rich, vibrant characters who possess individual and hilarious personalities and who energetically demonstrate a lust for life.”
The student actors took the centuries-old script and paired it with modern tones, inflections and body language, making it easier for a contemporary audience to understand and enjoy. One amusing line, “the woman has good gifts,” would have gone unnoticed if it weren’t for the actor’s emphasis towards his chest area, indicating Shakespeare’s subtle innuendo.
Amidst the chaos of the main plot and side plots, the underrated character Simple, played by Wyatt Stromer, really stands out. His hair looked like a mop, always lopsided, sticking up and about oddly. The plot would be advancing, yet his character would remain in the corner, eating a piece of bread in the most idiotic way possible. This is the type of character that either annoys the audience or steals the show. In this case, everytime Simple was on stage, all eyes watched his awkward walking, cringe-worthy conversation skills and odd mannerisms that so sharply contrasted the rest of the characters.
Yes, Shakespearean plays are long winded, usually stretching at least 3 hours. It’s easy for the mind to drift as the brain grows weary of trying to decipher every line one doesn’t quite understand. It’s the paradox of all Shakespearean works. On one hand, you admire the culture and value of such pieces of literature, but on the other hand, you would rather just watch an undemanding Netflix show.
Shakespeare is not for everyone. It is a labor to understand. The culture in which it is written is so unlike the present. It was likely that many jokes flew right over the head of the audience, simply because most people lack knowledge regarding the early 1600s. One misses out on the key elements — not because it was poorly produced — but because it can be so challenging to watch.
A live orchestra would have improved the flow of the performance, as some scenes felt unnaturally quiet. Silence can be powerful, but it can also make time go by slowly and monotonously. Since the play is already like listening to a different language, sluggish scenes can kill the whole affair.
Yet, the audience always seemed to return to a state of laughter at whatever foolish act had occurred, and they became engrossed in the odd plot all over again. It is impossible not to root for the women as they take down the egotistical Falstaff and watch them become heroes of the story.
A Shakespeare play has never been quite so enjoyable as the relatively unknown “The Merry Wives of Windsor.” Master of drama and tragedy, Shakespeare can also execute timeless humor. Seeing women hold power over the men in a classic piece was refreshing. Experts in both sarcasm and revenge, Mistress Paige and Mistress Ford broke molds and gave light to the absurd world of men.