The Last Episode
In Verdi, as in Shakespeare, Sir John’s scheme to woo two merry wives of Windsor comically falls through, and the laughs continue with the wives’ revenge. In the opera, the women first dunk Falstaff in the Thames, and then scare him silly in Windsor Forest in the middle of the night. Verdi and Boito seem to have thought this punishment enough for the knight, because they left out a third episode introduced by Shakespeare to humiliate Sir John.
In Act IV of The Merry Wives of Windsor, Alice Ford convinces Falstaff a third time that she is open to his solicitations. When, once again, Ford and the men of Windsor come hunting the errant knight, Alice and Meg Page dress him up to sneak out of the house disguised as “the fat woman of Brentford.” What Alice neglects to mention is that her husband “cannot abide the old woman of Brentford; he swears she’s a witch.” So, as soon as Falstaff appears, Ford begins beating him, crying “Out of my door, you witch, you hag, you baggage, you polecat, you runyon!”
The removal of this final, humiliating incident from the Falstaff libretto indicates the care that Verdi and Boito took in constructing their opera. Although they used The Merry Wives of Windsor as their template, the composer and librettist understood that Shakespeare’s play is a rambling burlesque, played for maximum laughter. Falstaff, on the other hand, is a more nuanced portrait of a multi-dimensional figure. After one comic dunking, Boito’s libretto skips to an incident in which Falstaff’s own weaknesses prompt his comeuppance, and Verdi and his librettist inserted a final fugue into the action in which all the characters reflect on their actions and their morals. The crowd-pleasing jokes that served Shakespeare’s purposes so well in the play cede to a more complex and empathetic vision of Falstaff in the opera.