Plot and Creation: Falstaff
The Play The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare
By 1602, the year in which The Merry Wives of Windsor was first published, William Shakespeare was an established actor and playwright in England, churning out plays for London’s Globe Theatre and the company of players known then as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. Protected by royal patronage, they staged private entertainment for the court of Queen Elizabeth I, the reigning monarch, as well as performing to theater audiences in London and on tour in the English provinces, and it was perhaps this royal connection that gave us Merry Wives.
Legend has it that Queen Elizabeth I was so enraptured by the character of Sir John Falstaff, first seen in the historical plays Henry IV, Part 1 and Henry IV, Part 2 (written between 1596–99), that she inspired Shakespeare to dedicate a new story to the depiction of Falstaff in love. This became The Merry Wives of Windsor, most likely performed for the first time by Shakespeare’s troupe in the late 1590s, and loosely based on a story in the collection “Il Pecorone” (written 1378–85) by the Italian Ser Giobanni Fiorentino. The play was a hit: Audiences in Elizabethan England lapped up Falstaff’s antics, thanks in large part to actor Will Kemp’s performances in the title role. Kemp, who specialized in comic roles such as Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, was the equivalent of a 16th-century stand-up comic. He was known for his physical comedy routines and spoken asides, features that are integral to the portrayal of the corpulent and vain Falstaff. Kemp’s routines may also have played a part in Shakespeare’s creative process in Merry Wives since, in the 1590s, the comedian was known for performing the ballad “Singing Simkin” (his own composition), which tells of a man hiding in a chest to escape his jealous spouse—an episode later written into Shakespeare’s play.
The combination of Kemp’s star power and the likeability of Falstaff’s character aided Merry Wives’ success in the 16th century, but some of the comedy may also have caused tensions with its royal patrons and censors. After all, the story presented a member of the nobility in a bad light, emphasizing Falstaff’s avarice and loose morals. The play was also set in Windsor, an English town dominated by the royal castle that has been in use by the reigning British monarch since the 11th century. The play’s takedown of the aristocracy clearly had the potential to hit a nerve with its royal patrons, yet the story’s treatment of its female characters may have had a counterbalancing effect. Alice, Meg, Mistress Quickly, and Anne Page (the play’s version of Nannetta) brought both cunning and determination to the stage at a time when the ultimate theatrical patron, Queen Elizabeth I, was herself known for strength and tenacity rivalling that of the other, supposedly stronger, sex. In a famous speech, for example, Elizabeth proudly stated that, though she had “the body of a woman,” she carried “the heart and stomach of a king.” In a play in which a band of steely women win out over Falstaff and their husbands, Queen Elizabeth I might well have enjoyed such a triumphant ending for the scheming, merry wives!
The Garter Inn, Windsor, England
As the curtain rises, the enraged Dr. Caius is accusing Bardolfo and Pistola, two associates of the venerable scoundrel Sir John Falstaff, of thievery. With trickster logic and wit verging on condescension, Falstaff shoos Caius away. Falstaff has money problems, and he chastises Bardolfo and Pistola for enjoying themselves at his expense. To remedy the situation, Falstaff lays out a scheme to wheedle cash out of two wealthy housewives, Alice Ford and Meg Page, by sending them both love letters. But Bardolfo and Pistola refuse to deliver them, claiming that the scheme offends their sense of honor. Infuriated, Falstaff rants that “honor is a meaningless concept,” and sends the thieves packing.
The garden of the Fords' home
When Meg Page excitedly tells Alice Ford that she’s received a love note from the old knight Falstaff, she learns that Alice holds an identical letter. The wives decide to teach Falstaff a lesson. Alice will accept Falstaff’s advances and then expose him, with the help of Alice’s daughter, Nannetta, and their friend, Mistress Quickly. Meanwhile, Bardolfo and Pistola denounce Falstaff to Alice’s husband, Ford. Also present are Dr. Caius, whom Ford has chosen as Nannetta’s husband, and the young Fenton, whom Nannetta loves. The jealous Ford fears that his wife will give in to Falstaff’s wooing. Ford decides to trick his rival and to test his wife’s fidelity: He plans to visit Falstaff in disguise and ask him to seduce Alice. Three intrigues unfold at once: The women and men plan their schemes, while Fenton and Nannetta find a private moment to kiss.
The Garter Inn
Falstaff holds court at the inn. First, Bardolfo and Pistola pretend to seek forgiveness and rejoin his service. Next, Mistress Quickly arrives with an invitation from Alice to visit her at home that afternoon. Falstaff is delighted. Bardolfo introduces a “Mister Fontana”—really Ford in disguise. “Fontana” offers Falstaff money to seduce a certain virtuous Alice Ford, in order to clear the path for Fontana to woo Alice himself. Falstaff reveals that he’s already set up a rendezvous with her. When Falstaff heads off to change his clothes, Ford erupts with jealousy.
The Fords' home
Mistress Quickly, Alice, and Meg are preparing for Falstaff’s visit, although Nannetta is upset because her father insists that she marry Dr. Caius. Falstaff arrives and begins his seduction. Alice deters him, saying she knows he is also courting Meg. Suddenly Meg arrives, and (as they have planned) she warns Alice that Ford is approaching. At that moment, Quickly rushes in with news that Ford really is on his way. As Ford, Dr. Caius, Bardolfo, Pistola, and Fenton burst in, Falstaff desperately looks for a hiding place. The women stuff him into a huge laundry basket while the men go off to search the rest of the house. Nannetta and Fenton manage to steal another kiss, before they’re discovered by an enraged Ford. Amid the confusion, Alice instructs her servants to empty the laundry basket out the window. To everyone’s amusement, Falstaff is thrown into the Thames.
Outside the Garter Inn
Falstaff, soggy and miserable after his unexpected swim, has decided that the world is a wicked place, but a glass of mulled wine soon cheers him up. Mistress Quickly appears, apologizing on Alice’s behalf, and invites Falstaff to another rendezvous—that night in Windsor Great Park. Alice, Meg, Ford, Dr. Caius, and Nannetta look on unseen as Falstaff accepts the invitation. Alice lays out a plan to ridicule the knight: They will scare him by pretending to be a band of woodland fairies, long rumored to haunt the wood. Ford secretly agrees to let Caius sneak Nannetta out of the forest and marry her.
Windsor Great Park
Alice, who is aware of Ford’s scheme, has arranged to disguise Bardolfo as Nannetta. Caius will then abduct the wrong person, and Nannetta can marry Fenton. Falstaff arrives at midnight to find Alice, as planned, but their meeting is interrupted by the arrival of the woodland fairies (really townspeople in disguise), who prod, pinch, and make fun of the terrified Falstaff. At last, recognizing Bardolfo, whose mask has fallen off, Falstaff realizes that he has been tricked—but he takes it all in good humor. Dr. Caius approaches with his “bride,” as Alice escorts her daughter and Fenton—both disguised—to the gathering. Each couple’s union is blessed by Ford, but when Dr. Caius lifts his bride’s veil, he discovers “she” is Bardolfo. Ford finally accepts Fenton as his future son-in-law. Falstaff leads everybody in a final ensemble, declaring that everything in the world is a good joke.
William Shakespeare is born in Stratford-upon-Avon, England.
Shakespeare, now an acclaimed dramatist, writes three plays that feature the character of Falstaff: the histories Henry IV, Part 1 and Henry IV, Part 2, and the comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor. (The exact publication dates remain unclear.)
Giuseppe Verdi is born on October 9 or 10 (the exact date is uncertain) in Le Roncole, a tiny Italian village near Parma. Verdi’s parents are innkeepers with no musical training, yet they soon recognize their son’s prodigious talents. He will receive his first music lessons at the age of three.
Verdi, only nine years old, is hired to play organ at San Michele, a beautiful church across the street from his parents’ inn. But Le Roncole’s limited musical life falls far short of Verdi’s needs, and he soon moves to the nearby town of Busseto to continue his musical studies alongside classes in Italian, Latin, the humanities, and rhetoric.
The 18-year-old Verdi travels to Milan and applies to study at the conservatory. He is denied admission partly for bureaucratic reasons, partly because of his allegedly idiosyncratic piano playing. Unwilling to give up his music studies, Verdi takes private composition lessons with Vincenzo Lavigna, who worked as a keyboard player at La Scala.
Oberto, the first of Verdi’s 26 operas, premieres at La Scala, Milan’s most famous opera house. The opera is successful enough that Bartolomeo Merelli, the impresario in charge of La Scala, signs Verdi to a contract for three more operas.
In stark contrast to the successes of 1839, 1840 is one of the worst years of Verdi’s life. His wife Margherita dies on June 18, and his second opera, the comedy Un Giorno di Regno, is a total flop. Stung by the rejection, Verdi will not write another comedy until Falstaff.
Arrigo Boito is born in Padua, Italy, on February 24. On March 9, La Scala hosts the premiere of Verdi’s third opera, Nabucco. It is an extraordinary hit. Singing the powerhouse role of the anti-hero Abigaille is Giuseppina Strepponi, a riveting young soprano who will become first his companion, later his second wife. Nabucco’s success launches a period of extraordinary productivity for Verdi: Between 1844 and 1849, he will compose no fewer than 11 operas, including Rigoletto, La Traviata, and Il Trovatore.
Revolutions break out across Europe, sweeping through Germany, Denmark, Belgium, France, Ireland, and the sprawling Austro-Hungarian Empire, which at the time includes both Milan and Venice. In Milan, Verdi witnesses the “Five Days” of uprising that help launch the first Italian war of independence.
Following the disastrous premiere of La Traviata (Verdi will revise the piece substantially the following year), Verdi’s compositional output slows considerably. Over the next 18 years, he will compose only six new operas, many of which are written for opera houses outside of Italy. (Aida, for instance, is commissioned to celebrate the opening of the Khedival Opera House in Cairo.) Verdi is also involved in productions of his operas in Paris, Russia, London, and Madrid.
Verdi marries his beloved companion, retired soprano Giuseppina Strepponi.
For centuries, the region now known as Italy has been a political patchwork of tiny city states, principalities, and duchies. Yet citizens and political thinkers across the peninsula have begun to imagine a unified Italy free from foreign domination. Victor Emmanuel II, King of Sardinia, is tapped as a potential leader of the prospective country, and Verdi’s name is employed as a handy acronym for the hopeful phrase “Vittorio Emmanuele, Re d’Italia” (Victor Emmanuel, King of Italy). In 1861, the Kingdom of Italy is declared with Vittorio Emanuele II as its ruler. (Rome, however, remains under papal control.) From 1861–65, Verdi serves in the first Italian Parliament.
After three wars and over 50 years of political turmoil, Rome is made the official capital of the Kingdom of Italy, and full unification is fully achieved.
Almost a decade after his last operatic project, Verdi joins forces with librettist Arrigo Boito to create an opera based on Shakespeare’s Othello. The resulting work demonstrates a clear shift in in Verdi’s compositional style: Instead of neat divisions between arias and recitatives, Verdi integrates long transitions that allow him to create a more seamless dramatic flow of action.
Verdi begins work on a large-scale philanthropic project: the building of the Casa di Riposo per Musicisti, a home for elderly musicians. He later wrote that of all his works, the Casa di Riposo was the one that gave him the most pleasure.
In May, Verdi meets Arigo Boito in Milan and mentions that he has long wanted to write another comic opera. Boito suggests as a source Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor and immediately sketches an outline for the libretto.
Verdi, now 80 years old, attends the premiere of Falstaff at La Scala. Among the audience members are Princess Letizia Bonaparte and Italian opera composers Pietro Mascagni and Giacomo Puccini.
Verdi suffers a stroke on January 21 and dies on January 27. The funeral is small, in accordance with the composer’s wishes, but a public memorial procession through the streets of Milan is attended by thousands. The procession is accompanied by a chorus from his opera Nabucco, “Va pensiero, sull’ali dorate” (“Go thought, on wings of gold”); the conductor is the young Arturo Toscanini.