Teaching The Merry Wives of Windsor

When I first took over teaching my Honors 10 English class, the curriculum included Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. That’s an excellent play, but when I saw that many of those students had read Romeo and Juliet the year before, and that the only other Shakespeare plays in our curriculum were Macbeth in Brit. Lit. and Hamlet in AP Literature, I saw a gap.

Shakespeare’s tragedies are spectacular and I’ve since added King Lear to the AP Literature class. But none of our students got to experience a comedy and in college I’d mostly acted in (and co-directed) the comedies. So recently I made a switch and now teach The Merry Wives of Windsor to my 10th graders. I’ve noted a number of benefits:

  1. It’s really funny. In many ways, it is farcical and the students love it. When so much of the literature we study has serious themes and important discussions that often end with a character they cared about dying, the levity brought about by this play made for a good counter-balance. Falstaff in the buckbasket or being disguised as the witch of Brentford is funny whether they understand all the nuances of the character motivations or not. It makes it a bit more worthwhile to work out the difficult language for a student who is less familiar with early modern English when the payoff is laughter rather than tragedy.
  2. It’s fairly short and the language is a bit more accessible. There’s a lot less philosophizing and a lot more characters hatching schemes that we know won’t quite come about. I often tell students that they can become familiar with the language and the more of it they read/listen to, the more they will be able to make out on their own. As they are Honors students, I tell them of the Shakespeare plays we’ll be reading in AP Literature (should they choose to take it their senior year) and how the time they spend decoding now will ultimately help them down the road. The play also has slightly fewer scenes that contemporary audiences might find extraneous to the immediate plot—though the faux duel between Hugh and Caius comes close.
  3. It is one of very few Shakespeare plays where female characters take center stage. It’s not just a strong female character having to contend within her environment (such as a Lady Macbeth or a Portia) but the two wives actually command the environment. Mistress Page and Mistress Ford, along with Mistress Quickly, are very much the orchestrators of the events and command their spaces with aplomb. In their toying with Falstaff, through exposing Master Ford’s jealousy, and in helping Anne Page get married to the suitor she prefers, the women come out not only victorious, but shining with wit, knowledge, power, and good grace. Mistress Page defiantly insists, “We’ll leave a proof, by that which we will do, wives may be merry, and yet honest too.”
  4. I firmly believe that a play must be seen on a stage to have its full effect and so I always show a film/stage adaptation of any play we read as a class. In this case, Shakespeare’s Globe has a spectacular production, filmed in the Globe theatre itself before a live audience that brings the text to life. It allows students to envision not only the scenes and characters, but also the original venue for which this play was written. Additionally, since I played Master Ford in college, I promise to show them a scene in which I unreasonably search for Falstaff–always a hoot. These adaptations serve not only as entertainment but to show that these plays are not old words on musty paper but that they can be brought back to life and that their themes hold relevance for us today.

It is not my goal that all students must love Shakespeare, but I do tell them at the start of the unit that each of them will be able to appreciate Shakespeare more than they did before. Across the board, students have indicated that by the end of the unit, this is true. Students write a final paper in which they can explore any theme of their choice from within the play, and in their writing I see their earnest engagement with a text over 400 years old and the applications they find. They explore the dangers of jealousy, of greed, of wantonness. They write of the empowerment of women, of the right to agency for everyone, and the qualities it takes to be an upstanding member of a community.

I’m glad I made the switch and so frequently recommend this play as a good entry point for those less familiar with the bard and for younger audiences.

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