Of Prose and Poetry

At 88 percent, The Merry Wives of Windsor has more prose than any other play we’ve read thus far in the Canon. And it’s not even close: second place was just two months ago with The Second Part of Henry the Fourth, and that one had just over a half of its lines in prose.

Just as that play took place mostly in the lower classes of Falstaff’s crew, this play, too, follows Falstaff. Only here, he has jettisoned (for the most part) his low followers, and he aims to work (or screw) his way into the upper class.

For the most part, the verse comes in short batches, out of blue, mostly blank verse, then broken up at times by bits of songs–or faked songs, as when Pistol practically sings of his plan for Falstaff:

And I to Ford shall eke unfold
How Falstaff, varlet vile,
His dove will prove, his gold will hold,
And his soft couch defile.
  • I.iii.93-96

In fact, when the preponderance of the play’s rhymes come, it’s in the final scene, as the fake fairies torment Falstaff in their sing-songy lines:

Fairies, black, grey, green, and white,
You moonshine revellers and shades of night,
You orphan heirs of fixed destiny,
Attend your office and your quality.
  • V.v.36-39

Not exactly the height of Shakespearean verse… it’s just plain clunky. Of course, that very well may be the point. They can’t sing the fairy-speak of A Midsummer Night’s Dream because they aren’t real fairies; they’re just common folk playing roles of their own composition.

The only scene where the verse is neither ironically poetic or sing-songy is in Act Four, Scene Four, when the two married couples have reconciled and speak as equals to one another. Not only is the poetry a strong blank verse, but it’s also filled with better imagery and use of sound: “Disguised as Herne, with huge horns on his head” (IV.iv.41). The characters complete each other’s lines in antilabes:

FORD

As firm as faith.
PAGE
              ‘Tis well, ’tis well; no more:
  • IV.iv.10

The truly married pairs speak in verse to each other (both them and with Anne and Fenton), while Falstaff is almost completely verse.

Falstaff’s not a romantic figure, but rather a purely physical, prosaic figure. There’s nothing heightened about him (at least not in this play).

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