The Merry Wives of Windsor is an unusual play in a number of ways. According to legend, it was written upon request; according to a related legend, it was written in only two weeks (helping to placate the Shakespeare idolaters, who need to excuse every non-canonized works in the Canon).
It’s also the only comedy to take place in England, and an England that his audience would recognize.
This last one is important. The comedies with locales that are remote and/or exotic often require a discussion of the character names (remember learning that The Comedy of Errors‘ Antipholus comes from Greek words meaning “opposed in balance” which is perfect for a set of twins)? So that should mean that this play merits no discussion of character names, right?
Uh, no. Not so much.
Let’s take a quick look, with a little discussion from the Oxford English Dictionary (and more on this a little later*)…
- “not deep”
- “lacking in depth… of thought or knowledge”
- “wanting in depth of mind”
- “of arguments, lacking in cogency; unconvincing”
- “free from duplicity”
- “humble, unpretentious”
- “of low rank or position, common”
- “very plain, homely”
- “deficient in knowledge or learning”
- “boy, youth”
- “title of various officers”
- “book leaf” (though this definition was relatively new in Shakespeare’s time (as its first reference in the OED comes from 1589)
Also, the husband’s given name is George, as in St. George, as “English” a saint and name as you’ll find (the St. George’s cross flag was part of the English banner of the Plantagenet kings… which would make it pretty much the national flag for the period of time depicted in the play).
- “a shallow place in a river’
- “to cross [by means of a ford], to wade through”
Here, the husband has a given name of Frank. which is a Germanic tribe… curious then that an English-set play that pokes fun at a Welshman, a Frenchman, and a German group also makes Ford a possible foreigner as well (Falstaff says that Mistress Ford needs to be “Englished rightly” [I.3.46]).
what a perfect name for this character!
Even Ford’s assumed name “Brook” means “a small stream” with an additional meaning (in verb form) of “to enjoy the use of.” NOTE: In an folio version of the play, the disguised name is “Broome”… supposedly to not insult Lord Cobham–an attendee of the legendary court performance–whose family name was the homophone “Brooke.”
See a repeated motif here?
“wanting in depth of mind”…”of arguments, lacking in cogency”…”deficient in knowledge or learning”…”boy, youth”…”a shallow place in a river”…”small stream”
None of these names have any power behind them, either in size or mind.
Compare this to Falstaff. A man who cannot in any, way, shape, or form, be called “slender.” A man whose last name’s second half is as phallic a reference as possible (of course, the first half has that erection a thing of the past… but still at least Sir John had a hard-on to lose).
Now, on the Oxford English Dictionary… as I’ve noted in the past, the OED… is an invaluable tool in this endeavor. Only during my sabbatical, my old Windows XP computer died…and my new Windows 8 box doesn’t seem to want to run the CD-ROM version of the OED. Now, luckily, I have the “compact edition” that my parents gave me as a birthday present back in my English-major days at UCLA. The “compact edition” ironically enough is a very large two-volume set (compact in that the full hard-cover set is like 27 volumes), and the way they fit all that text into the two volumes is easy: they shrink the pages so that there are four dictionary pages on each page. The “compact version” comes with a magnifying class, natch. Only now, three decades later, these old eyes with reading glasses are no match for the “compact edition”… and the online subscription is over $200 a year… so decisions will need to be made.