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Shakespeare's Sources for The Merry Wives of Windsor

The Merry Wives of Windsor ranks next after Love's Labour's Lost, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and The Tempest among Shakespeare's plays, as owing least to any definite sources for its plot. It is a comedy of contemporary manners, and most of its details seem to be original with Shakespeare.

There are two elements in the plot for which parallels can be found in contemporary English and Italian literature. The first of these is the incident of the women who discover that one gallant is courting them simultaneously, and their luring him on successively, only to make a laughingstock of him in the end. A story of this sort which Shakespeare may have seen is found in William Painter's Palace of Pleasure, published at London in 1566. The 49th tale in Painter's first volume is a free adaptation of an Italian story told by Straparola and by Ser Giovanni Fiorentino, whose novels were printed in Italy about 1660.

In Painter's story, Philenio Sistemo, a scholar of Bologna, meets three ladies at a ball, and professes his devotion to each in turn. The ladies' discovery of his deceit and their determination to make a mockery of him have some slight resemblance to the story of Mrs. Ford and Mrs. Page and their revenge on Falstaff.

'Esmerentiana, the wife of Seignior Lamberto, not for any euill, but in sporting wise said vnto her companions: "Gentlewomen, I have gotten this night in dauncing, a curteous louer, a very faire Gentleman, and of so good behauiour as any one in the world": and from point to point, (she) rehearsed vnto them all that he had said. Which Panthemia and Simphorosia vnderstanding, answered, that the like had chaunced vnto them, and they departed not from the feaste before eche of them knewe him that was their louer: whereby they perceiued that his woordes proceded not of faithful Loue, but rather of follie and dissimulation, and they separated not from thence vntill all three with one accorde, had conspired every one to give him mocke.'

Each of the ladies then sends Philenio an invitation to visit her and each tricks him when he comes to her house. Esmerentiana's husband returns unexpectedly, and she daps Philenio into a hiding-place which she had filled with 'fagots of sharp thorns.' Panthemia leads him into a closet, and a loose board in the floor precipitates him into an outhouse, where he spends a miserable night. Simphorosia gives him drugged wine, which he drinks all unsuspecting. Her servants then strip him and fling him into the street, where he lies unconscious until morning.

Another element in Shakespeare's plot, which may have been suggested by several contemporary stories, is that of the lover who unwittingly confides his plans to the jealous husband of his lady. This theme is found in the Tale of the two lovers of Pisa in Tarlton's Newes out of Purgatorie, a collection of stories published in 1590. In this tale, Mutio, an old doctor of Pisa, discovers that Lionello is courting Margaret, the beautiful woman he has just married. Lionello informs his friend of his plans for meeting Margaret, so Mutio is able to break in upon them each time. Margaret is quick of wit, and manages to conceal her lover — once in a 'dry-vat' full of feathers; again 'between two ceilings of a chamber,' and finally in an old chest where valuable papers are stored. This time Mutio is sure Lionello is in the house, so he sets fire to the room, and Margaret saves her lover by bidding the servants carry out the chest.

Similar stories by Straparola and Ser Giovanni Fiorentino have interesting parallels to Mrs. Ford's trick of concealing Falstaff in the buck-basket. In these stories the wife makes use of 'a chest with clothes in front,' or 'a heap of wet clothes from the wash' for hiding her lover. But it is doubtful if English translations of them were available at the time The Merry Wives was written. A translation of one of them (printed in 1682) describes the husband in words that might apply to Shakespeare's Ford, as 'a person naturally indin'd to jealousy (a passion extraordinarily reigning in Italy).' Recent scholars have been interested in elements in the play that may be derived from ancient Roman comedy.

Except for such details as may be drawn from these sources, The Merry Wives of Windsor is of Shakespeare's own invention. It is the only one of his plays which deals exclusively with English country society.

How to cite this article:
Shakespeare, William. The Merry Wives of Windsor. Ed. George Van Santvoord. New Haven: Yale UP, 1922. Shakespeare Online. < >.

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