Falstaff's False Staff: "Jonsonian" Asexuality in The Merry Wives of Windsor


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

The Folger Shakespeare Theater's use of a female actor as Falstaff in its 1990 production of The Merry Wives of Windsor, besides its witty reversal of the Elizabethan convention of all male casting, had this to recommend it: the "distaff'' Falstaff, an embodiment of sexlessness, confronted audiences with the curious absence of regenerative possibility which distinguishes Merry Wives from "Shakespearean" romantic comedy. Unlike, for example, A Midsummer Night's Dream, which creates a world capable of transformation and renewal by means of a sexual energy that dominates language and fuels action, The Merry Wives of Windsor presents a static community for which transformation is a threat, language lacks creativity, and a dearth of real sexual desire parallels the characters' linguistic barrenness. In bourgeois Windsor, the unsavory characters- Ford and Falstaff-are impelled by jealousy or greed masquerading as sexuality, while the heroes-Mistresses Ford and Page--are motivated to protect rather than change their world by frustrating Ford's and Falstaff's damaging vices and expelling them from the community. The play's language correspondingly is not imbued with the poetic power to transform; it serves instead repetitively and prosaically to express the villains' unchanging humors, or alternatively is employed medicinally by the heroes to deflate those humors. The consequent absence of transformative and regenerative possibility in both plot and language marks Merry Wives as an early experiment in what we now call Jonsonian humors comedy. This characteristic demonstrates Shakespeare's early participation in the fashioning of that genre.1

Comparative Drama is carried by JSTOR and Project MUSE.