"Gentleness" and Social Class in The Merry Wives of Windsor


Maurice Hunt


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

First performed almost certainly on a date in the last two or three years of the sixteenth century, The Merry Wives of Windsor in its Folio text is remarkable, among other things, for the frequency with which forms of the word “gentle” appear, mainly in the singular and plural compounds of “gentleman” and “gentlewoman.” All told they appear thirty-seven times. This frequency is even more singular when one considers that this comedy is often cited as the playwright’s middle class drama, in which members of the aristocracy are least apparent. One suspects that the play may be partly concerned with describing, perhaps defining, authentic gentleness. That this possibility should have preoccupied Shakespeare at the end of the sixteenth century is not surprising, once one remarks the relatively recent elevation of Shakespeare’s father in 1596 to the ranks of armigerous gentry. Taking up and considering the senses in which forms of the word “gentle,” notably “gentleman,” occur in The Merry Wives comprises the substance of this essay, with the result that the traits and figures of unconventional Shakespearean gentleness emerge from the analysis.

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