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The Merry Wives Quarto, A Farce Interlude

Author(s): Vincent H. Ogburn

Source: PMLA, Vol. 57, No. 3 (Sep., 1942), pp. 654-660
Published by: Modern Language Association
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THAT strange dramatic compound of "gross corruption, constant

mutilation, meaningless inversion, and clumsy transposition,"' the
1602 quarto of The Merry Wives of Windsor, has furnished Shakespearean
scholars with one of their best puzzles. The garbled condition of the text
has long been considered as being the result of the "stolne and surrepti-
tious" method of obtaining the copy. But there are fundamental conditions
in the quarto which are hardly to be accounted for thus. The material and
the manner of treatment continually suggest some special influence,
some distinctive and integrated molding force other than the effort to
obtain the play by oblique devices.
One who comes to the quarto fresh from a considerable reading in the
interludes and moralities is likely to sense a strange familiarity in the
milieu. As he notes more carefully the special peculiarities of the text,
he can hardly escape the belief that they are more than accidental; they
resemble too closely the substance and method of the interlude. An exam-
ination of these characteristics will reveal their significance more fully.
That the basic material of The Merry Wives is essentially of the farce
type is self evident. The element of domestic intrigue immediately places
it. This was indirectly noticed a century ago. In 1842, Halliwell published
five novelle from Straparola as analogues of The Merry Wives.2With this
group he included also "The Fishwife's Tale of Brainford"3from West-
ward for Smelts. He did not point out, however, that The Merry Wives
was thus linked with the line of farce in English drama reaching back to
Dame Sirith of the century before Chaucer.
More recently, Chambers stated the relation quite fully:
. . its complexitiesof domesticintriguemake the piece [The MerryWives]a
farcein the modernsense;but it answersmorepreciselyto the olderconception
of the formwhichprevailedin fifteenthcenturyFrance.Suchfarceyou may de-
fine, if you will, as acted fabliau.And as acted fabliau, The MerryWivesis the
best Englishspecimen,just as Chaucer'sMiller'sTale and Reeve'sTale are the
best English specimensof fabliauin narrative.It has all the well-knownchar-
acteristics of the genre: the realistic portraitureof contemporarytypes; the
frankness,not to say coarseness,of manners;the light esteem for the marriage
tie; the love of "scoringoff" someone,and by preferencein a matterof venery.
1 W. W. Greg, Shakespeare's Merry Wives of Windsor, 1602 (Oxford, 1910), p. xxvi.
J. O. Halliwell, The First Sketch of Shakespeare'sMerry Wives of Windsor, Shakespeare
Society Publications, ix (London, 1842).
3 Can it be mere coincidence that "the fat woman of
Brainford" comes into the play as a
means of trapping Falstaff?


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Vincent H. Ogburn 655

The fact that the someoneis a man of ratherbetter birthcan only give an added
spice to so bourgeoisa literarytype as the fabliauhas alwaysbeen.4
If this is warranted for the accepted version of The Merry Wives, it is
doubly so for the quarto, for in it everything is done to stress the farce
elements. Its very brevity suggests an effort to meet the common limits
of the interlude. Instead of the 3018 lines of the folio, it is reduced to
1624. Hyckescornerand Jack Juggler run approximately a thousand lines
each, while The Four PP has 1236.
But the brevity of the quarto has more significance than the mere fact
of shortness. It is in the method of attaining this brevity that we find
the key to the purpose and character of the quarto. The compression
which is everywhere so conspicuous is according to plan. Things which
are not in the interlude manner are cut out, and things which are typical
of the interlude are emphasized and heightened. This treatment and its
effects are seen in almost every element of the play.
The first result of such compression is greatly to increase the tempo of
the action. As noted by Hart, we have in the quarto "the unusually nu-
merous gallery of actors that the full play presents, but in a much reduced
space."5 It matters little if motivation and logical relationship are often
wrenched violently, or that the plot thread is frequently broken by in-
version and omission. And if the underplot impedes the swift onward
rush, why, out it must go. The interlude must have action, vigorous and
raw. The ruthless cutting and reshaping for this purpose is excellently
shown in the opening scene of the play. Justice Shallow has the stage in
both versions. The folio gives his words thus:
Sir Hugh,perswademe not: I will makea Star-Chambermatterof it, if hee were
twenty Sir Iohn Falstaffs,he shall not abuse RobertShallowEsquire.
The quarto starts instead with this abrupt, melodramatic manner: "Nere
talke to me, Ile make a star-chamber matter of it." But even so, the
adapter apparently found the going too slow. For, to obtain the next sen-
tence, which concludes the speech, he skipped lightly forward to line 35
(though actually line 119 is more nearly what he uses): "The Councell
shall know it." The intervening thirty lines or so of the folio, occupied
with the "most pleasant and excellent conceits" promised in the title
page, must have been mere padding to the adapter. "Action! Action !" he
seems to demand, much in the manner of the modern movie director.
Accordingly, Page is introduced as the second speaker, although in the
folio he doesn't appear until line 80. His words borrow the conciliating
business assigned to Evans in the folio. Slender and Sir Hugh "make
4 E. K. Chambers, A Survey(London,1925),p. 170.
6 H. C. Hart, TheMerryWivesof Windsor(London,1904),p. xx.

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656 "The Merry Wives"Quarto

fritters of English" in a speech apiece. Shallow protests that though Fal-

staff be a knight (instead of the folio's "if he were twenty Sir Iohn Fal-
staffs"), he shall not "carrie it so away." Abruptly then, he turns to Page
with the announcement:
For you
Syr, I love you, and for my cousen
He comesto looke upon your daughter.
To which, Page, without turning a hair, responds:
And heresmy hand, and if my daughter
Like him so well as I, wee'l quicklyhave it a match.
Falstaff, Pistoll, Bardolfe, and Nim now enter and through 35 lines braid
strands of humor with ambiguous answers for their double crimes. In 13
lines more, "Mistresse Foord, Mistresse Page, and her daughter Anne"
appear to announce dinner, and allow Falstaff an opportunity to kiss
Mrs. Page by mistake for Mrs. Ford.
With such seven-league boots we simply touch the peaks of the story.
All shades and tones of difference, the force of minor incidents as they
point toward major consequences, the careful harmonizing of doer and
deed-these are not even of shadowy concern. Instead, abrupt thrusts,
bursts of speed, and shocks of surprise are desired, for they will stop the
breath and win the heart of the interlude audience. Therefore the adapter
next plunges in medias res and from the center of the play lifts six lines
(folio, III, iv, 63-68) in which Slender struggles through the preliminaries
of a proposal to Anne.
Here, as elsewhere, inconsistencies resulting from a considerable sup-
pression of underplot are passed over with a wink. The action is driven
so relentlessly forward that Bardolph is forgotten and not permitted to
speak his lines even after he is brought on the stage; and poor Simple is
quietly, thoroughly annihilated. So ends, after 109 lines, what occupies
the first scene of the folio, where it requires 326 lines, three times as
much. It cannot be denied that the movement of the play is thus speeded
up. But at what a price! However, such is the manner of farce.
As might be expected, characterization in the quarto is a sad and
meager affair. The chief figures were such as to delight the patrons of in-
terludes. Bully, roistering Falstaff; loquacious, empty headed Quickly;
the bombastic Host; the pair of foreigners (stupid, of course, in their
bungling of the language); Justice Shallow (ridiculed enough to satisfy
any "lewd" man); Slender, the rich fool-what an array for farce! But
to make sure they are fully appreciated, their special talents are played
up until the characters go far toward becoming caricatures. The more
amplified and humanized persons of the folio were evidently not vivid

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Vincent H. Ogburn 657

enough. Illustrations of how the character-revealing speeches are slashed

to little more than outlines are found everywhere in the quarto. For in-
stance, Falstaff's account of his epic ride in the buckbasket is cut from 31
lines to 13. But the garrulous flood of Quickly's speech is quenched even
more completely. Typical of her in the folio is this torrent:
Marry this is the short, and the long of it: you have broughther into such a
Canaries,as 'tis wonderfull:the best Courtierof them all (when the Courtlay
at Windsor)couldneverhave broughther to sucha Canarie:yet therehas beene
Knights, and Lords,and Gentlemen,with their Coaches;I warrantyou Coach
afterCoach,letter after letter, gift aftergift, smellingso sweetly;all Muske,and
so rushling,I warrantyou, in silke and golde, and in suchalliganttermes,and in
such wine and suger of the best, and the fairest, that would have wonne any
womansheart:and I warrantyou, they could never get an eye-winkeof her: I
had my selfe twentie Angels given me this morning,but I defie all Angels (in
any such sort, as they say) but in the way of honesty:and I warrantyou, they
couldneverget her so muchas sippeon a cup with the prowdestof them all, and
yet therehas beenEarles:nay, (whichis more)Pentioners,but I warrantyou all
is one with her.

This, with two other of her long speeches, totaling 84 lines, is rendered
by these two fatuous lines: "I sir, and as they say, she is not the first
Hath bene led in a fooles paradice." Surely this illustrates the difference
between holding the mirror up to nature, and the stringing together of a
company of eccentrics who are involved in intrigue. But one does not
look to farce for a mirror of life.
If the humanizing of character suffers thus in the quarto transforma-
tion of The Merry Wives, what shall we expect for the more delicate and
intangible qualities of poetric beauty, and the artistic in concept and
expression? Shakespeare generally contrives to relieve the coarseness of
his low-life groups so that their vulgarity is somehow submerged under
a stronger atmosphere of decency and refinement. A little of this elevat-
ing power is discoverable in the folio of The Merry Wives. But even that
little is squeezed out of the quarto. For instance, Fenton's justification
of Anne at the end of the folio, has a heroic ring and tends to bring the
play back to a world of nobility and fine idealism. All this is lost in the
quarto, replaced by these two miserable lines:
Marriedto me, nay sir never storme,
Tis done sir now, and cannotbe undone.
Indeed the whole final act in the folio takes on the color of fairy pagean-
try, with definite gleams of delicacy and beauty. Even Quickly is made
the mouthpiece of magic incantation. For her poetic part, the quarto
substitutes this horrible doggerel:

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658 "The Merry Wives" Quarto

Away begon,his mind fulfill,

And looke that none of you stand still.
Some do that thing, some do this,
All do something,none amis.
Not only is this like the interludes in ignoring everything but the simple
primary effect to be achieved by the plot, but the banal and wooden
phrasing is the very pattern of interlude style.
The style of the quarto is obviously and strikingly inferior to that of
the folio. Even more, the inferiority is of a special type-the type that
characterizes the moralities and interludes. It is stiff, conventional,
mechanical. Its phrases are stereotyped, frequently falling back on stage
jargon. The choice of words is generally bare, flat, and wooden.
It is not possible to go into this point as fully as it deserves. However,
the qualities of style in the quarto may be considered as falling into three
groups: first, the thin, flat, pedestrian wording of the interlude, so lack-
ing in the life and variety characteristic of Shakespeare; second, the ac-
tual stereotypes or counters of expression which weigh down the inter-
ludes; and third, the mechanical and obvious indication of stage action.
A few specimens will be cited without going too much into detail.
Consider Anne's speeches at the rather delicate but annoying moment
of Slender's protestation of love. The quarto makes her burst out petu-
Now forsoothwhy do you stay me?
What wouldyou with me?
The approach in the folio is much more in the tone of refinement and
good taste which we should expect of Anne. After she has politely sug-
gested to Shallow that Slender be allowed to speak for himself, she turns
to that timid wight with: "Now, Master Slender .... " And after he
vapidly echoes her, she perseveres pleasantly: "What is your will?"
Though he turns this into stupid humor, she still encourages him: "I
mean, Master Slender, what would you with me?" Such crude, bald di-
rectness as exhibited by the quarto could be duplicated scores of times in
the interludes. For instance we may take the opening of Nice Wanton:
Barn. Fye, brother,fye! and specyaly you, sister Dalila!
Dal. What, ye dolt! Ye be ever in one songe!
Ism. Yea, sir, it shall cost you blowesere it be longe!
Or compare with this from Hyckescorner(428-430):
Imag. Now, by Kockesherte, thou shalte lose an arme!
Hycke. Naye, syr, I chargeyou, do him no harme.
Imag. And thou make to moche,I wyll brekethy heed, to!

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Vincent H. Ogburn 659

Conventional stage phrasing, found not only in the oaths6 but also in
various kinds of stereotypes, helps to lend the quarto the old-fashioned
tone of the moralities. Such expressions as "pray, sir," "marry, was it,"
"that will I do," "nay, prithee," "with all my heart," "a word with you,
sir," "how now, woman," and a host more, are the very stamp of inter-
lude and morality diction. The point is not that they are unknown to
Elizabethan drama, even to Shakespeare, but that they are used so con-
stantly in the quarto as to become a sort of verbal medium of exchange.
In the stage tags and cues are further links with the interlude manner.
Phrases such as "let us about it then" (quarto, 235), "I am glad I am got
hence" (307), "I now will seek" (790), "stand aside" (923)," well, let's
about this (1297), "my name is John Simple" (292), "my name is Nym"
(374) are surely the echoes of earlier forms like these: "nede I must de-
parte now" (Hyckescorner,153), "I must go hence" (Nice Wanton, 433),
"I wyll go nowe as fast as I may" (Johan, Johan, 286), "now wende I
wyll" (Mundus et Infans, 808), "Wanton is my name" (Ibid., 76).
Shakespeare's humor in The Merry Wives is broad and farcical, yet it
is by no means all on the lowest plane. Instead, it is built on at least four
levels. In relation to the plot, the basis of humor is the confusion and
conquest of an intriguer caught in a series of practical jokes. In the sec-
ondary lines of action, the humor is founded on good-natured satirizing
of love match-making by elders, of explosive passion growing out of
rivalry, and of madness in jealousy. On a third level, that is, in char-
acter, we have these same strains of satire pursued but with additions
supplied by the personalities of Shallow, Evans, Host, Quickly, Nim, and
others. And on the fourth level, the humor often rests on puns (many un-
savory), on fantastic word twists, on errors caused by unfamiliarity with
English, and on double meaning or word play. The folio amplifies the
subtler forms such as character foibles. But this is exactly the type which
the quarto minimizes or omits while at the same time building up the
cruder and coarser forms. Such emphasis of the gross and vulgar is the
mode of farce. The distinction is not altogether a matter of substance; it
is, in fact, often largely a matter of proportion and emphasis.
Of course it is useless to look for much of the finer art or deeper philoso-
phy of Shakespeare in The Merry Wives. And yet in the folio there are a
few marks of the master. For instance, after Mrs. Page reads Falstaff's
letter, she falls into a meditative questioning of how such a thing could
be. This is destroyed in the quarto, where instead, she rails like the con-
ventional termagant:

6 Greg's list of oaths from the quartoand folio showsa con-

siderabletamingof the folio group.Greg,op. cit., liv-lvi.

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660 "The Merry Wives" Quarto

Why what a Gods

name doth this man see in me, that thus he shootes
at my honestie?
Falstaff and the Host and even the addled Quickly are philosophers after
their fashion. But most of this phase is cut from the quarto. Farce is es-
sentially a disparagement, a discounting of the serious values in life. It is
incompatible with sincere study of character and action. We are not sur-
prised, therefore, to find beauty and truth rejected by the quarto.
A final hint that the quarto was early considered in the light of farce
is provided by the title-page which gives full notice to the lighter comedy
elements thus:
A Most pleasantand excellentconceitedComedie,of Syr Iohn Falstaff,and
the merrieWives of Windsor.
Entermixedwith the sundrievariableand pleasing humors,of Syr Hugh the
WelchKnight, Iustice Shallow,and his wise CousinM. Slender.
With the swaggeringvaine of AuncientPistoll, and CorporallNym.
This is in marked contrast with the usual rather simple and direct state-
ments on the title-pages of Shakespeare's plays.
In view of all this, it is not unreasonable to suppose that some adapter,
habituated to the manner of the interlude, and recognizing the special
excellence of The Merry Wives as interlude material, revamped the play,
shortening it and accentuating its more ovious and crude appeals. While
such a possibility does not necessarily preclude the theory of a devious
and illegitimate mode of securing the copy, it may render such an expla-
nation of the quarto defects unnecessary.
There is much reason, therefore, for believing, with Greg, that the
quarto is an adaptation of an earlier version-not an "unskilful adapta-
tion"7 so much as an adaptation for a special type of audience, which
Greg also felts even going further and considering it "adapted to the
palate of a London audience."8 There are evidences that this audience
was one which was served by a school-boy company-but that is another
Eastern New Mexico College
7 Op.cit., 88, notes on lines 1436ff. 8
Ibid., 89, notes on 1473-78.

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