Page images

or from the character of the Queen; and there are some points in the play that speak not a little in its support. One item of the story is, that the author, hastening to comply with her Majesty's request, wrote the play in the brief space of fourteen days. This has been taken by some as quite discrediting the whole story; but, taking the play as it stands in the copy of 1602, it does not seem to me that fourteen days is too brief a time for Shakespeare to have done the work in, especially with such a motive to quicken him.

This matter has a direct bearing in reference to the date of the writing. King Henry the Fourth, the First Part certainly, and probably the Second Part also, was on the stage before 1598. And in the title-page to the first quarto copy of The Merry Wives, we have the words, " As it hath been divers times acted by the Right Honourable my Lord Chamberlain's Servants, both before her Majesty and elsewhere." This would naturally infer the play to have been on the stage a considerable time before the date of that issue. And all the clear internal evidences of the play itself draw in support of the belief, that the Falstaff of Windsor memory was a continuation from the Falstaff of Eastcheap celebrity. And the whole course of blundering and exposure which Sir John here goes through is such, that I can hardly conceive how the Poet should have framed it, but that he was prompted to do so by some motive external to his own mind. That the free impulse of his genius, without suggestion or inducement from any other source, could have led him to put Falstaff through such a series of uncharacteristic delusions and collapses, is to me wellnigh incredible. So that I can only account for the thing by supposing the man as here exhibited to have been an after-thought sprung in some way from the manner in which an earlier and fairer exhibition of the man had been received.

All which brings the original composition of the play to a point. of time somewhere between 1598 and 1601. On the other hand, the play, as we have it, contains at least one passage, inferring, apparently, that the work of revisal must have been done some time after the accession of King James, which was in March, 1603. That passage is the odd reason Mrs. Page gives Mrs.


Ford for declining to share the honour of knighthood with Sir John: These knights will hack; and so thou shouldst not alter the article of thy gentry"; which can scarce bear any other sense than as referring to the prodigality with which the King dispensed those honours in the first year of his English reign; knighthood being thereby in a way to grow so hackneyed, that it would rather be an honour not to have been dubbed. As for the reasons urged by Knight and Halliwell for dating the first writing as far back as 1593, they seem to me quite too far-fetched and fanciful to be worthy of notice; certainly not worth the cost of sifting, nor even of statement.

Much question has been made as to the particular period of his life in which Sir John prosecuted his adventures at Windsor, whether before or after the incidents of King Henry the Fourth, or at some intermediate time. And some perplexity appears to have arisen from confounding the order in which the several plays were written with the order of the events described in them. Now, at the close of the History, Falstaff and his companions are banished the neighborhood of the Court, and put under strong bonds of good behaviour. So that the action of the Comedy cannot well be referred to any point of time after that proceeding. Moreover we have Page speaking of Fenton as having "kept company with the wild Prince and Pointz." Then too, after Falstaff's experiences in the buck-basket and while disguised as " the wise woman of Brentford," we have him speaking of the matter as follows: "If it should come to the ear of the Court, how I have been transformed, and how my transformation hath been washed and cudgelled, they would melt me out of my fat drop by drop, and liquor fishermen's boots with me: I warrant they would whip me with their fine wits till I were as crestfallen as a dried pear." From which it would seem that he still enjoys at Court the odour of his putative heroism in killing Hotspur at the battle of Shrewsbury, with which the First Part of the History closes. The Second Part of the History covers a period of nearly ten years, from July, 1403, to March, 1413; in which time Falstaff may be supposed to have found leisure for the exploits at Windsor.

So that the action of the Comedy might well enough have taken place in one of Sir John's intervals of rest from the toils of war during the time occupied by the Second Part of the History. And this placing of the action is further sustained by the presence of Pistol in the Comedy; who is not heard of at all in the First Part of the History, but spreads himself with characteristic splendour in the Second. Falstaff's boy, Robin, also, is the same, apparently, who figures as his Page in the Second Part of the History. As for the Mrs. Quickly of Windsor, we can hardly identify her in any way with the Hostess of Eastcheap. For, as Gervinus acutely remarks, "not only are her outward circumstances different, but her character also is essentially diverse; similar in natural simplicity indeed, but at the same time docile and skilful, as the credulous wife and widow of Eastcheap never appears." To go no further, the Windsor Quickly is described as a maid; which should suffice of itself to mark her off as distinct from the Quickly of Boar's-head Tavern.

In truth, however, I suspect the Poet was not very attentive to the point of making the events of the several plays fadge together. The task of representing Sir John in love was so very different from that of representing him in wit and war, that he might well fall into some discrepancies in the process. And if he had been asked whereabouts in the order of Falstaff's varied exploits he meant those at Windsor to be placed, most likely he would have been himself somewhat puzzled to answer the question.

For the plot and matter of the Comedy, Shakespeare was apparently little indebted to any thing but his own invention. The Two Lovers of Pisa, a tale borrowed from the novels of Straparola, and published in Tarlton's News out of Purgatory, 1590, is thought to have suggested some of the incidents; and the notion seems probable. In that tale a young gallant falls in love with a jealous old doctor's wife, who is also young, and really encourages the illicit passion. The gallant, not knowing the doctor, takes him for confidant and adviser in the prosecution of his suit, and is thus thwarted in all his plans. The naughty wife conceals her lover, first in a basket of feathers, then between some partitions of the house, and again in a box of deeds and valuable papers. If the Poet had any other obligations, they have not been traced clearly enough to be worth noting.





FENTON, a young Gentleman.


SHALLOW, a country Justice.
SLENDER, Cousin to Shallow.

ROBIN, Page to Falstaff.

FORD, Two Gentlemen dwelling at SIMPLE, Servant to Slender.
PAGE, Windsor.
RUGBY, Servant to Caius.
WILLIAM PAGE, a Boy, Son to Page.
SIR HUGH EVANS, a Welsh Parson.
DOCTOR CAIUS, a French Physician.
Host of the Garter Inn.


Followers of Falstaff.

[ocr errors]


ANNE PAGE, her Daughter.
MRS. QUICKLY, Servant to Caius.

Servants to Page, Ford, &c.

-Windsor, and the Neighbourhood.


SCENE I.- Windsor. Before PAGE's House.


Shal. Sir Hugh,' persuade me not; I will make a StarChamber matter of it: if he were twenty Sir John Falstaffs, he shall not abuse Robert Shallow, Esquire.

1 Sir was formerly applied to the inferior clergy as well as to knights. Fuller, in his Church History. "Such priests as have Sir before their Christian name were men not graduated in the University; being in orders, but not in degrees; while others, entitled masters, had commenced in the arts."

2 The old Court of Star-Chamber had cognizance of such cases. So in Jonson's Magnetic Lady, iii. 3: "There is a court above of the Star-Chamber, to punish routs and riots."

Slen. In the county of Gloster, justice of peace and coram.3

Shal. Ay, cousin Slender, and cust-alorum.a

Slen. Ay, and rato-lorum too; and a gentleman born, master parson; who writes himself armigero, — in any bill, warrant, quittance, or obligation, armigero.5

Shal. Ay, that I do; and have done any time these three hundred years.6

Slen. All his successors gone before him have done't; and all his ancestors that come after him may: they may give the dozen white luces in their coat.

Shal. It is an old coat.

Evans. The dozen white louses do become an old coat well; it agrees well, passant; it is a familiar beast to man, and signifies love.

Shal. The luce is the fresh fish; the salt fish is an old coat.7

3 Coram is a rustic corruption of quorum. A justice of quorum was so called from the words of the commission, Quorum A. unum esse volumus; and, as there was no quorum, that is, nothing could be done, without him, he had greater dignity than the others.

4 It appears something uncertain whether cust-alorum is meant as an abbreviation of custos rotulorum, keeper of the records, or whether Shallow blunders here, or whether the text is corrupted. At all events, Slender, not understanding the phrase, adds "and rato-lorum too "; perhaps, as White says, from some "confused reminiscences" of the official terms.

5 Shallow, by his coat-of-arms, had the title of armiger, that is, esquire. His official attestation was Coram me, Roberto Shallow, armigero; and his slender nephew, speaking by the book, puts the ablative armigero for the nominative armiger. In Shakespeare's time, cousin was a common term for grandchildren, nephews, nieces, cousins, and even more generally still, for kinsmen.

6 Shallow here identifies himself with "all his successors gone before him"; an old aristocratic way of speaking. Verplanck tells us that Washington Allston was once the guest of an English nobleman who, though shallow in nothing else, said he came over with William the Conqueror.

7 The meaning in this passage is not altogether clear. Shallow prides himself on the antiquity of his House. Luce, it seems, is an old name for the pike-fish; and a distinction is made between the fresh fish and the salted or pickled, which latter would naturally be white. Sir Hugh blunders, mis

« PreviousContinue »