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The first edition of this play was published in 1602. The comedy as it now stands first appeared in the folio of 1623; and the play in that edition contains very nearly twice the number of lines that the original edition contains. The succession of scenes is the same in both copies, except in one instance; but the speeches of the several characters are greatly elaborated in the amended copy, and several of the characters not only heightened, but new distinctive features given to them.
Rightly to appreciate this comedy, it is, we conceive, absolutely necessary to dissociate it from the historical plays of Henry IV.' and · Henry V.' Whether Shakspere produced the original sketch of “The Merry Wives of Windsor' before those plays, and remodelled it after their appearance, -
--or whether he produced both the original sketch and the finished performance when his audiences were perfectly familiar with the Falstaff, Shallow, Pistol, Nym, Bardolph, and Mistress Quickly of Henry IV.' and 'Henry V.'-it is perfectly certain that he did not intend “The Merry Wives' as a continuation. It is impossible, however, not to associate the period of the comedy with the period of the histories. But at the same time we must suffer our minds to slide into the belief that the manners of the times of Henry IV. had
sufficient points in common with those of the times of Elizabeth to justify the poet in taking no great pains to distinguish between them. The characters speak in the language of truth and nature, which belongs to all time; and we must forget that they sometimes use the expressions of a particular time to which they do not in strict propriety belong.
The critics have been singularly laudatory of this comedy. Warton calls it “ the most complete spe. cimen of Shakspere's comic powers.” Johnson says, “ This comedy is remarkable for the variety and number of the personages, who exhibit more characters appropriated and discriminated than perhaps can be found in any other play.” We agree with much of this; but we certainly cannot agree with Warton that it is “ the most complete specimen of Shakspere's comic powers." We cannot forget “ As You Like It,' and Twelfth Night,' and Much Ado about Nothing.' Of those qualities which put Shakspere above all other men that ever existed, “The Merry Wives of Windsor' exhibits few traces. Some of the touches, however, which no other hand could give, are to be found in Slender, and we think in Quickly.
The principal action of this comedy--the adventures of Falstaff with the Merry Wives-sweeps on with a rapidity of movement which hurries us forward to the dénouement as irresistibly as if the actors were under the influence of that destiny which belongs to the empire of tragedy. No reverses, no disgraces, can save Falstaff from his final humiliation. The net is around him, but he does not see the meshes ;--he fancies him
self the deceiver, but he is the deceived. The real jealousy of Ford most skilfully helps on the merry devices of his wife; and with equal skill does the poet make him throw away his jealousy, and assist in the last plot against the “ unclean knight."
The movement of the principal action is beautifully contrasted with the occasional repose of the other scenes, The Windsor of the time of Elizabeth is presented to us, as the quiet country town, sleeping under the shadow of its neighbour the castle. Amidst its gabled houses, separated by pretty gardens, from which the elm and the chestnut and the lime throw their branches across the unpaved road, we find a goodly company, with little to do but gossip and laugh, and make sport out of each other's cholers and weaknesses. We see Master Page training his « fallow greyhound ;" and we go with Master Ford“ a-birding.” We listen to the “ pribbles and prabbles” of Sir Hugh Evans and Justice Shallow with a quiet satisfaction; for they talk as unartificial men ordinarily talk, without much wisdom, but with good temper and sincerity. We find ourselves in the days of ancient hospitality, when men could make their fellows welcome without ostentatious display, and half a dozen neighbours “could drink down all unkindness'
a hot venison pasty.” The more busy inhabitants of the town have time to tattle, and to laugh, and be laughed at Mine Host of the Garter is the prince of hosts ; he is the very soul of fun and good temper. His contrivances to manage the fray between the furious French doctor and the honest Welsh parson are productive of the happiest situations. Caius waiting for
his adversary—“ De herring is no dead so as I vill kill him "—is capital. But Sir Hugh, with his
“ There will we make our peds of roses,
And a thousand fragrant posies,
To shallowMercy on me! I have a great dispositions to cry,"_is inimitable.
With regard to the under-plot of Fenton and Anne Page—the scheme of Page to marry her to Slender—the counterplot of her mother, “ firm for Dr. Caius”-and the management of the lovers to obtain a triumph out of the devices against them—it may be sufficient to point out how skilfully it is interwoven with the Herne's Oak adventure of Falstaff. Over all the misadventures that night, when“ all sorts of deer were chas'd," Shakspere throws his own tolerant spirit of forgiveness and content :
“Good husband, let us every one go home,
And laugh this sport o'er by a country fire;