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Queen Elizabeth I and Her ‘Merry’ Making

“The Merry Wives of Windsor” is not one of Shakespeare’s great plays, “but it’s the only one he wrote about his own time and place,” Shakespeare Orange County’s artistic director Thomas F. Bradac said.

“He usually set his plays in earlier times than his own and often in some other place than England, like Italy or an imagined country,” he added.

“When Shakespeare wrote ‘Julius Caesar,’ he may have been referring to the politics of his own time, but he was still writing about the Julius Caesar of ancient history.”

Very much a country comedy, with elements of farce, “Merry Wives” is set in the region around the market town of Stratford-on-Avon, where Shakespeare was born in 1564, the son of a prosperous glove merchant who was active in local politics and became the town’s Chief Alderman.

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A theater legend generally believed true by literary scholars holds that Shakespeare wrote “Merry Wives” probably no earlier than 1598 by order of Queen Elizabeth I.

According to Harvard University’s preeminent 20th century Shakespearean, George L. Kittredge, the story dates from 1702, when critic-playwright John Dennis wrote in a preface to “The Comicall Galant,” his adaptation of “Merry Wives”: “I knew very well, that it had pleas’d one of the greatest Queens that ever was in the World. . . . This Comedy was written at her Command, and by her direction, and she was so eager to see it Acted, that she commanded it to be finished in fourteen days.”

A contemporary of Dennis, actor-writer Nicholas Rowe, added what Kittredge has termed “an amusing detail” to the tradition when Rowe noted in 1709 in his “Life of Shakespeare” that Queen Elizabeth I “was so pleased with that admirable Character of Falstaff, in the two Parts of ‘Henry the Fourth,’ that she commanded him to continue it for one Play more, and to shew him in Love.”

Kittredge concluded: “The tradition may well be true in substance, though one is not bound to accept the 14 days.”

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