Shakespeare's Sources for The Merry Wives of Windsor
The Merry Wives of Windsor ranks next after Love's Labour's Lost, A Midsummer Night's Dream,
and The Tempest among Shakespeare's plays, as
owing least to any definite sources for its plot. It is a comedy of contemporary manners, and most of
its details seem to be original with Shakespeare.
There are two elements in the plot for which parallels can be found in contemporary English and
Italian literature. The first of these is the incident of the women who discover that one gallant is
courting them simultaneously, and their luring him on successively, only to make a laughingstock of him
in the end. A story of this sort which Shakespeare may have seen is found in William Painter's Palace
of Pleasure, published at London in 1566. The 49th
tale in Painter's first volume is a free adaptation of
an Italian story told by Straparola and by Ser
Giovanni Fiorentino, whose novels were printed in
Italy about 1660.
In Painter's story, Philenio
Sistemo, a scholar of Bologna, meets three ladies at
a ball, and professes his devotion to each in turn.
The ladies' discovery of his deceit and their determination to make a mockery of him have some slight
resemblance to the story of Mrs. Ford and Mrs. Page and their revenge on Falstaff.
'Esmerentiana, the wife of Seignior Lamberto, not for any euill, but in sporting wise said vnto her companions: "Gentlewomen, I have gotten this night in dauncing, a curteous louer, a very faire Gentleman, and of so good behauiour as any one in the world":
and from point to point, (she) rehearsed vnto them all that he had said. Which Panthemia and Simphorosia vnderstanding, answered, that the like had chaunced vnto them, and they departed not from
the feaste before eche of them knewe him that was
their louer: whereby they perceiued that his woordes
proceded not of faithful Loue, but rather of follie and
dissimulation, and they separated not from thence
vntill all three with one accorde, had conspired
every one to give him mocke.'
Each of the ladies then
sends Philenio an invitation to visit her and each tricks
him when he comes to her house. Esmerentiana's
husband returns unexpectedly, and she daps Philenio
into a hiding-place which she had filled with 'fagots
of sharp thorns.' Panthemia leads him into a closet,
and a loose board in the floor precipitates him into an
outhouse, where he spends a miserable night. Simphorosia gives him drugged wine, which he drinks all
unsuspecting. Her servants then strip him and fling him into the street, where he lies unconscious until
Another element in Shakespeare's plot, which may
have been suggested by several contemporary stories, is that of the lover who unwittingly confides his plans
to the jealous husband of his lady. This theme is
found in the Tale of the two lovers of Pisa in Tarlton's Newes out of Purgatorie, a collection of stories
published in 1590. In this tale, Mutio, an old doctor of Pisa, discovers that Lionello is courting Margaret,
the beautiful woman he has just married. Lionello informs his friend of his plans for meeting Margaret,
so Mutio is able to break in upon them each time.
Margaret is quick of wit, and manages to conceal her
lover — once in a 'dry-vat' full of feathers; again
'between two ceilings of a chamber,' and finally in an
old chest where valuable papers are stored. This time
Mutio is sure Lionello is in the house, so he sets fire
to the room, and Margaret saves her lover by bidding
the servants carry out the chest.
Similar stories by Straparola and Ser Giovanni
Fiorentino have interesting parallels to Mrs. Ford's
trick of concealing Falstaff in the buck-basket. In
these stories the wife makes use of 'a chest with
clothes in front,' or 'a heap of wet clothes from the
wash' for hiding her lover. But it is doubtful if
English translations of them were available at the
time The Merry Wives was written. A translation of
one of them (printed in 1682) describes the husband
in words that might apply to Shakespeare's Ford, as
'a person naturally indin'd to jealousy (a passion
extraordinarily reigning in Italy).' Recent scholars
have been interested in elements in the play that may
be derived from ancient Roman comedy.
Except for such details as may be drawn from
these sources, The Merry Wives of Windsor is of
Shakespeare's own invention. It is the only one of
his plays which deals exclusively with English country society.
How to cite this article:
Shakespeare, William. The Merry Wives of Windsor. Ed. George Van Santvoord. New Haven: Yale UP, 1922. Shakespeare Online. < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/sources/merrysources.html >.
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