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THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR.
THE MERRY WIVES OF Windsor, as we have it, was first printed in the folio of 1623, where it occupies the third place in the list of Comedies. An imperfect and probably fraudulent edition, however, came out in 1602, and was reprinted in 1619. In this edition the play is but about half as long as in the authentic copy of 1623; the scenes following each other in the same order, except in one instance; and some prose parts being printed in the manner of verse. Much question has been made, whether the impression of 1602 were from a correct copy of an unfinished play, or from a report stolen at the theatre and mangled in the stealing.
Of course every reader of Shakespeare has heard the tradition that Queen Elizabeth, upon witnessing the performance of Henry IV., was so taken with Falstaff that she forthwith requested the Poet to represent him in the quality of a lover; in compliance with which request he wrote The Merry Wives of Windsor. Queen Elizabeth was indeed a great woman, and did some great things : but if it were certain that she was thus the occasion of this play, there are many who would not scruple to set it down as the best thing she had any agency in bringing to pass; and another many who might regard it as the best but one. If this be wrong, there is no help for it; for such, assuredly, will always be the case so long as men can “ laugh and grow fat."
But there is much diversity of judgment touching the amount of credit due to this tradition. Mr. Collier says: “ When traced to its source, it can be carried back no further than 1702 : John Dennis in that year printed his · Comical Gallant,' founded upon • The Merry Wives of Windsor,' and in the dedication he states that the comedy was written at the command of Queen Elizabeth, and by her direction, and she was so eager to see it acted, that she commanded it to be finished in fourteen days. Dennis gives no authority for any part of this assertion : but because he knew Dryden, it is supposed to have come from him; and because Dryden was acquainted with Davenant, it has been conjectured that the latter communicated it to the former. We own that we place little or no reliance on the story, especially recollecting that Dennis had to make out a case in favour of his alterations, by showing that Shakespeare had composed the comedy in an incredibly short period, and consequently that it was capable of improvement."
All which is clever and spirited enough, but strikes us as a rather too summary disposing of the matter; the tradition not being incredible in itself, nor the immediate sources of it unentitled to confidence : for, granting that “ Dennis had to make out a case in favour of his alterations," would he not be more likely to avail himself of something generally received, than to get up so questionable a fabrication ? The date of his statement was but eighty-six years after the Poet's death ; - a time when mucb traditionary matter, handed down from the reign of Elizabeth, was doubtless in circulation, that had not yet got into print: Dennis moved more or less in the literary circle of which Dryden was the centre ; and that circle, however degenerate, was the lineal successor of the glorious constellation gathered about Shakespeare. It is considerable that Dennis gave no reason for the Queen's alleged request; which reason Rowe a few years later stated to be the pleasure she had from Falstaff in Henry IV.;- a difference of statement that rather goes to accredit the substance of the tradition, because it looks as if both drew from a common source, not one from the other; each using such and so much of the traditionary matter as would best serve his turn. Their account, or rather, perhaps, the general belief from which it was taken, was received by Pope, Theobald, and other contemporaries, – men who would not be very apt to let such a matter go unsifted, or help to give it currency unless they thought there was good ground for it. . An excellent and pleasant conceited comedy of Sir John Falstaff and the Merry Wives of Windsor” was entered in the Registers of the Stationers' Company, Jan. 18, 1602. The title-page of the edition wbich came out soon after reads thus : « A most pleasant and excellent conceited comedy of Sir John Falstaff and the Merry Wives of Windsor ; intermixed with sundry variable and pleasing humours of Sir Hugh the Welch Knight, Justice Shallow, and his wise Cousin M. Slender; with the swaggering vein of Ancient Pistol, and Corporal Nym. By William Shakespeare. As it hath been divers times acted by the Right Honourable my Lord Chamberlain's servants; both before Her Majesty, and elsewhere.” We may set it down, therefore, as tolerably certain that The Merry Wives of Windsor was performed before the Queen near the close of 1601, notwithstanding the opinion of
Chalmers, that « she was then in no mood for such fooleries." And probably one reason for getting up the piratical edition of 1602 was, that the play had been “ divers times acted, both before Her Majesty and elsewhere.” Now, that Queen Elizabeth was capable of appreciating the genius of Falstaff, will hardly be questioned ; that she had been present at the performance of Henry IV., is quite probable, considering the great popularity of that play as evinced in that five editions of it were published between 1598 and 1613; that, having seen the irresistible Knight as there presented, she should desire to see more of him, was certainly natural enough : all which being granted, there appears nothing to hinder, either that she should request the Poet to continue the character through another play, or that he should hasten to comply with the request. Moreover, we learn from the « Accounts of the Revels at Court," that The Merry Wives of Windsor was acted before King James, in Nov. 1604. May we not justly conclude, then, that this was probably one of the plays referred to by Ben Jonson in his noble poem, “ To the Memory of my beloved Mr. William Shakespeare, and what he hath left us?"
“ Sweet Swan of Avon, what a sight it were,
To see thee in our waters yet appear;
So that, upon the whole, we can by no means bring ourselves to regard the forecited tradition with the contempt which Mr. Collier seems to think it deserves. The only part of it that much troubles us to digest, is that concerning the time wherein it makes the play to have been written : this, we confess, staggers us somewhat : yet, supposing it to be false, it does not greatly invalidate the substance of the tradition; and we are well assured that the play, as published in 1602, might well enough have been written by Shakespeare within the time alleged. The question, therefore, turns somewhat upon the point, whether that edition was from a correct copy of an imperfect and unfinished play, a sort of rough draught hastily gotten up for the occasion, or from a false and mutilated copy stolen from the actors' lips by incompetent reporters, to gratify the cupidity of unscrupulous publishers. This question we have not room to discuss; and, if we had, the long discussions, indulged in by former critics to little purpose, shut us up from all hope of being able ever to determine it. We may remark, however, there can be little doubt that the edition of 1602 was fraudulent and surreptitious; though this need not infer but that it may have been from a faithful copy fraudulently obtained for the press. Yet there are some things in it, such as the printing of prose so as to look like verse, which go to show that it was partly taken down as spoken, and partly made up from memory; the pirates ap