Analysis: What's Up With the Title?
If you want to see two ladies running around some royal court or an expensive foreign city, go read Twelfth Night. The Merry Wives of Windsor is more Gilmore Girls than Gossip Girl: our wives are domestic, good-hearted, and pretty ordinary.
Here's something else the title tells us. These female characters are going to be large and in charge. When the first Folio edition of Shakespeare's plays was published in 1623, The Merry Wives of Windsor was the only play in which women didn't have to share the title with male characters. (Unless you want to count The Taming of the Shrew. But, unlike The Taming of the Shrew, this play's title suggests that our "merry wives" are going to be in full control throughout the play. If anyone gets "tamed" in Merry Wives, it's the men, not the women.)
But, before we get ahead of ourselves, we should tell you that when the play was first published in the 1619 quarto edition, the title was a lot different:
Most pleasant and ex-
cellent conceited Comedy,
of Sir John Falstaffe, and the
merry Wives of Windsor.
With the swaggering vaine of An
cient Pistoll, and corporall Nym.
You can check out the original here.
What does this version of the title tell us? Well, it seems the publisher thought the play was less about the "merry wives" than Falstaff—the larger-than-life character who dominates the stage whenever he's on it. Since then, plenty of people have agreed. Verdi wrote a famous opera based on The Merry Wives of Windsor and he called it simply Falstaff (1893). In 1702, a playwright named John Dennis rewrote Shakespeare's play and called it The Comical Gallant, or the Amours of Sir John Falstaff.
So, what do you think? Is this a play all about Falstaff or is it about the "merry wives"? Get back to us on that.