The Merry WIDOWS of Windsor: Rewriting Shakespeare in the Light of #MeToo

This weekend, I had the pleasure of seeing Hamlet Isn't Dead's production of The Merry Wives of Windsor.

(You can read the full review on my Classical NYC blog here.)
I was looking forward to the production for several reasons:

  • Merry Wives is a terrible play.  But the HIDiots put on lively, comical takes of Shakespeare's plays.  Add in an ugly sweater competition to the final scene, and you've got a hit.

  • Because the play isn't very good, it's rarely performed.  In fact, the last production I saw, featuring an ex in a minor role, was...pretty awful.  (He was ok.  But, like, still...)  

  • I was primarily excited to see a new take on Merry Wives, because I'm in the middle of writing the sequel, The Merry Widows of Windsor.
 A Call for's New Contemporaries

Why am I writing a sequel to Merry Wives?  Well, if you haven't heard yet, the American Shakespeare Center is funding a new play development program called Shakespeare's New Contemporaries.

The project aims to develop and produce the world premieres of 38 new plays which would be in conversation with Shakespeare's canon.  Ideally, I would imagine, the plays would be more overtly connected, like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, than loosely or thematically connected, such as one might argue that Caspar the Friendly Ghost is in conversation with Hamlet

Malvolio (Elliot Nesterman) comforts himself
with a certain yellow stocking!

With this in mind, I've already taken the opportunity to write and have a staged reading of my Comedy of Heirors, which has twice the twins, twice the women, and Malvolio running after everyone.  It went over very well with a wonderful cast, willing to tackle the complicated plot, Shakespearean Easter eggs, and even adding in things like a yellow stocking as a security blanket.

While writing the piece, I was highly aware that in the original Comedy of Errors, even the "good" Antipholus twin treats his servant despicably.  And that we're asked to laugh at this behavior.  In writing the female version of that, I was more interested in the friendships that can exist between women, even of different classes.  Thus, much of the conflict between the Glorielles and the Dromias doesn't arise from their cruelty, but from their desire to do good for the other...whether they like it or not.

Lady Dromia of Syracuse (Cecily Benjamin Hughes)
mistakes Glorielle of Ephesus (Erin Keskeny) for her servant
The Comedy of Heirors, staged reading
I was also interested in giving the straying Antipholus of Ephesus his actual comeuppance.  The women in A Comedy of Errors are problematic to say the least.  In fact, most roles written for women depend utterly upon their relation to men.  So it was lovely to write a multitude of female starring roles: the ninja-fighting nun, the ambitious servant, the swashbuckling romantic, and the melodramatic "other woman" who needs to be rescued from herself among others.

So now, I'm turning my attentions to rectifying the women of Merry Wives.

Comedy is Merely Tragedy Happening to Someone Else

The Fiction:
The male gaze towards sexual misconduct
Merry Wives of Windsor, New Shakespeare Company, 1984
One of my major issues with Merry Wives are the wives themselves.  I have now seen the show a handful of times and, except that I'm writing the characters now, I can never ever ever tell Mistress Ford and Mistress Page apart.  They have first names, but no one ever uses them.  And their last names are almost interchangeable.  About the only difference is who's attached to them: one has a jealous husband, one has a few children.  In personality, on the page at any rate, either woman could say either of their lines and there would be no difference in rhythm or "voice" between them.

What's more, let's look at the plot of the play.  Especially in light of the #metoo movement.  Fat, old, disgusting, lecherous Falstaff comes to town and immediately starts hitting on two married women.  They laugh it off, especially once they realize he's essentially sent them the same "U up?" text message.  Together, they devise a way to humiliate him.  Except that Mistress Ford's husband decides to believe that his wife is cuckolding him and goes to great lengths to trip up his wife and catch her cheating on him.  In the end, Falstaff is humiliated, ends with a poor rhyme about the Fords having sex, and all is...forgiven?

No.  No, not really.  No.

The Reality:Weinstein winning an Oscar for Shakespeare in Love.
Gwyneth Paltrow has since come forward
to accuse Weinstein of grave sexual misconduct
A lech comes to town and harasses two married women.  We're supposed to laugh.  A husband goes bananas certain that his wife is cheating on him, and sets up means to humiliate her.  We're not supposed to worry about what their marriage is like behind closed doors?  It might be funny, if sexual harassment were funny.  It might be funny, if marital misogyny were funny.

And to be fair, in production the play is mostly funny.  The characters are ridiculous.  There's a relief that Falstaff fails in his attempts to woo.  The Merry Wives generally play everything as one big game and who cares who behaved like an idiot?  It's all fun and games and freeze framing for the end of the sitcom.

But that's the male gaze of the situation.  Everything's all right because Falstaff didn't sleep with Mistress Ford.  But everything's not all right, because Falstaff tried that to begin with, and far from protecting his wife, Francis Ford blames his wife immediately.  Tale as old as time...

But that's why we have modern playwrights, right?

Smile, Though Your Heart is Breaking

In considering writing a companion piece for Merry Wives, the most obvious title of Merry Widows sprang to mind.  At first, I wondered if it ought to be Arsenic and Old Lace-like.  And then poked about Leh├ír's Merry Widow operetta for inspiration.  But eventually, I decided to just see what would happen if I killed off everybody's husband.  Where does that leave Mistress Ford and Mistress Page?  Sitcom logic tells us that both women will just be ready to go for the next handsome man who crosses their paths.  But grieving doesn't work like that.  And for that matter: would the women grieve in the same way?  Mistress Ford with her maniacally jealous husband is likely thrilled to be free at last, while the family-oriented Mistress Page may be truly lost without her spouse.

And what does it mean to grieve?  A few years ago, I went through a rather traumatic and sudden break-up which, while a far cry from a death, nevertheless left me with several years of an ache for one specific person.  As time went by, and the proverbial scales fell from my eyes, I've had to deal with the difference between my memory of the man I loved, and the man he really was.  How much do we grieve the person vs. the idea?  How much do we love the idea over the person?  And what does it mean to suddenly be an "I" after years thinking as "we?"  How much does freedom hurt?

That's not to say that my Merry Widows of Windsor won't still be a comedy.  But it will be a comedy in despite of reality.  So many of my girlfriends in dealing with various losses - of their spouses, their parents, their children - struggle with "how long" they grieve.  There's a general idea, at least among women, that at some point we should simply be in charge of our emotions.  There are things to do!  There is life to live!  We should be fine.  Look: we are laughing, we are living, we are fine.

And then grief comes up like an unexpected storm: conjured by standing in the supermarket and buying Grey Poupon.  And there are regrets we mourn, too, even as we are glad to be autonomous.  There's French farce to be found in the dehaunting of a house.

Looking at the Old Through the Lens of the New

I'm glad to have seen Hamlet Isn't Dead's Merry Wives, all the moreso since I hope that these two plays will work seamlessly together.  It was vindicating to see their Mistress Ford slightly hesitant and smiling through her jealous husband's mania.  Even vindicating to see the love between Mistress Page and her husband.  Helpful to see that my instincts about Fenton, young Anne Page's successful paramour, being something of a rounder are thoroughly backed up by the text.  (And after the hilarious turn of the vaaaarhy Franch Dr. Caius, he may make a reappearance in this text.  We'll see!)

I don't feel that I have a hold of Quickly, Bardolph, Nym and Pistol yet.  That's fine.  I'll just have to watch a lot of Shakespeare interpretations to get a better idea of them.

But I can tell you with no hesitation that at least in my Merry Widows...Falstaff is dead.


'Cuz, ladies, we don't need him.


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