Norman Lear Meets Shakespeare in The Merry Wives of Windsor

By Steve Siegel

There are quite possibly more convoluted revenge plots and seduction fantasies in Shakespeare’s farcical The Merry Wives of Windsor than in an entire season of TV’s The Real Housewives. The jealousy, distrust, and games of mental chess that course through the lives of these merry Elizabethans would all be familiar to their modern-day New Jersey or Beverly Hills counterparts. In many ways, this rollicking comedy of marriage, sight gags, and witty repartee anticipates the contemporary vibe of a modern-day TV sitcom. 

First published in 1602, Merry Wives is considered one of Shakespeare’s lesser-regarded works among literary critics. Due to its publication date, most commentators on Shakespeare consider it to be a mid-career play, written while the author was at the height of his powers, roughly simultaneously with Hamlet. Yet others suggest it is a much earlier work, pointing to its crude style and outdated topical references—some going back to the 1580s. 

Crude style and outdated references aside, Merry Wives has always been an audience favorite. Legend has it that the play was written at the request of Queen Elizabeth I, who was so enamored by the character of Sir John Falstaff after seeing him in Henry IV, Part 1 that she requested he be featured in another play. While Sir John stars as the play’s loveable rogue, it is the women who pull the strings in Shakespeare’s comedy about the hijinks of the suburban middle class. 

There’s much about Merry Wives that make it unusual in the Shakespeare canon. It is his only play that he sets in his own era: England in the 1590s. Most of Shakespeare’s plays deal with aristocratic life or heroic figures, yet here he creates a comedy about the ’burbs. In fact, one can easily imagine the wealthy mistresses Page and Ford hanging out by a Center Valley backyard pool, sipping mimosas while conjuring their plot of revenge. 

Merry Wives director Matt Pfeiffer, now in his 25th season with PSF, gets that contemporary connection. “The elevator pitch on the play is that it’s the original sitcom. That’s definitely the kind of production I want to lean into. There’s a lot of Norman Lear in the play in that it is a suburban comedy that actually ends up getting into some very potent commentary on gender, marriage, and class dynamics.” Although the play is in five acts, its structure forecasts that of a classic 1970s three-act sitcom. 

First, we are introduced to the main plot, which is usually a problem the main character or characters must address. Fat, disreputable Sir John Falstaff, down on his luck, decides to restore his fortunes by seducing the wives of two wealthy citizens, and sends mistresses Page and Ford identical love letters. The wives discover his double dealing and set about a plan of revenge. 

In a subplot, the Pages’ daughter Anne is pursued by three suitors. She is in love with Fenton, but her parents have in mind two other choices. 

In the second act of a classic sitcom, the characters attempt to solve the problem but usually make it worse. Ford has heard of Falstaff’s plan and decides to test his wife’s fidelity. He pays Falstaff to seduce his wife on his behalf, twice almost catching them together. The wives, however, are aware of the ruse, and trick both Falstaff and Ford. 

In the third act the main plot line is resolved, the characters return to the status quo, and all is made well. Falstaff is lured to a comical nighttime rendezvous, is publicly humiliated, and Ford admits his folly. Anne marries her chosen suitor, Fenton. 

It is always a challenge to make Shakespeare’s plays accessible to modern sensibilities. Not only is there Shakespeare’s language to deal with, but also scores of references to issues of the day that have long been forgotten. Yet in every play Pfeiffer has directed at PSF, he has managed to scale that wall. “My general belief is that these plays are living, breathing documents,” he says. “Sure, there is some elevated poetry that would have been more familiar with his audiences, but there are basic observations about human experience that endure.” 

Pfeiffer’s own experience with Merry Wives makes him something of a triple threat. In addition to directing this season’s production, he has been involved in each of PSF’s two previous productions of the play. He played the character John Rugby in 1999, and was assistant director in the 2010 production, directed by Jim Helsinger. 

“My goal is to see myself and my own experience in Shakespeare’s work, and try to convey that on a very human level to a 21st century audience,” he says. 

Just as Archie Bunker is Lear’s most famous “loveable rogue,” so it is with Shakespeare’s Falstaff. But Pfeiffer had other ideas for the Sir John character. “I was trying to imagine who could come into a suburban town in 1970s America and cause a big ruckus,” he says. “I looked at Falstaff as kind of an Elvis figure— you know, like a traveling Vegas road show act—in an attempt to remix Shakespeare’s language and world into a kind of 1970s American icon. One of my core images is Mr. Page standing over an open grill with a funny hat and wearing a ‘kiss the chef’ apron.” 

Even the music is Elvis-inspired. Pfeiffer will again collaborate with Alex Bechtel on the score, as the two have done in The Two Gentlemen of Verona in 2014 and A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 2021. “Scott Greer, who plays Falstaff, is a fantastic guitar player and singer. We’re trying to take advantage of his love for Elvis,” says Pfeiffer. 

Yet true to a Norman Lear sitcom, Merry Wives is not without social commentary. After all, here’s a play about wives asserting their control over a town and the men in their lives. And then there is Anne, who ends up marrying the suitor of her own choice, not of her parent’s. “This is definitely Shakespeare’s fullest refutal of the accepted practice of arranged marriage,” says Pfeiffer. 

Be that as it may, the play is truly meant to be light summer entertainment. “Unlike Shakespeare’s three great comedies, Twelfth Night, As You Like It, and Much Ado About Nothing, which aspire to grapple with life and death in a way that’s most profound, Merry Wives is designed to be a romp. And in that spirit you want to present it in as vibrant a way as possible,” says Pfeiffer.