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A FEW of the incidents in this comedy might have been taken from an old translation of Il Pecorone by Giovanni Fiorentino. I have lately met with the same story in a very contemptible performance, entitled The fortunate, the deceived, and the unfortunate Lovers. Of this book, as I am told, there are several impressions; but that in which I read it was published in 1632, quarto. A somewhat similar story occurs in Piacevoli Notti di Straparola, Nott. 4a. Fav. 4a.
This comedy was first entered at Stationers' Hall, Jan. 18, 1601, by John Busby. Steevens.
This play should be read between K. Henry IV, and K. Henry V. Johnson.
A passage in the first sketch of The Merry Wives of Windsor shews, I think, that it ought rather to be read between The First and The Second Part of King Henry IV; in the latter of which young Henry becomes king. In the last act, Falstaff says:
"Herne the hunter, quoth you? am I a ghost?
"I'le lay my life the mad prince of Wales
"Is stealing his father's deare,"
and in this play, as it now appears, Mr. Page discountenances the addresses of Fenton to his daughter, because "he keeps company with the wild prince, and with Poins."
The Fishwife's Tale of Brainford in WESTWARD FOR SMELTS, a book which Shakspeare appears to have read, (having borrowed from it a part of the fable of Cymbeline) probably led him to lay the scene of Falstaff's love adventures at Windsor. It begins thus: "In Windsor not long agoe dwelt a sumpterman, who had to wife a very faire but wanton creature, over whom, not without cause, he was something jealous; yet had he never any proof of her inconstancy." Malone.
The adventures of Falstaff in this play, seem to have been taken from the story of The Lovers of Pisa, in an old piece, called Tarleton's Nees out of Purgatorie. Mr. Capell pretended to much knowledge of this sort; and I am sorry that it proved to be only pretension.
Mr. Warton observes, in a note to the last Oxford edition, that the play was probably not written, as we now have it, before 1607, at the earliest. I agree with my very ingenious friend in this supposition, but yet the argument here produced for it may not be conclusive. Šlender observes to master Page, that his greyhound was out-run on Cotsale [Cotswold-Hills in Gloucestershire;] and Mr. Warton thinks, that the games, established there by Captain Dover in the beginning of K. James's reign, are alluded to. But, perhaps, though the Captain be celebrated in the Annalia Dubrensia as the founder of them, he might be the reviver only, or some way contribute to make them more famous; for in The Second Part of Henry IV, 1600, Justice Shallow reckons among the Swinge-bucklers, "Will Squeele, a Cotsole man.",
In the first edition of the imperfect play, Sir Hugh Evans is called on the title page, the Welch Knight; and yet there are some persons who still affect to believe, that all our author's plays were originally published by himself. Farmer.
Dr Farmer's opinion is well supported by "An Eclogue on the noble Assemblies revived on Cotswold Hills, by Mr. Robert Dover." See Randolph's Poems, printed at Oxford, 4to. 1638, p. 114. The hills of Cotswold, in Gloucestershire, are mentioned in K. Richard II, Act II, sc. iii; and by Drayton, in his Polyolbion, Steevens. song 14.
Queen Elizabeth was so well pleased with the admirable character of Falstaff in The Two Parts of Henry IV, that, as Mr. Rowe informs us, she commanded Shakspeare to continue it for one play more, and to shew him in love. To this command we owe The Merry Wives of Windsor; which, Mr. Gildon says, [Remarks on Shakspeare's Plays, 8vo. 1710,] he was very well assured our author finished in a fortnight. But this must be meant only of the first imperfect sketch of this comedy. An old quarto edition which I have seen, printed in 1602, says, in the title page-As it hath been divers times acted before her majesty, and elsewhere. This, which we have here, was altered and improved by the author, almost in every speech. Pope. Theobald.
Mr. Gildon has likewise told us, "that our author's house at Stratford bordered on the Church-yard, and that he wrote the scene of the Ghost in Hamlet there." But neither for this, nor the assertion that the play before us was written in a fortnight, does he quote any authority. The latter circumstance was first mentioned by Mr. Dennis. "This comedy," says he, in his Epistle Dedicatory to The Comical Gallant, (an alteration of the present play) 1702, was written at her [Queen Elizabeth's] command, and by her direction, and she was so eager to see it acted, that she commanded it to be finished in fourteen days; and was afterwards, as tradition tells us, very well pleased at the representation." The information, it is probable, came originally from Dryden, who, from his intimacy with Sir William Davenant, had an opportunity of learning many particulars concerning our author.
It is not generally known, that the first edition of The Merry Wives of Windsor, in its present state, is in the valuable folio, printed 1623, from whence the quarto of the same play, dated 1630, was evidently copied. The two earlier quartos, 1602 and 1619, only exhibit this comedy as it was originally written, and are so far curious, as they contain Shakspeare's first conceptions in forming a drama, which is the most complete specimen of his comic powers. T. Warton.
Sir John Falstaff.
Shallow, a country justice.
two gentlemen dwelling at Windsor.
Mrs. Anne Page, her daughter, in love with Fenton.
Mrs. Quickly, servant to Dr. Caius.
Servants to Page, Ford, &c.
Windsor; and the parts adjacent.
MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR.
ACT I....SCENE I.
Windsor. Before Page's House.
Enter Justice SHALLOW, SLENDER, and Sir HUGH EVANS.
Shal. Sir Hugh,1 persuade me not; I will make a Starchamber matter of it: if he were twenty sir John Falstaff's, he shall not abuse Robert Shallow, esquire.
Slen. In the county of Gloster, justice of peace, and coram. Shal. Ay, cousin Slender, and Cust-alorum.3
Slen. Ay, and ratolorum too; and a gentleman born,
1 Sir Hugh,] This is the first, of sundry instances in our poet, where a parson is called Sir. Upon which it may be observed, that anciently it was the common designation both of one in holy orders and a knight. Fuller somewhere in his Church History says, that anciently there were in England more sirs than knights; and so lately as temp. W. & Mar. in a deposition in the Exchequer in a case of tythes, the witness speaking of the curate, whom he remembered, styles him, Sir Giles. Vide Gibson's View of the State of the Churches of Door, Home-Lacy, &c. p. 36. Sir J. Hawkins.
Sir is the designation of a Bachelor of Arts in the Universities of Cambridge and Dublin; but is there always annexed to the surname;-Sir Evans, &c. In consequence, however, of this, all the inferior Clergy in England were distinguished by this title affixed to their Christian names for many centuries. Hence our author's Sir Hugh in the present play, Sir Topas in Twelfth Night, Sir Oliver in As you like it, &c. Malone.
2a Star-chamber matter of it:] Ben Jonson intimates, that the Star-chamber had a right to take cognizance of such See the Magnetic Lady, Act III, sc. iv:
"There is a court above, of the Star-chamber,
"To punish routs and riots." Steevens.
3 Cust-alorum.] This is, I suppose, intended for a corruption of Custos Rotulorum. The mistake was hardly designed by the author, who, though he gives Shallow folly enough, makes him rather pedantic than illiterate. If we read:
"Shal. Ay, cousin Slender, and Custos Rotulorum."
It follows naturally:
"Slen. Ay, and Ratolorum too." Johnson.