The Merry Wives of Windsor | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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The Merry Wives of Windsor | Act 3, Scene 1 | Summary

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Summary

The scene shifts to a field outside Frogmore, in the neighborhood of Windsor Castle. Sir Hugh walks onstage carrying a book and a sword, while Simple follows him holding Sir Hugh's clerical gown. The clergyman expresses his mixed feelings about the duel and asks Simple to check whether Doctor Caius is near. As Hugh sings to keep up courage, Simple exits and almost immediately reenters to announce the Doctor's arrival.

Page, Shallow, and Slender get there first, however. They greet Sir Hugh and make a few jokes about his bringing a book to a duel. Doctor Caius appears soon after, escorted by his servant John Rugby and the Host of the Garter Inn. Before Hugh and Doctor Caius can cross swords, however, they are disarmed by Page and Shallow. Whispering to the Doctor, Hugh proposes to call off the fight. Aloud, however, he hurls exaggerated insults so as not to seem cowardly. But the Doctor does not catch the hint and is genuinely insulted. He accuses Hugh of failing to meet him at the appointed place.

At this point the Host intervenes, revealing he directed each man to a different dueling ground. He tricked them, he says, so neither one would be hurt. Then in an attempt to play the peacemaker, he invites everyone to the inn for "burnt sack" (mulled wine). All but Sir Hugh and Doctor Caius leave the stage. Angry at having been tricked, the two decide to become friends and take "revenge on this / same scall, scurvy, cogging companion, the Host of / the Garter."

Analysis

At the end of Act 2, the Host played with fire by plotting to make a fool of Doctor Caius. Now it's only a matter of time before the Host gets burned. His glib and overly cheery speech at the end of the scene is not enough to save him from the frustrated Doctor Caius and Hugh. "Am I politic? Am I subtle? Am I a Machiavel?" he insincerely asks, with no being the implied answer. In fact the Host believes himself much "subtler" than he really is and exercises his supposed subtlety in manipulating others "for their own good." This smugness provides a kind of counterweight to the Host's good qualities, such as his desire to spare Doctor Caius and Hugh from physical harm.

Earlier in the scene, Hugh correctly discerns the Englishmen are laughing at him and takes what appears a clever step to stop their jeering. He makes swaggering and violent speeches to the Doctor aloud while being more conciliatory under his breath. Unfortunately for the dignity of both characters, the Doctor hears, or understands, only the insults—some of which are quite pointed and personal. A layer of dramatic irony is added by the fact that Hugh is essentially a peaceable man now forced to put up a brave front. The Doctor simply mistakes this front for reality.

Hugh's dislike of conflict—of armed conflict, anyway—is clear at the beginning of the scene, when he attempts to soothe himself by reading a book and singing to himself. The song Hugh sings—with, as always, a thick "stage Welsh" accent—is a combination of two texts well known in Shakespeare's day. Most of the lines come from "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love," a lyric poem by Shakespeare's rival Christopher Marlowe. The stray line "Whenas I sat in Pabylon," however, is from the 137th Psalm as translated and set to music by 16th-century hymnodists Sternhold and Hopkins. As a psalm of lamentation, it contrasts harshly with Marlowe's love poetry. Thus in his addled and agitated state of mind, Sir Hugh not only loses his place in the song but also mixes up two very different texts.

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