The Merry Wives of Windsor | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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The Merry Wives of Windsor | Act 4, Scene 1 | Summary

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Summary

On a street in Windsor, Mistress Quickly meets with Mistress Page and her son William. She reports Falstaff's intention of visiting Mistress Ford a second time. Knowing she will be expected, Mistress Page decides to go to the Ford house once she has dropped William off at school.

Just then, however, Sir Hugh enters and informs Mistress Page school has been canceled for the day. She responds by asking Sir Hugh to help William review his Latin grammar and vocabulary. An impromptu lesson ensues, with William giving mostly correct answers and Mistress Quickly interjecting with her own off-kilter interpretations. When Sir Hugh recites the Latin demonstratives hunc, hanc, hoc, for example, Mistress Quickly hears "hang-hog," which she supposes is "Latin for bacon." Ultimately William impresses both Sir Hugh and his mother, who sends the clergyman home before hurrying along herself.

Analysis

William's Latin lesson appears in the First Folio but not in early quarto editions of The Merry Wives (see Context). It consists of a series of multilingual puns, some of them fairly innocent and others rather bawdy. When Mistress Quickly hears pulcher as "polecat," for instance, she is conflating the Latin word for beautiful with English slang for prostitute. The genitive plural pronoun horum is likewise misheard as "whorum," prompting Mistress Quickly to accuse Sir Hugh of teaching his pupils dirty words. David Crystal, cocreator of the Shakespeare's Words website, gives a line-by-line breakdown of the scene in his 2006 article "Playing with Latin."

Although this scene makes only a small contribution to the plot, it has often been seen as enriching the setting and providing a light touch of realism. Alice Leonard, writing for the Folger Shakespeare Library's Shakespeare and Beyond blog (2017), contends the scene "dramatizes [the] collision between natural and learned, common and educated language" in 16th-century England. Latin, she notes, was the "educated" language taught mainly to boys and used by literate men like Sir Hugh. English, the "mother tongue," is the only language spoken by Mistress Quickly—and, indeed, by most women of Shakespeare's time.

Thus, for Leonard, this seemingly frivolous scene touches on the play's broader concerns of gender, class, and nationality. Quickly's reliance on common sense and English vernacular makes her ridiculous to Hugh, the priest and Latin grammarian. But the reverse can also be said. Indeed, Hugh's use of an arcane language makes him, in Mistress Quickly's mind, not only strange but also morally suspect. Hence her constant mishearing of harmless Latin words as much less innocent English words. William, meanwhile, is initiated—at his mother's urging—into this "masculine" language of authority and argument. Learning Latin, for a son of the Elizabethan middle class, is not just a prerequisite for navigating the legal system, but a passport to educated manhood. If he fails to keep up, he risks the humiliating punishment of being "breeche[d]" (i.e., whipped or spanked).

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