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The Merry Wives of Windsor | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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The Merry Wives of Windsor | Symbols


Horns and Antlers

Horn images, particularly horn jokes, abound in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Like most heavily repeated symbols in Shakespeare, horns have multiple meanings within the play, connoting devilishness, wildness, and sometimes stupidity. Above all, however, horns in Shakespeare's plays are the proverbial symbol of the cuckold, a husband whose wife has been unfaithful. In early modern England, as in some cultures today, being cuckolded made one an object of ridicule and was thought to diminish one's masculinity. Consequently the fear of cuckoldry is a driving force in several Shakespearean works—and horn imagery is seldom far behind as cuckolds were said to grow horns and were often represented in art with horns. Othello, perhaps the best-known tragic example, includes a scene in which the Venetian general complains of a pain in his forehead. In doing so he is insinuating that a pair of horns is on its way—because, he believes, his wife Desdemona has cheated on him. Today, horn gestures—like the "hook 'em" sign used by some American sports fans—are commonplace in some parts of the world where they carry no negative connotation. In other countries, however, such gestures are considered obscene or insulting because of their connection with cuckoldry.

For most of the play, Ford is the character most concerned about growing a pair of cuckold's horns. This explains, for example, his manic punning on the word buck in Act 3, Scene 3, where he fears he has just been made—or is about to be made—a cuckold. In response to Mistress Ford's quip about "buck-washing," Ford exclaims, "I would I could wash myself of the buck! Buck, buck, buck!" Whereas she means laundry, he means male deer, or the stigma of being given horns. In a subsequent scene, he finds himself becoming "horn-mad," a term that means simply "enraged" or "furious" but here gains an association with cuckoldry. Falstaff, ever the jokester, further aggravates Ford's fears by referring to him as a "peaking cornuto" (horned one) and a "poor cuckoldly knave." Although he makes these remarks when he believes Ford to be out of earshot, they come through loud and clear, intensifying Ford's anxieties.

The horn image is reprised in Act 5 as a form of dramatic irony. This time it is Falstaff who wears the horns—what today would be called antlers—as part of his Herne the Hunter disguise. Initially Falstaff revels in this costume, which he treats as a symbol of virility. He describes himself as a fat "Windsor stag" in "rut-time" and even likens Mistress Ford to a "doe." When he learns of Mistress Page's tagging along, he encourages the women to "divide [him] like a bribed buck," meaning one that has been poached after the hunter has bribed the gamekeeper. Thus Falstaff doubles down on the sexual metaphor by yoking it to notions of hunting, stealth, and taboo. The other characters, however, see Falstaff's antlers as something to be mocked. His failure to seduce Mistress Ford, coupled with his eventual public humiliation, is thus presented as a sort of "cuckolding in reverse."

The Fairies

In ending his farcical play with a fairy dance, Shakespeare is combining elements of English folklore with a set of symbols intended to flatter Queen Elizabeth I. In art and literature, Elizabeth's virginity was often represented as an otherworldly quality that made her not just a queen but something of a goddess-like figure. In classically themed works, Elizabeth often appeared as Astraea, the starry goddess of justice, or Diana, the virgin goddess of the moon. In more vernacular imagery, she also was hailed as the Queen of the Fairies, a title most famously conferred on her in Edmund Spenser's epic poem The Faerie Queene (1590). As her reign neared its end, poets and playwrights made ever-heavier use of both fairy and goddess imagery, perhaps because it represented Elizabeth as timeless and perennially youthful.

Mistress Quickly, hardly a regal figure in her own right, takes on the role of the Fairy Queen in the pageant at the play's end. However, she also gestures toward a "radiant queen," mightier than herself, who rules over Windsor Castle. This was one of Queen Elizabeth's official residences, so contemporary audiences would have readily recognized the object of Mistress Quickly's tribute. Fairies go on to serve as the vehicle for some verses in praise of the Castle and are otherwise unrelated to the play's plot. In adding these lines to his play, Shakespeare made use of two well-established folkloric beliefs concerning fairies. First, fairies were thought to punish minor deeds of laziness or naughtiness by pinching the guilty parties while they slept. Minor aches and pains felt upon waking were thus chalked up to fairy mischief. Second, fairies were believed to bestow good fortune upon those worthy of it. Putting these two together, Shakespeare created a lyrical set piece in which the fairies inspect Windsor Castle, pinching any housekeepers they find slacking. The fairies are then instructed to "strew good luck ... on every sacred room" of the Castle, "That it may stand till the perpetual doom / In state as wholesome as in state 'tis fit, / Worthy the owner, and the owner it."

In other words, "Queen" Quickly expresses the wish that Windsor Castle will stand strong forever and thus remain "worthy" of the queen who currently occupies it. By putting such remarks into the mouths of fairies, Shakespeare was able to praise the reigning monarch without veering too far from his plot. The same fairies who punish Falstaff's lechery would be, he suggests, natural allies of a queen known for her dignified chastity.

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