You say he has been thrown in the rivers and has been grievously [b]eaten as an old [w]oman: methinks there should be terrors in him that he should not come; methinks his flesh is punished, he shall have no desires.
–Sir Hugh Evans, The Merry Wives of Windsor
I’m so glad Shakespeare was as silly as he was profound. But, somehow, the profundity is always there.
Make no mistake, The Merry Wives of Windsor was written to make audiences laugh. To approach it with any other goal in mind would be amateurish.
But I love the fact that in what is often regarded as Shakespeare’s lightest play, he still structures the near farce within a penance rite. It’s a play about Falstaff, the excellent vice of the Henry IV plays, finally being brought to repentance.
First he is baptized, thrown into the Thames to be washed with the laundry. Next he is beaten, a mortification of the flesh to rid him of the desire for evil. And, finally, he is brought to a tree where he is tormented and mocked while wearing what could be considered a thorny crown.
Of course, this all happens in the midst of abundant bawdy humor. This is no morality play. Nor is it a mockery of the sacred. It’s simply this: if Falstaff is going to repent, it’s going to be funny and irreverent.