The Merry Wives of Windsor Digital Study Guide

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THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR

Study Guide written by Luisa Appolloni, Education Associate - Enrichment Focus, Education Department, Stratford Festival

INTRODUCTION TO THE GUIDE

"I do begin to perceive that I am made into an ass."

- Sir John Falstaff, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Act V, scene 5

Love, greed, jealousy, and trickery abound in this comic play. The want of money, the preservation of virtue and status, and the attainment of true love drive three spirited women to plot hilarious deceptions using extreme measures. That these wives and daughter defy patriarchal authority is to be lauded, particularly as it was written at a time when women in Elizabethan society had little or no legal rights or independence. However, this light-hearted comedy provides a wonderful opportunity for us to view it today with a more critical and discerning eye, as it does deal with serious issues. Students will recognise and be able to examine the moral implications of bullying, misogyny and mistrust of outsiders, and how these issues resonate in the twenty-first century.

Content advisory for students

Contains some mature themes, including sexual innuendo.

Curriculum Connections

Grades 7 +

  • Global Competencies:
    • Creativity
    • Learning to Learn/Self-Awareness
    • Communication
    • Collaboration
    • Critical Thinking
  • Grades 7-12:
    • Language/English (listening to understand, speaking to communicate, reading for meaning)
    • Drama, Music, Visual Art
  • Grades 7-12:
    • Health and PE (conflict resolution, harassment, bullying, care for self and others, stereotypes and assumptions)
  • Grade 11:
    • Introduction to Anthropology, Psychology and Sociology (explaining social behaviour)
    • Gender Studies (power relations, sex and gender)
    • Equity, Diversity and Social Justice (the social construction of identity, power and relations)
    • Dynamics of Human Relationships (self-concept and healthy relationships, making decisions)
  • Grade 12:
    • Human Development throughout the Lifespan (factors affecting social-emotional development)
    • Equity and Social Justice: From Theory to Practice (power relations)
    • World History Since the Fifteenth Century (social, economic and political context)

Themes and Motifs

  • Issues of Society and Class: Marriage and Wealth; Mistrust of Outsiders; Relationships
  • Power and Gender: Marriage, Love and Courtship; Misogyny and Female Power; Language and Communication; Vice and Virtue
  • Trust and Deceit: Humiliation and Shame; Lies and Disguise; Jealousy; Revenge

A Perspective on the Piece from the Director

With Antoni Cimolino

Why did you choose to direct this production? What excites you most about it?
I love this play. It's a play in which the community is the hero, and balance is found because of the voices of all the unusual people in that community. So there's a lot of oddballs, but together they make a balanced society. It's especially led by the two women - Mistress Ford and Mistress Page - who are extraordinarily forward not only for their time, but for all time. They are approached, and in some ways insulted, by a person who is outside of their class, above their class, who fully expects that the class difference will make them want to violate all of their relationships and their honour. Instead of simply reporting the situation to somebody else, such as their husbands, they take matters into their own hands, turning the tables on the aggressor and setting him firmly in his place.

So the spirit of playfulness, joy, a healthy ability to set matters right, is driven by the women but is supported by all of the community except for Ford. Unlike such plays as Othello or Romeo and Juliet, in which jealousy and financial expectations bring horrible outcomes for the characters, this one ends happily.

Where do you think the two women's confidence, strength and joy come from? Why are they able to do what they do? How might we recognize them in ourselves or in the women we know today?
They're very healthy. They're very proud. They're proud of their small town. They're proud of their lives. They're proud of their mates, even if at times one of them gets crotchets in his head, and because they love them so much, they're able to see them, warts and all, and not settle for the warts: they insist on banging off the rough edges that shouldn't be there. Mistress Ford acknowledges her husband's jealousy and decides to do something about it, so there's a kind of positive quality to them, a sense of wit to them, a sense of joy. That spirit of comedy and joy that they embrace is able to overcome and correct faults which, in another world, could lead to a tragedy.

I know it is still early days, but would you share a little bit about your vision for the piece? Anything you can share about your particular approach or the production's design would be much appreciated.
I wanted to move it forward in time, because I wanted it to be more accessible to us. Of course, it works in its period, and these women would be extraordinary in any era, but I wanted to move it as far forward as I could, provided that the small-town nature of the community would still make sense and that the bravery of these two women and the risks that they take would still be risks. I felt that if we moved it right into the present, that sense of the small town would be diminished by things like international airplane travel and everything from the Internet through to a much more progressive view of women. So I decided to set it in 1953 - and I'm constantly thinking about Stratford, Ontario, where cosmopolitan influences came upon this little town. On the one hand, you had the aristocrats coming from Toronto, New York and London, with ascots and pretentions and a belief that anyone here would fall to their feet, and yet you had such spirit in this small town, such inventiveness, such pride and resourcefulness. So I'm imagining that this world exists in a town somewhat like Stratford, Ontario, in 1953. It's both like our time and yet not quite like our time.

What do you hope audience members will experience during the show? What questions do you want them to leave with?
The primary thing is that it's joyous. It's fun. It's a romp. It has the heart of a comedy. There are different issues that come up: there are financial considerations when you're marrying off a daughter, money changes hands quite regularly between Falstaff and Ford, and there's a certain amount of revenge sought by these women against the person who has insulted them. But overall, it's the comedy that carries the day, so I'd like audiences to think a little bit about how we govern our own lives and whether we take the short or the long view of things. Are we doing things for financial considerations when we really should be doing them for our heart and our family and our joy and our town? I think that's what it really asks us to do: to go to the big happy picture and not get stuck in the little financial weeds.

PRE-SHOW DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

Ask students:

  • How would you define a comedy or a farce?
  • What elements of comedy and/or farce do you look for in a production? Why?
  • How would you define misogyny?
  • In what ways have issues of gender equity changed since Shakespeare wrote this play? Are there still similarities in terms of gendered expectations and roles?
  • What are the qualities of a good relationship?
  • What makes pranks and jokes humorous? What is the best prank you ever did or saw done? Have you ever been the recipient of a prank or joke? How did it make you feel? Can a prank or joke teach a lesson? What happens when the joke goes too far? What is the difference between bullying and a prank?
  • What do you expect to see on stage at the Stratford Festival? Make a list of predictions about what you expect. Save the list and, after the trip, revisit your predictions to see how they compared to the actual production.

WARM-UP EXERCISE: THROWDOWN!

Objective:

This introductory exercise provides students with an opportunity to play, collaborate and imagine the world of the play through the text.

Materials:

Directions:

1. Give each student a line and have them walk around the room, reading their line aloud several times.

2. Once they are comfortable with the text, invite them each to discuss with a partner what they think each of their lines mean.

3. Have students continue walking around the room, this time saying their lines to one another as they pass in various ways: as if they are at a cocktail party telling jokes to one another; as if they are 1930s newspaper sellers yelling out their headlines; as if they are at their favourite sports game rooting for their team; as if they are three-year-olds at a playground; as if they are spies, giving each other coded messages; as if they are singing opera; etc.

4. Have the students suggest other scenarios. Encourage them to be creative and just have fun with the lines!

5. Have them come up with their own Shakespearean throwdown and share it with the class.

Debriefing Questions:

  • Based on the lines you have heard, what do you think the play is about?
  • Which ones really stood out and made a strong impression on you? Why?
  • Look up some of the more difficult or rarely used words today and find a definition for each in at least three different dictionaries. Does the word have multiple meanings, or a possible meaning that is different from what you imagined? If so, in what ways does that change your understanding of the story?
  • What kinds of insults do we use today? How are they similar to or different from Shakespeare's lines?

EXERCISE: SCENE IMPROV!

Objective:

This exercise will enable students to explore the plotline in tandem with certain lines from the text, using an active and engaging approach.

Materials:

  • Handout: Scene Improv!
  • A space in which to move

Directions:

  1. Tell students they are now going to improvise the story of the play they are coming back to see later.
  1. Define "improvisation" (creating or performing something spontaneously without much or any practice or script).
  1. Divide students into four groups. There should be at least five to eight students per group.
  1. Hand out two scene cards per group.
  1. Groups work independently to improvise their scenes on the cards for 10 minutes, using the spoken lines in that scene as a prompt to help them develop the scene. Everyone will be assigned a role as a character doing the improvisation, or they may play an inanimate object or be the one reading the scene card to the audience (If you prefer, the teacher may read the scene card.) NOTE: Some scene cards may need to be broken up into several smaller scenes to tell the story. Encourage the students to do so if they wish.
  1. The teacher may travel around the room and coach the students. For example:
  1. After 10 minutes, call the students back. Have them sit facing the playing area.
  1. Students present their improvised scenes in story order. The teacher or assigned narrator reads the scene card before the students improvise their scenes.
  1. After the scene improvisations, bring the students together to discuss the relationships between the characters and the discoveries they made while doing this activity.

Debriefing Questions:

  • Did your dramatic exploration of the story communicate information about certain themes or issues in the play? What is your impression about the plotline: do you feel it will be straightforward or otherwise?
  • Did you find the language accessible once you got the scene on its feet? Why or why not?
  • Does the comic character of Falstaff draw you in? Why or why not?
  • Written four hundred years ago, this play centres on public displays of shame and humiliation. How is this similar or different in our society today?

POST-SHOW DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

Ask students:

  • Do you have sympathy for Falstaff? Why or why not?
  • How did the Mistresses Ford, Page and Anne shape your understanding of the play?
  • In what ways did they find power? Did their behaviour/actions surprise you? Why or why not?
  • Shakespeare gives each character a distinctive voice or speech pattern. How did these contribute to the comedy? Which characters were the most amusing? Why?
  • Various characters throughout the play are shamed and humiliated. Was this "reasonable" punishment, or did it go too far? Explain.
  • If you were to rewrite the play, what elements of the story would you keep and what others would you take out? Why?
  • How did the production elements (costumes, lights, music and set) affect your experience?
  • Malapropism is accidentally using a word in place of one that sounds similar. What makes malapropism humorous? Are there examples today of people using malapropisms in social media, television, film or politics?

CULMINATING EXERCISE: FALSTAFF AND THE LAUNDRY BASKET

Objective:

Students will use a variety of acting approaches to explore and depict characters in a given scene with a focus on analysing and communicating the meaning of the work.

Materials:

  • Copies of excerpt from Act III, scene 3
  • A space in which to move

Directions:

1. Hand out copies of Act III, scene 3 (excerpt): Falstaff and the laundry basket.

2. Stand in a circle and read aloud, with each person taking one line.

3. Review all unfamiliar words and phrases, and check for understanding.

4. Divide the class into at least two groups.

You will need the following characters:

  • Mistress Page
  • Mistress Ford
  • Servants: Robert and John (no spoken lines)
  • Robin
  • Falstaff
  • Ford
  • and his friends: Page, Doctor Caius and Sir Hugh Evans (no spoken lines).

Note: if you want to add more non-speaking servants to help carry out the laundry basket, feel free to do so.

5. Each group will read the text together several times.

6. Rehearse the scene and encourage the students to experiment with volume, tone, rate and how each character reacts as the scene unfolds.

7. After the final presentation, have the students discuss their findings.

Debriefing Questions:

  • Where did your sympathies lie as you were playing the scene?
  • Shakespeare wrote at a time when women were subject to strict laws and faced severe repercussions if they did not obey their husbands. Why do you think Shakespeare chose strong-willed and clever women to drive this story?
  • Which spouse has more power in the Fords' relationship? Why?
  • Do you think that punishing Falstaff for writing love letters in hopes of getting Mistresses Ford and Page's money is justified and fitting? Explain.

SOURCES & RESOURCES

SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY FOR THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR STUDY GUIDE

 

SHAKESPEARE: HISTORY, CRITICISM and BIOGRAPHY 

Beckerman, Bernard. Shakespeare and the Globe, 1599-1609. 1962.

Bentley, G.E. Shakespeare: A Biographical Handbook. 1951.

Boyce, Charles. Shakespeare A to Z. 1990.

Brown, Ivor. Shakespeare and the Actors. 1970.

Brown, John Russell. Shakespeare and his Theatre. 1993.

Burgess, Anthony. Shakespeare. 1970.

Campbell, Oscar James, ed. The Reader's Encyclopedia of Shakespeare. 1966.

Dobson, Michael, ed. The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare. 2001.

Epstein, Norrie. The Friendly Shakespeare. 1992.

Frye, R. M. Shakespeare's Life and Times: a Pictorial Record. 1968.

Gurr, Andrew. The Shakespearean Stage, 1574-1642. 1980.

Hodges, C. Walter. Shakespeare and the Players. 1948.

Muir, Kenneth and Samuel Schoenbaum, eds. A New Companion to Shakespeare Studies, 1985.

Nagler, A. M. Shakespeare's Stage. 1985.

Schoenbaum, Samuel. William Shakespeare: A Documentary Life. 1975.

Taylor, Gary. Reinventing Shakespeare. 1989.

Thomson, Peter. Shakespeare's Theatre. 1983.

Tillyard, E. M. W. The Elizabethan World Picture. 1943.

Wells, Stanley, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare Studies. 1986.

 

TEACHING SHAKESPEARE

Asimov, Isaac. Asimov's Guide to Shakespeare. New York, 1970.

Edens, Walter, et al. Teaching Shakespeare. New Jersey: Princeton UP, 1977.

Gibson, Rex. Secondary School Shakespeare. Cambridge: 1990.

Gibson, Rex. Stepping into Shakespeare. Cambridge: 2000.

Gibson, Rex. Teaching Shakespeare. 1998.

Gibson, Rex and Field-Pickering, Janet. Discovering Shakespeare's Language. Cambridge: 1998.

O'Brien, Veronica. Teaching Shakespeare. London, 1982.

Stredder, James. The North Face of Shakespeare: Activities for Teaching the Plays. Cambridge, 2009          

 

THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR

Shakespeare, William. The Merry Wives of Windsor. The Arden Shakespeare 2000.

Shakespeare, William. The Merry Wives of Windsor. Cambridge School Shakespeare. 2013.

Shakespeare, William. The Merry Wives of Windsor. The Folger Shakespeare Library, 2009.

Shakespeare, William. The Merry Wives of Windsor. Oxford School Shakespeare - Oxford University Press, 2008.

Shakespeare, William. The Merry Wives of Windsor. The Pelican Shakespeare (Penguin Random House), 2002.

Shakespeare, William. The Merry Wives of Windsor. The Royal Shakespeare Company (The Modern Library Classics), 2011.

 

ONLINE RESOURCES

BookRags.com Homepage http://www.bookrags.com

Mr. William Shakespeare and the Internet https://archive.is/shakespeare.palomar.edu

MIT Global Shakespeares http://globalshakespeares.mit.edu/europe/#

MIT Shakespeare Homepage: The Complete Works of William Shakespeare http://shakespeare.mit.edu/

Shakespeare's Life and Times web.uvic.ca/shakespeare/Library/SLT/intro/introsubj.html

Shakespeare Online, www.shakespeare-online.com

Movie Review Query Engine www.mrqe.com

Internet Movie Database www.imdb.com

 

THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR ON FILM, VIDEO and DVD

1982 (UK) The Merry Wives of Windsor. Directed by David Hugh Jones; starring Alan Bennett, Richard Griffiths, Judy Davis and Prunella Scales.

2011 (UK) The Globe Theatre: The Merry Wives of Windsor. Directed by Christopher Luscombe; starring Christopher Benjamin, Serena Davis and Sarah Woodward.

2018 (UK) RSC LIVE: The Merry Wives of Windsor. Directed by Fiona Laird; starring David Troughton, Beth Cordingly and Rebecca Lacey.

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