Professor Beliavsky and Dean Sugarman
Verdi and Shakespeare
The Comic vs. Tragic Endings of Othello and the Merry Wives of Windsor
Tragedies share certain characteristics with comedies. Both focus on young love and conflict between families. However, in other respects they stand in stark contrast. Tragedies focus more on characters to make the audience emotionally invested in each one and ultimately, in the inevitable loss. On the other hand, comedies tend to focus more on situations than on characters. This prevents empathizing with the plight of the characters, to keep the audience’s attention on the comedic air of each scene. The goal of each ending is therefore very different. In a tragedy, once the audience is sufficiently invested in the protagonist, the play then goes onto completely unroot him and his values to the point where the universe can never go back to what it once was. By contrast, in a comedy because there is no real focus on the characters, hardly anything changes in the end and everyone returns to their initial character with few changes. I believe that the tragic play Othello and the comedy the Merry Wives of Windsor both by William Shakespeare develop their characters and change (or lack thereof) their universe according to their genre, similarities and difference both playing out in their labels of comedy and tragedy.
Throughout Shakespeare’s Othello, the antagonist Iago appears to each character as honest while he manipulates the upstanding hero, Othello. Othello is essentially a good man. From early in the play we learn that he is a trusted soldier and a loving husband who remains calm under pressure and is held in high regard in Venice. He is described as “valiant” by the Duke, and “brave” by Montano. Even Iago, who hates Othello admits that he is a good man “The Moor…is of a constant loving noble nature and I dare think that he’ll prove to Desdemona a most dear husband”(2.1.288-289). Following the trend of tragedy, the audience needs to be drawn in by these character traits and ultimately Othello himself. A tragedy requires that they relate and connect with him to the point that even though they may see his downfall coming they are invested to see it through to the end. Therefore, a lot of character development and plot unfolding is required for the play’s universe to unravel and change while also keeping the audience engaged.
This same engagement causes the audience to continue watching, even though Iago’s true nature is apparent to them, the interest and intrigue remain. Garry Wills in Verdi’s Shakespeare-Men of the Theater describes Iago, writing:
The man always seemed sincere to those on stage– gruff and soldierly in general, with special appeals to different characters. He is sympathetic to Othello, innocently flirtatious with Desdemona, supportive of Roderigo’s love quest, grieving with Cassio, above a vile use of the handkerchief in Emilia’s eyes. He is so patently benign that the first word that springs to people lips when they mention him is ‘honest’ (pg. 141-142).
Due to this perception of an honest man, the characters discover Iago’s treachery too late. Iago’s nature comes as no surprise to the audience, but what is intriguing is the fact that it is discovered far too late to help the lovers Desdemona and Othello. The audience is able to see all of the above faces that Iago presented while also being aware of his true intentions. The audience sees how Iago’s honesty led to Desdemona being killed at the hands of Othello, and Cassio being caught unaware and wounded by Iago from behind. Facts already revealed become fascinating as the audience watches Othello staggering around in desperation to understand Iago’s villainy, saying:
O the pernicious caitiff! How came you, Cassio, by that handkerchief That was my wife’s? CASSIO: I found it in my chamber: And he himself confess’d but even now That there he dropp’d it for a special purpose Which wrought to his desire. OTHELLO: O fool! fool! Fool! CASSIO: There is besides in Roderigo’s letter, How he upbraids Iago, that he made him Brave me upon the watch; whereon it came That I was cast: and even but now he spake, After long seeming dead, Iago hurt him, Iago set him on (5.2.316-327).
As all the steps of Iago’s plan fall into place and become clear in Othello’s eyes, Othello exclaims that he had been a fool for not seeing it. Like in many tragedies, the hero realizes his errors too late, suffering a great downfall, having compromised on all of his values. One cannot help but feel pity and learn lessons about the human condition and fate in the face of this ending. After so much investment in the character, it truly strikes the heart especially in understanding that things can never go back to the way they were in the play’s universe. Othello, the fallen hero, will never again rise to his former glory.
Sir John Falstaff, one of the protagonists of the Merry Wives of Windsor, is very haughty and eloquent. The “comic hero” is not a spotless hero in the classic sense like Othello. Falstaff simply displays minimal charm and worth to win the audience’s basic approval and support. Falstaff is described as a knight “almost out at heels,” and his spoiled nature allows for humor to stem primarily from his focus on his physical body, and is therefore displayed as incredibly fat, and he is constantly eating. It is this focus on the physical that creates a need to secure his financial position and rise up to his former status as a knight. To do so while also staying in character, he comes up with a plan revolving around seducing the “merry wives” of Windsor, Mrs. Page and Mrs. Ford. Ford, another protagonist, is the jealous husband of Mistress Ford. Both his low self-esteem and doubting his wife’s loyalty leads to him to believe that Falstaff will succeed in seducing his wife. Ford even decides to disguise himself as ‘Brooke’ to find out from Falstaff how his wife has been responding to his advances. Of course, Falstaff informs him that his wife has arranged to meet Falstaff secretly which enrages Ford further believing that his wife is being unfaithful. The audience cannot help but feel a slight pull of pity for Ford even though in truth they are aware that Mrs. Ford is really manipulating Falstaff in order to teach the old knight a lesson.
Upon learning from Mrs. Quickly that both women were “in love with him”, Falstaff’s ego inflates, and he says: “Will they yet look after thee? Wilt thou, after the expense of so much money, Be now a gainer? Good body, I thank thee. Let them say ’tis grossly done; So it be fairly done, no matter” (2.2.132-137). Take notice to the fact that not once does the play really focus on any of his characteristics besides when Falstaff portrays a basic value of a life that revolves around the physical. The whole point of his endeavors is to look after his body, and how much sweeter it is that it will be accomplished sexually. It makes it much easier to watch and laugh as Mrs. Quickly’s deception sets the ball rolling, and Falstaff steps into the first trap. As he is wooing Mrs. Ford- “Have I caught thee, my heavenly jewel?” (3.3.35) Falstaff soon finds himself being demeaningly transported out of her house in a “buck-basket” to avoid being discovered by her husband. He is then shamefully dumped in the Thames River.
After his first humiliation, Falstaff still did not learn his lesson because he is so focused on the physical. With horns on his head, Falstaff goes out to meet these two women in the forest. When the joke filled with fairies and mystical creatures reaches its end and Falstaff begins to understand what has been happening, he says: “I do begin to perceive that I am made an ass” (5.5.119) Realizing that he has again been humiliated, Falstaff sits dejected until Page says: “Yet be cheerful, knight: thou shalt eat a posset tonight at my house; where I will desire thee to laugh at my wife, that now laughs at thee: tell her Master Slender hath married her daughter” (5.5.167-170). Falstaff is therefore not really punished for his actions at the end and never leaves the idea that his flesh is not important. The only thing he realizes is that the sexual exploits were in his own mind. Ford also seems to have no changes stating “I will never mistrust my wife again till thou art able to woo her in good English.” Seemingly implying that his wife still has the potential to be unfaithful even after being shown his mistake, and even working together to bring down Falstaff. This is the great reveal before they all go to supper and Falstaff is the engine that drives the comedy and, thus, cannot be excluded
No matter the character, or genre each one follows a specific code to engage the audience towards a goal. In the comedy the Merry Wives of Windsor, Falstaff is tricked three times because of his need to provide for himself, and his physical desires for food and pleasure, and Ford is essentially tortured as he disillusions himself with the belief that his wife is being unfaithful. While the audience certainly connects with them through basic character development, ultimately it is the humor in each scene that keeps them engaged and not feel badly about how each character is treated. Since the play is not geared toward development but rather entertainment both Falstaff and Ford learn essentially nothing and they revert to their former selves. However, in a tragedy like Othello, characters and plots need to be deepened and invested into so that the audience can be invested into the hero Othello and watch in intrigue and horror as Iago brings about his downfall. Therefore, at the moment of peripeteia, we are left with a very different universe from how the play was originally set and the audience leaves with a somber feeling of loss. While they both contain themes such as love and betrayal, ultimately differences such as how the characters are developed and how the plot unfolds creates a clear distinction between tragedy and comedy as reflected in Othello and The Merry Wives of Windsor.
Wills, Garry. Verdi’s Shakespeare- Men of the Theater. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2012.
Verdi, Giuseppe, Arrigo Boito, Marcello Conati, and William Weaver. The Verdi-Boito Correspondence. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015.
Alchin, Linda. “Play Script – Text The Merry Wives of Windsor.” Full Text – Script of the Play The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare. January/February 2018. Accessed April 25, 2018. http://www.william-shakespeare.info/script-text-othello.htm
Alchin, Linda. “Play Script – Text The Merry Wives of Windsor.” Full Text – Script of the Play The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare. January/February 2018. Accessed April 25, 2018. http://www.william-shakespeare.info/script-text-merry-wives-of-windsor.htm.