• "'Let's consult together': Women's Agency and the Gossip Network in The Merry Wives of Windsor"

    Cristina León Alfar (see profile)
    CLCS Renaissance and Early Modern, GS Drama and Performance, LLC Shakespeare, TC Women’s and Gender Studies, TM Literary Criticism
    Drama, Early modern studies, English literature, Literary theory, Shakespeare
    Item Type:
    Book chapter
    prepositions, Women's History Month
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    In The Merry Wives of Windsor, a cozening knight and a jealous husband assume without question the availability of female bodies to adulterous liaisons, revealing their confidence in the cultural narrative of female inconstancy. Falstaff attempts to write a story in which he is the recipient of the wives’ sexual and economic favors. Ford, like Troilus, Claudio, Iago, Othello, and Leontes, is all too ready to believe such a story. But here, as Phyllis Rackin has reminded us, Falstaff and Ford become, respectively, “the butt of . . . jokes” and “the object of . . . neighbors’ ridicule” (Rackin 2005: 70-1, 63). This is in no small measure due to the merry wives’ refusal to allow Falstaff to “turn [their] virtue into pitch” (Othello 2.3.253). They reject Falstaff’s story, prohibiting him, in fact, from writing it. Appropriating Falstaff’s narrative for their own ends, they turn it back on him, wresting it away from male control. The wives are very clear about their narrative, asserting, “Wives may be merry and yet honest, too” (4.2.94). While the women wish to be seen as virtuous, and therefore as performing an appropriate early modern femininity, I argue that is less important than their refusal to allow Falstaff to determine how they are seen either in the social world of Windsor more largely or by their husbands at home. Regardless of the patriarchal underpinnings of their valorization of female honor, their desire to control their narrative, to occupy a position of simultaneous merriment and honor, constitutes a discursive shift that, as Judith Butler argues, constitutes the site of agency within a system of oppression that ought to prohibit such agency.
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