The earliest confirmed performance of The Merry Wives of Windsor took place on 4 November 1604 at Whitehall Palace. The play may have also been performed for Elizabeth I at the Garter Feast on 23rd April 1597, and possibly in January 1593 at Windsor castle for Elizabeth I and her court. The Merry Wives of Windsor has references to Windsor Castle, the Order of the Garter, and the Order’s motto Honi soit qui mal y pense (Shame on him who thinks evil of it). Mistress Quickly (the ‘Fairy Queen’) describes the Order and its ceremonies in detail as she tells her fairies to search the Castle and bless its rooms:
Search Windsor Castle, elves, within and out.
Strew good luck, aufs, on every sacred room,
That it may stand till the perpetual doom
In state as wholesome as in state ’tis fit,
Worthy the owner, and the owner it.
The several chairs of order look you scour
With juice of balm and every precious flower:
Each fair instalment, coat, and several crest,
With loyal blazon, evermore be blest!
And nightly, meadow-fairies, look you sing,
Like to the Garter’s compass, in a ring:
The expressure that it bears, green let it be,
More fertile-fresh than all the field to see;
And ‘Honi soit qui mal y pense’ write
In emerald tufts, flowers purple, blue and white;
Let sapphire, pearl and rich embroidery,
Buckled below fair knighthood’s bending knee.
(Act 5 Scene 5)
In fact, it is sometimes thought that Shakespeare wrote The Merry Wives of Windsor at the request of Elizabeth I. According to a well-known story, the queen had so enjoyed watching Falstaff and the other characters in Henry IV Part 2 that she asked for another play featuring Falstaff in love. In Shakespeare’s new comedy, Falstaff is the ludicrous suitor of two married women who are both so insulted they decide to take revenge on him. The play was performed numerous times at court, including a possible performance during the Garter Feast Elizabeth I attended in 1597. It was popular even into the early years of James I’s reign, when it was performed at the Banqueting Hall at Whitehall in 1604. The title page of the first quarto of The Merry Wives of Windsor, printed in 1602, described the play as ‘a most pleasant and excellent conceited comedy’:
A most pleasant and excellent conceited comedy, of Sir John Falstaff, and the merry wives of Windsor. Intermixed with sundry variable and pleasing humours, of Sir Hugh the Welch knight, Justice Shallow, and his wise cousin M. Slender. With the swaggering vain of Ancient Pistol, and Corporal Nym. By William Shakespeare. As it hath been diverse times acted by the Right Honourable my Lord Chamberlain’s servants. Both before her Majesty, and elsewhere.
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