The depiction of the middle class in Shakespeare's "The Merry Wives of Windsor"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2007 20 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature


Table of content

I. Introduction

II. The Depiction of the Middle Class
II. 1. How Does the Middle Class Define Itself?
II. 2. The Moral and Ethics of the Middle Class
II. 3. The Wealth of the Middle Class
II. 4. The Self-Esteem of the Middle Class and their Lack of Respect towards the Aristocracy
II. 5. The Rise of Englishness and National Identity
II. 6. Class Synthesis in the Windsor Community

III. Conclusion

IV. Bibliography

I. Introduction

The 17th century witnesses the rise of a new social class in England: the middle class. At this time, mainly merchants and traders belong to this community. They are rich, powerful and educated. In The Merry Wives of Windsor, the two middle class families, namely the Fords and the Pages, form the head of the Windsor community and are its leaders. In order to be able to understand the position of this social class in society, it needs to be seen in comparison with the other residents and visitors of the city.

By choosing Windsor as the setting, Shakespeare links the city of Windsor and its independent middle class with the presence of the monarchy. The proximity to Windsor Castle and the siege of the Order of the Garter bring the aristocracy into the play and introduce the authority of the Crown. Due to Fenton’s and Falstaff’s presence in the play, Windsor’s middle class has to face the social class above them and the problems which exist between the two. However, it is not only the aristocracy which helps the Windsor middle class to define and establish themselves but also the foreigners in the play. Therefore, it is important to consider the interactions of the middle class with Parson Evans or Dr. Caius in order to see how far these foreigners differ from the English and how they help the Fords and the Pages to establish themselves in their society and to reconfirm their national identity as well as their position in society.

The use of the term “middle class”, however, is problematic. Since it includes the term “middle”, the question arises of what “middle” actually means, opposed to whom or what this class is the middle and in which context it has to be seen. Since the word “bourgeoisie” has its ethymological origin in the French language and generally designs an inhabitant of a city or town, this word includes the two families who are relevant to this topic. Therefore, the term “bourgeoisie” will be used synonymously in this paper.

Several attempts have been made to define the term. “As Immanuel Wallerstein explains, critics generally define members of the bourgeoisie either culturally – by their style of life and opportunities for consumption – or economically – by their relations to production and opportunities for investment”[1]. The definition which is most suitable for this paper is the one that the bourgeoisie of Renaissance England is “that feudal middle class which was neither nobility nor peasantry”[2].

II.1. How Does the Middle Class Define Itself?

Some main characteristics of Windsor’s middle class are its wealth, a newly acquired self-esteem and a newly developed definition of an English national identity. This emerging social class knows very well where to place itself on the social scale. Its members know that they are not as prestigious as the aristocracy but are, at the same time, still aware of the fact that their money gives them a lot of power and the possibility to influence the actions of the aristocracy.

Page gives a very good account of where he sees himself and the other members of his social class when it comes to Fenton wanting to marry his daughter. In Act 3 Scene 2, he clearly rejects Fenton as the possible future husband of his daughter Anne. One of the main reasons why the bourgeois rejects Fenton is that he is not a member of his social class but an aristocrat, "he is of too high a region" (3,2,66). Page reasons his rejection through the fact that Fenton belongs to the high aristocracy and he knows that he and his family are not a part of this class. This demonstrates that the bourgeoisie of that time knows that, although being rich and powerful, they are not at the top of the hierarchy.

Furthermore, Page claims that Fenton "knows too much" (3,2,66 f.). The Windsor citizen does not imply that Fenton's school education is too good or that he is too intelligent for his daughter. By saying this he wants to express that the young aristocrat is familiar with courtly behaviour and the company with the aristocracy, whereas him and his family are not. Once again, this shows that he knows that this is not the kind of people the middle class keeps company with.

Therefore, Fenton's interest makes Page suspicious. Why would someone belonging to a higher social class than the woman he wants to marry show any interest in her at all in the first place? Page knows the reason for Fenton's interest in his daughter: "the gentleman is of no having" (3,2,64 f.). Though being a member of the aristocracy, the young man has no possessions and tries to get access to Page's fortune. The marriage with Anne Page and the associated dowry should help him to restore his position in his societal environment and restore his reputation. Being quite a common behaviour at this time, Page knows that members of the impoverished aristocracy use the marriage to a wealthy bourgeois to profit from it financially. The new middle class had to defend itself against the greedy and selfish aristocracy and had to be well aware of the tactics of this kind of suitor. In her essay "Falstaff and the Comic Community", Anne Barton stresses that

Anne Page's father displays the wariness of an English

middle class accustomed by this time, both in real life

and (increasingly) in comedy, to the sexual maneuvers

and depredations of an impoverished aristocracy.[3]

A good education is one characteristics of the middle class. They have enough money to send their sons to school and get a good education for them. In the play, the Latin lesson is being used to demonstrate this education. One could even argue that it is solely used to demonstrate the knowledge and the education of the bourgeoisie as it is of no real importance to the plot. However, it shows the reader the different levels of education amongst the different social classes being represented in the play.

Young William Page is mastering Latin, although he seems to have learned everything off by heart, and can respond to all the questions his teacher Parson Evans asks him. This education and knowledge stands in direct contrast to Mistress Quickly. She is not a member of the middle class but only works for them as a servant. Consequently, she did not go to school when she was a child since lower class families cannot afford the luxury of a good school education. Therefore, she does not understand any of the Latin words William is mentioning. In fact, she misinterprets the words to be of a sexual nature. When Parson Evans reminds William of the vocative form 'caret', she thinks that he teaches the boy the word 'carrot' which is a slang term for the word 'penis'. This illustrates that there is a huge difference between the education of the middle class and that of the lower class. Rather than thinking in educated spheres like William, she reduces it solely to the sexual and the bodily.

Another feature that defines the middle class is the domain of neat housekeeping and domestic labour. This is evoked by the presence of the buck-basket in the play. Usually, women are in charge of this domaine and the servants who carry out these tasks. In Act 3, Scene 3, Mistress Ford asks their servants John and Robert to be ready when she calls them and to carry the basket down to the Thames. This demonstrates the organisation of a bourgeois household at this time; the women are in charge of the servants and have to arrange what they have to do and when. Bourgeois women, however, are not carrying out physically demanding tasks themselves.

Moreover, a brewery is mentioned in the same passage. This illustrates that bourgeois households also brewed their own liquor. Although this is not being mentioned explicitly in the book, selling this home-made liquor is an important source of income at the time. Bourgeois women at the time are not just wives but have to manage a household and delegate a number of servants.

II.2. The Moral and Ethics of the Middle Class

In her article "Gender, Family and the Social Order", Amussen stresses that "early modern England was a deferential, orderly society. There is no room in this model for the drunk, the thieving or the riotous, the unchaste wife or the insolent servant"[4]. Windsor's middle class adheres to these moral standards and does not accept those who do not respect this way of life. This becomes obvious in the way in which the wives, as well as their husbands later on in the play, treat Falstaff after having discovered his adulterous and immoral plans. They cannot accept his way of thinking and decide straightaway to correct this unacceptable behaviour. Adultery is being frowned upon and every member of the bourgeoisie is aware of this. This becomes clear when Ford announces that his and Page's wife are being "revolted wives [who] will share damnation together" (3.2.35 f.). In this line, Ford uses the word "damnation" which has a very strong connotation. It illustrates how severe the consequences for an unchaste wife are. Not only will they lose the respect of and their reputation within the Windsor community but it could even be associated with damnation in the biblical sense since one of the ten commandments tells you not to be unfaithful to your husband.

However, cheating on their husbands would have two consequences for their husbands. On the one hand, it would bring shame on their husband's name. On the other hand, it would also mean that they might lose their money as the women are governing their husband's fortune. For the wives, though, it would be a gain and a rise in social status. Mistress Ford mentions in Act 2 that "she could come to such honour" (2.1.39) through a relationship with Falstaff. She would rise into the aristocracy while Falstaff would have access to her husband's money. Mistress Page realises that knights are being promiscuous and only use women to cheat bourgeois men out of money. She advises Mistress Ford that she “shouldst not alter the article of thy [her] gentry” (2.1.45 f.), meaning that she should stay within her social class and should not try to reach for something higher. After all, they are happy with what they have got and are "not dissatisfied with the bourgeois community to which they belong" like so many other wives at the time. Moreover, this also implies that bourgeois women already have a high status in this society and do not need to strive for being a part of the aristocracy.


[1] Rosemary Kegel, “ ‘The Adoption of Abominable Terms’: Middle Classes, Merry Wives, and the Insults That Shape Windsor,” The Rhetoric of Concealment: Figuring Gender and Class in Renaissance Literature, (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1994) 81.

[2] Kegel 81.

[3] Anne Barton, “Falstaff and the Comic Community,” Shakespeare’s “Rough Magic”: Renaissance Essays in Honour of C. L. Barber, ed. Peter Erickson and Coppélia Kahn (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1985) 138.

[4] S. D. Amussen, “Gender, Family and the Social Order, 1560-1725,” Order and Disorder in Early Modern England, ed. Anthay Fletcher (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 207.


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Saarland University – Anglistik, Amerikanistik und Anglophone Kulturen
Shakespeare Merry Wives Windsor Hauptseminar Shakespeare Changing Comedies



Title: The depiction of the middle class in Shakespeare's "The Merry Wives of Windsor"