Although this play is usually described as a comedy, its dark
under-belly of human frailties has a sobering impact.
The central focus is a haywagon, being drawn through the streets of Windsor, lined with neat and orderly houses. All the people are dressed in neat and orderly attire. On the surface everything is neat and orderly, but internally there is contention and chaos combusted by the Seven Deadly Sins: Greed, Lust, Pride, Anger, Envy, Sloth and Gluttony...and one that was inadvertently overlooked in the original listing: JEALOUSY; all of which are impressed on humankind like a genetic code
Falstaff, like the biblical sacrificial scape-goat, is singled out to bear the collective punishment of a self-righteous community posturing in virtue and morality.
Crowned with horns and bound in ropes, he pulls the wagon driven by the whip-wielding 'merry wives'. As Timon of Athens asks:
"Wilt thou whip thine own faults in other men?"This same rope encircles the wives who think they are in control, but who are in turn controlled by their husbands, who are in turn controlled by the giant hands of Jealousy and Greed who manipulate them like puppets.
The sharp toothed grinning heads of these evil deities emerge from the seemingly peaceful mountains surrounding a country-side village, whose inhabitants are oblivious to the stormy threats of the green and ominous sky.
To the Spanish and Flemish of Medieval times, the Haywagon symbolized " a wagon of nought and the greedy pursuit of materialistic acquisition, worldly pleasures and carnal excess."
The writhing rattlesnakes nested on the head of Jealousy, represent destructive forces, with forked tongues spitting venomous poison. The dead and hollow trees flanking the road are symbolic of
folly, sin and futility.
A huddled group of passive witnesses watch the spectacle of human bondage, which includes Fenton, Ann Page, Parson Evans, Justice Shallow, Slender, Dr. Caius and Mistress Quickly. The Mistress is pointing to the victim, as a lesson to the children, in inherited hate and prejudice. But you cannot point one finger at someone else without pointing three at yourself.
(Note the fat purse tied to her apron).
It is she, as the fairy queen who instructs the children in the art of pinching, nipping and burning of Falstaff in the midnight revel, contradicting the moral principles of the crucifix she wears. One of the children drags a Falstaffian doll with a rope around its neck.
From the windows of the houses, cautious faces survey the scene but none stirs in an act of salvation.
Lodged on a branch of the dead tree, the sharp eyed vulture anticipates the kill. The dictionary describes it as "any greedy, ruthless person who preys on others"'. Technically, it is a large bird of prey that feeds voraciously and indiscriminately on carrion and excrement. Because they have weak beaks they are unable to tear flesh till it has partly rotted. They usually attack only helpless animals, otherwise they wait and watch for dead carcasses.
It is a fitting symbol of this environment.
An assembly of mute rocks impede Falstaff's labor up the steep incline. Large and small, they are the counterparts of the rockhearted mortals.
Nestled in the lower right corner is a giant petrified cracked egg: an ancient symbol of lechery and degeneration.
Behind it is the foot-hill of the mountain.
The viewer's eye is swept up the incline, out of the frame, in a wide arc, and returns again to the mountain top and the reigning demons. And as night follows the day...the cycle keeps repeating.
Where tragedy is irrevocable, comedy is not, and in that context is subject to change and alteration in human affairs.
Was this the hidden hope of the playwright when he wrote this dark comedy of "The Merry wives of Windsor"?