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THE Merry Wives of Windsor is invested with certain extraneous points of interest, more perhaps than attach themselves to any of Shakespeare's plays, as considered apart from their inherent merits. These peculiarities resolve themselves into two groups, which the present Introduction will deal with later on. They are, first, the traditional matter which has come down to us, as we believe, regarding not only the production of the play but also the actual personality of one of the characters; and, secondly, the picture the play gives us of country life, sports, and manners in England, which we have not elsewhere drawn for us with the same fulness by Shakespeare. The first group of these characteristics is mainly debatable and uncertain ground, unfortunately so, for the subject is of the utmost interest with regard to the author. For the second, those who run may read in the play itself. Before going into these matters, let us study the sources of our text, and the date of the play's appearance. text of the Merry Wives is that of the 1623 Folio. three later Folios, reproductions of the first, require no further mention here. But we have another text, the
Quarto edition of 1602, which was reprinted (Q 2) in
1619. There was also a quarto edition in 1630, Q 3 of the Cambridge edition of Shakespeare, which was a slightly modernised reprint from the Folio text of 1623.
The text of the 1602 Quarto has been reprinted by Griggs in facsimile with an admirable introduction by Mr. Daniel. It was previously reprinted with notes and introduction by Halliwell in 1842 for the Shakespeare Society, which edition is reproduced in Hazlitt's Shakespeare's Library, 1875 (volume the sixth).
The 1602 Quarto has also been reprinted by the Cambridge editors from Capell's copy, which differs in one or two places from Halliwell's reprint.
The title of this Quarto is as follows:
"A Most pleasaunt and excellent conceited Comedie, of Syr Iohn Falstaffe, and the Merrie Wiues of Windsor. Entermixed with sundrie variable and pleasing humors, of Syr Hugh the Welch knight, Iustice Shallow, and his wise Cousin M. Slender. With the swaggering vaine of Auncient Pistoll and Corporall Nym. By William Shakespeare. As it hath been diuers times Acted by the right Honorable my Lord Chamberlaines seruants. Both before her Maiestie and elsewhere. LONDON Printed by T. C. for Arthur Iohnson, and are to be sold at his shop in Powles Church Yard, at the Signe of the Flower de Leuse and the Crowne: 1602." Dr. Farmer remarked that the error at "Syr Hugh the Welch knight" was "a proof that Shakespeare never superintended the publication of this play," which is very obviously true from other considerations.
As a preliminary to a notice of this text, the words of the editors of the Folio of 1623 must be insisted upon. They claim there to have collected and published the