From Falstaff Director Chuck Hudson
What is proper adult behavior? And what does the idea of "proper" mean in Verdi's Falstaff?
Shakespeare’s favorite source material came from Ovid’s The Metamorphoses, in which the God of Love was portrayed as a Trickster making the most proper people act ridiculous. In Falstaff ’s own words, “Love metamorphoses man into an animal.” Literary critic William Empson described Falstaff as “the scandalous upper-class man whose behavior embarrasses this class and thereby pleases the lower class in the audience…” For both Shakespeare and Verdi, Windsor is populated by childish people who pursue selfish desires clothed in the guise of proper adult behavior.
Our setting is medieval English bourgeois society where the possession of women-as-property and the fear of theft go hand in hand. Ford experiences cuckoldry as theft, raging about public humiliation, but he is not initially concerned with his wife’s feelings on the matter. Falstaff wishes to steal both the wives and the purses they control, while Fenton struggles to win Nanetta through deception. Proper and bourgeois, yes, but they are also driven by most improper appetites. Falstaff is genuinely gluttonous and lustful; Ford thirsts for revenge; Caius hungers for economic advancement; Nanetta and Fenton seek oral gratification in their kisses; Alice, Meg and Dame Quickly have a taste for mirth and merriment as they teach “the boys” their lesson. Viewing the men as boys makes it easier for us to laugh at them, for the women seem to maintain some level of control over their men even in the most dangerous moments. Everyone is outraged by someone else’s behavior, and we find their reactions outrageous!
Falstaff: A Darker Side
In all this comedy, there is also a dark social level to Falstaff. Public shaming, degradation, and humiliation were commonplace in medieval society. Non-conformist behavior was punished publically so that the person was able to return to society. Public humiliation is exactly what Ford fears for himself, and yet is happy to inflict upon Falstaff. Many of the common devices used to assimilate the scolding woman back into her subservient role to men—like the Ducking Stool and the Scold’s Bridle—would be seen as devices of torture today, but Ford could legally inflict any of these on Alice if he were to find Falstaff in the house. As proper members of this society, our women happily participate in Falstaff’s public humiliation, so much so that they joke about actually torturing Falstaff as part of their plan.
Falstaff as Scapegoat
A scapegoat was often selected to take on the ills of the society, to suffer these punishments and then happily rejoin the group at the end of their trials, and these ceremonies have been kept alive in post-Christianized folk traditions. Cernunnos is the name given to the Celtic "horned god" also known as Herne the Hunter. He resembles Actaeon the Hunter from The Metamorphoses, who spied on the goddess Diana as she bathed. As punishment, he was transformed into a stag and devoured by his own hounds. Shakespeare names Falstaff “Diana’s fattest forester,” and his audiences may have made this cultural leap on their own seeing Falstaff with horns. Ford is made a public spectacle so that bourgeois Windsor society can return to normal. Once done, everyone moves on to the economic concerns of a proper marriage for Nanetta; the opera is not truly resolved until that wedding takes place, and Ford recognizes it as valid.