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Shakespeare play returns after 400 years for show at Ohio State

For the first time in four centuries, an early version of William Shakespeare’s play “The Merry Wives of Windsor” will return to the stage — here in Columbus.

Lord Denney’s Players, the theater company of the Ohio State Department of English, presents a staged performance of “Sir John Falstaff and the Merry Wives of Windsor” Wednesday through Saturday at the Columbus Performing Arts Center downtown.

Internationally renowned Shakespeare scholars will travel to attend the staging and an accompanying conference on campus Friday and Saturday.

Sarah Neville, director of the production and the conference, and an assistant professor in the Department of English, said there are two versions of the play –– the commonly known “The Merry Wives of Windsor” that was published in 1623 and an earlier version that contains the name of the character Falstaff in the title published in 1602.

Neville’s troupe will perform the original version from 1602, also known as the quarto version.  

Neville said scholars have regarded the earlier version — which is significantly shorter — as poorer and more incomplete than the later version because of a longstanding belief that it was not directly written by Shakespeare but passed on orally by an actor who had performed it. The longer version was officially published and became what is now known as “The Merry Wives of Windsor.”

Because scholars have historically learned the longer version first, Neville said she believes the shorter version was seen as lacking because it did not contain parts found in the longer version. As a result, no one has performed the shorter version since Shakespeare was alive, until this weekend.

Until now.

Hanna Mandernach rehearses for “Sir John Falstaff and the Merry Wives of Windsor.” Credit: Courtesy of Clara Davison

When Neville shared the shorter version with her students –– without showing them the longer text ––  she said it made “great sense” to them.

“We are proving quite conclusively that this [earlier] version of the play works,” Neville said.

Madi Task, a third-year in English literature who plays Anne Page in this week’s production, said she does not agree with scholars who argue the short version cannot be understood without the additional parts found in the long version.

“As a class, when we’re reading the quarto version of ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor,’ we don’t see a difference in story. We can understand the story from start to end,” she said.

Neville said the debates as to whether the early version functions on its own and why there are two versions of this and other Shakespeare plays will be central topics of discussion at Friday and Saturday’s conference. Seven highly regarded scholars from as far as Ireland will travel to view the play and speak at the conference.

In addition to the historical significance of bringing the quarto text back to the stage, Neville said performing the play this year carries meaning due to its feminist messages that echo those of the #MeToo movement.

She said the play tells the tale of two middle-class, middle-aged married women who outwit the “infamous cowardly knight,” Falstaff, a character borrowed from the “Henry IV” plays. Falstaff attempts to seduce the wives and trick them into giving him all of their husbands’ money. He assumes the women of the town are “easy and dumb” because they are friendly; however, the women are friendly because they are happy with their lives as wives.

Much to Falstaff’s dismay — and to the audience’s amusement — the women are anything but dumb.

Through a series of humiliations, the female protagonists outwit Falstaff in an effort to educate him on his misconceptions about women.

“The women have established that they dominate the world of the play — the ‘Windsor’ of the title. They’re in control of the action of the play, in other words. And in this way, it’s a deeply feminist play,” Neville said. “And so especially in this #MeToo moment, this is a play about women speaking back to unwanted sexual attraction that should not have been directed towards them in the first place.”

“Sir John Falstaff and the Merry Wives of Windsor” will be staged Wednesday through Saturday at the Columbus Performing Arts Center, 549 Franklin Ave. Admission is $5 for students and faculty and $10 for the general public. Tickets can be purchased at merrywivesofwindsor.brownpapertickets.com.

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