I know, I couldn't believe it either.The Merry Wives of Windsor
. There's a young woman, Anne Page, and she's quite a catch, so she has various suitors trailing around after her. Her parents favour one each, she favours another, the usual story. At the end of the play, there's a masque. Anne is going to be in it, as are several boys, all dressed up as fairies, and all masked. I think Anne's little brother, who was making an awful mess of his Latin earlier, is in as well.
Nan Page my daughter, and my little son,
And three or four more of their growth, we'll dress
Like urchins, ouphes, and fairies, green and white, (IV.4)
Page favours Slender, and checks the arrangement with him.
Come, come; we'll couch i' th' Castle ditch till we see the light of our fairies. Remember, son Slender, my daughter.
Ay, forsooth; I have spoke with her, and we have a nay-word how to know one another. I come to her in
white and cry 'mum'; she cries 'budget,' and by that we know one another.
That's good too; but what needs either your mum or her budget? The white will decipher her well enough.
It hath struck ten o'clock. (V.2)
What could possibly go wrong with that? Meanwhile, Mistress Page tells Dr Caius, "Master Doctor, my daughter is in green; when you see your time, take her by the hand, away with her to the deanery, and dispatch it quickly." (V.3)
Anne Page is clearly in love with Fenton, and it's fairly obvious that they're going to end up together: they're the young lovers, the other two suitors are stupid old farts, this is the law of comedy. They don't even discuss it, but you fully expect them to sort things out vis-a-vis sauntering off after the masque to be wed. So you have all the pleasures of anticipation. You know that Anne Page is going to be in amongst a group of boys, all dressed up as fairies, and that two men are going to end up with the wrong person. Since no alternative wives have been proposed for Caius and Slender, no ex-fiancees lurking in the background as in Measure for Measure
, you can expect that the marriages won't be binding, and there are boys available...
The masque happens, Falstaff finally realises what an idiot they've made of him, and the Pages wait for their daughter to come back with the preferred husband.
Whoa, ho, ho, father Page!
Son, how now! how now, son! Have you dispatch'd'?
Dispatch'd! I'll make the best in Gloucestershire know on't; would I were hang'd, la, else!
Of what, son?
I came yonder at Eton to marry Mistress Anne Page, and she's a great lubberly boy. If it had not been i' th' church, I would have swing'd him, or he should have swing'd me. If I did not think it had been Anne Page, would I might never stir!-and 'tis a postmaster's boy.
Upon my life, then, you took the wrong.
What need you tell me that? I think so, when I took a boy for a girl. If I had been married to him, for all he was in woman's apparel, I would not have had him.
Why, this is your own folly. Did not I tell you how you should know my daughter by her garments?
I went to her in white and cried 'mum' and she cried 'budget' as Anne and I had appointed; and yet it was not Anne, but a postmaster's boy.
Good George, be not angry. I knew of your purpose; turn'd my daughter into green; and, indeed, she is now with the Doctor at the dean'ry, and there married.
Vere is Mistress Page? By gar, I am cozened; I ha' married un garcon, a boy; un paysan, by gar, a boy; it is not Anne Page; by gar, I am cozened.
Why, did you take her in green?
Ay, be gar, and 'tis a boy; be gar, I'll raise all Windsor.
This is strange. Who hath got the right Anne?
My heart misgives me; here comes Master Fenton.
Enter FENTON and ANNE PAGE
(Yes, Caius has a weird accent, I can't remember if he's meant to be the Welsh one.)
There are some interesting things going on here. First of all, there's plenty of innuendo, starting with Page's "Have you dispatched?" The swinging sounds fairly dodgy, OED doesn't mention sex as a possibility for that period but nor does it mention anything else that specific, such as hitting someone, and there are enough meanings which have potential, such as waving a sword about. Slender says, "I think so, when I took a boy for a girl", and then he says, "If I had been married to him, for all he was in woman's apparel, I would not have had him." You don't say that if the possibility of shagging a boy has never crossed your mind. In fact, it's almost as if it were expected. Slender has realised that some people might think he wanted to be with a boy, and is protesting emphatically against it. Sex between two males is explicitly mentioned, even if only to be denied. The same-sex marriage was narrowly avoided this time, but it's hanging in the air.
After that lovely build-up, Caius comes in. This time it's really happened, he's married the lad. It is to be noted that no one ever says, "Don't be silly, it's not a real marriage if it's a boy." Nor does Caius take the trouble to make all that fuss about "yes, I might have married him, but I am NOT CONSUMMATING THE MARRIAGE!" But Mistress Page does say, "Did you take her in green?" I like to imagine the boy following after Caius and lolling in the doorway, casting lewd glances in his direction, and then following him out with a wink to the assembled company as they go off to, ahem, "raise all Windsor".
The thing that really astonished me is that same-sex marriage appears to be treated as a real possibility here. According to the late Alan Bray's recent book The Friend
, which my local library hasn't acquired yet but which I've read a pretty full review of, same-sex marriage went on in England for centuries, church-approved and all. It fell out of use during the early modern period. I think we're seeing references to it here, and suddenly a few other things in Shakespeare jump to mind. Antonio giving the ring back to Bassanio at the end of The Merchant of Venice
, saying, "Here, Lord Bassanio, swear to keep this ring." It's Portia's ring, but she's been completely elided as middle term by now, it looks suspiciously like two men plighting troth. Then there's III.3 in Othello
, that long scene when Iago replaces everyone else in Othello's mind, which ends with the two men kneeling and making vows to each other: "I am your own for ever", as I recall. Distinctly wedding-like.