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The wives win hands-down in The Merry Wives of Windsor. REUTERS/Toby Melville. An image of playwright William Shakespeare from The Herball, a 16th-century book on plants.

Vale Shakespeare, the (not always) patriarchal Bard

It is only two years since we celebrated the 450th anniversary of his birth but – as we approach the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death – Bard biz is running hot again. In the UK, there are productions, exhibitions, concerts, walks and even the opportunity to explore Shakespeare’s recently excavated kitchen in New Place, Stratford.

The website Shakespeare400 sends out alerts on Shakespeare-themed events by the usual suspects – the Globe and the RSC – as well as the British Library, the British Film Institute, Forced Entertainment, the London Symphony Orchestra and the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

Celebrations will reach fever pitch on the day Shakespeare died, April 23, which is also (probably) his birthday as well as (conveniently) St George’s Day.

While London and Stratford-upon-Avon go into meltdown, a more maverick event was on offer in Perth, Australia, recently. The University of Western Australia has an amazing if sometimes under-used resource in its New Fortune Theatre.

The space gestures in the direction of Elizabethan staging by reproducing the dimensions of the Fortune stage, built around 1600 by theatre entrepreneur Philip Henslowe and his leading actor and son-in-law, Edward Alleyn.

Merry Wives of Windsor – Nothing But Roaring. Melissa Viola

By 1599 Henslowe’s Rose Playhouse was badly in need of refurbishment. So a contract was drawn up specifying what kind of playing space Henslowe and Alleyn, two savvy men of the theatre, wanted in their new venue.

The contract states that the Fortune was to be 80-feet-square on the outside and 55-feet-square on the inside, a different shape to the polygonal Globe.

The stage was to be 43-feet-wide and extend into the middle of the yard. Although the Fortune was actually built for a rival company to Shakespeare’s the King’s Men, UWA opened the New Fortune on January 29, 1964, the year the playwright’s birth was being globally celebrated, with a production of Hamlet.

Since then the New Fortune has premiered Dorothy Hewett’s Chapel Perilous (1971) and been transformed – with the yard filled with water – for the premiere of David Williams’ adaptation of Deborah Levy’s novel Beautiful Mutants (1993).

Despite the challenges of the venue (especially the famous peacocks who love to take the stage mid-performance and make a racket) the New Fortune is a resonant space, particularly suited to the presentation of early modern drama.

Last week it played host to some of Shakespeare’s feistiest women with the performance of his great Tudor farce, The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Merry Wives is full of men behaving badly pitted against witty, assertive, determined women. The play is not much staged in Australia, although in 1987 Geoffrey Rush directed a brilliant production for the Queensland Theatre Company that relocated the action to the Brisbane suburb of Windsor and had Bille Brown as a Russ-Hinze-style Falstaff.

Last week, director Rob Conkie’s actors performed the play in a heatwave, racing around across the wide stage, chucking Falstaff into a laundry basket, dressing him as an old witch, getting him pinched by fairies and, of course, dodging the peacocks.

Merry Wives of Windsor – Nothing But Roaring. Joanne McEwan

Unlike most of Shakespeare’s plays, Merry Wives keeps women at the forefront of the action. The play is also unique in the Shakespearean canon for featuring a husband apologising to – indeed grovelling in front of – his wife.

In Act IV, Frank Ford admits he was entirely wrong to suspect his wife, Alice, of unfaithfulness, and submits to her in a speech that doesn’t go on as long as Katherina’s notorious submission speech in The Taming of the Shrew, but is just as absolute. Frank states categorically that in future he will always let his wife have her own way:

Pardon me, wife. Henceforth do what thou wilt;
I rather will suspect the sun with cold
Than thee with wantonness: now doth thy honour stand
In him that was of late an heretic,
As firm as faith.

The wives win hands-down in Merry Wives. The only character to outwit them is Anne Page, who has clearly been learning from her mother how to gets what she wants in a world designed, but unable, to keep women down.

As a companion piece to the production there was a reading of a “new” play by Shakespeare, a confection of speeches that puts his most famous untamed shrew – Margaret of Anjou AKA Margaret of Lancaster – centre stage.

Margaret of Anjou has been carved out of Shakespeare’s War of the Roses tetralogy, Henry VI parts 1, 2, and 3 and Richard III. The adaptation sees Margaret develop from teenage princess to cursing crone via adulterous passion, motherhood, the leading of troops into battle, and the loss of her only child.

Margaret of Lancaster, the inspiration behind Game of Thrones’ Cersei Lannister, is an amazing role for a woman, especially suited to an older actor, the cohort of performers for whom it is particularly hard to find plumb roles in Shakespeare.

If 400 years after his death we can see Shakespeare as the playwright who created Margaret of Anjou and let the women of Windsor run rings round their men, maybe we would see fewer patriarchal “takes” on the bard.

Nothing But Roaring’s Merry Wives of Windsor will play at fortyfive downstairs, Melbourne, April 15–May 1. Details here.

For information on events celebrating Shakespeare in Australia, go to

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