Need proof who wrote Shakespeare’s plays? See The Merry Wives of Windsor

<span>Lucy Tregear as Meg Page, Richard Cordery as Sir John Falstaff and Claire Carrie as Alice Ford in The Merry Wives of Windsor at the Old Vic, London, in 2003.</span><span>Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian</span>
Lucy Tregear as Meg Page, Richard Cordery as Sir John Falstaff and Claire Carrie as Alice Ford in The Merry Wives of Windsor at the Old Vic, London, in 2003.Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

I have a question for those theatrical luminaries (and I’m looking at you Sir Mark and Sir Derek) who doubt the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays. Do they seriously believe that a capricious aristo such as the Earl of Oxford or a legalistic scholar like Francis Bacon could have written The Merry Wives of Windsor? In case they have forgotten, this brilliant comedy – about to be revived by the RSC – shows the middle classes getting their revenge on a knightly predator, Sir John Falstaff. It could only have been written by someone who understood the intricacies of a close-knit, provincial community.

What strikes me about the play is its quintessential Englishness, and you see this in myriad ways. One is in the earthy vitality of the language. There is a classic example when Anne Page, offered the prospect of marriage to a preposterous Frenchman, says: “Alas, I had rather be set quick i’th’earth / And bowled to death with turnips.” It is an extraordinarily vivid image and one of the play’s rare excursions into verse: 90% of it is in prose. But the language throughout has a localised vigour that stems from a writer steeped in English life. At one point Mistress Ford urges her servants to take the buck-basket containing Falstaff and “carry it among the whisters in Datchet Mead.” The “whisters” were the bleachers of linen who could be seen by any English river bank including the Avon.

That Englishness also takes the form of running gags at the expense of language-mangling foreigners: something today we may find mildly offensive but, if we are honest, a constant strain in English stage, film and TV comedy. In The Merry Wives, Dr Caius is the archetypal funny Frenchman who, invited to join a small, select twosome, blithely announces: “I shall make-a the turd.” Shakespeare, who had a fascination with the Welsh – think of Fluellen and Owen Glendower – here creates a voluble parson, Sir Hugh Evans, finally dismissed by Falstaff as “one that makes fritters of English”. A reminder that even today we use the language as a test of assimilation.

But how to represent this Englishness on stage? Broadly, there are two approaches. One is to treat the play as a realistic slice of Elizabethan life: the other is to find modern equivalents. Terry Hands – who deserves credit for putting the play back on the map and who directed it for the RSC in 1968 and 1975 and at the National in 1995 – and Trevor Nunn who directed it for the RSC in 1979 were both slice-of-life men. From Nunn’s production I remember half-timbered houses, mullioned windows and choirboys playing conkers. But both directors realised that it is the jealous bourgeois, Ford, who drives the play as much as Falstaff. In Hands’s RSC productions Ian Richardson displayed a sustained frenzy that made the jealousy of Othello and Leontes look like very small beer. In Nunn’s version Ben Kingsley exuded a wheezy jollity in the scenes where he accosts Falstaff in disguise, only to let out a manic scream of rage the second the fat knight left the room.

Other productions have located the play squarely in the modern world. Bill Alexander did a famous production at Stratford in the 1980s that set the play unequivocally in Harold Macmillan’s materialistic “never had it so good” England of October 1959. The defining image was of Lindsay Duncan and Janet Dale as the merry wives plotting their revenge beneath a pair of beehive hairdryers but there were equally good performances from Sheila Steafel as a bemused, brandy-tippling Mistress Quickly and Nicky Henson, whose Ford resembled a mini-Hitler from the Junior Chamber of Commerce. Rachel Kavanaugh in her touring 2003 production went further back in time to 1947, when ration books and clothing-coupons were used as bribes and where Richard Cordery’s Falstaff was like a demobbed serviceman scrounging pints in Windsor pubs.

My spies suggest that Blanche McIntyre’s new production will make the play even more urgently modern. But I cling to my belief that The Merry Wives is is one of Shakespeare’s most underrated plays. It is not only a perfectly structured revenge comedy but it also offers a classic definition of Englishness: in its language, its setting and its portrait of a smugly ascendant bourgeoisie. One thing’s for sure: Oxford or Bacon couldn’t possibly have written it.

• The Merry Wives of Windsor is at the Royal Shakespeare theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 5 June-7 September