Interesting, isn’t it, that their queen should live at Buckingham—the washing place—and our president should live in Washington? Buck, wash, launder, bleach, whiten—these near-synonyms possibly describe an imperative of politics, but they certainly offered Shakespeare several choices as he composed his Falstaffian fabliau, The Merry Wives of Windsor. Further, as one comes to expect from the Bard’s renditions of commoners, he used the one most likely to titillate his audience with its double or, in this case, triple entendre.
Indeed, Shakespeare could easily have had Falstaff hide in a washing basket, whiting-basket, clothes basket, or laundry basket; but he chose instead a buck-basket. All were current in Shakespeare’s language, and, in fact, he uses all five in this play alone. To wit, before we even meet Mistress Quickly, Sir Hugh Evans identifies her as Dr. Caius’s “laundry—his washer and his wringer” (1.2.4-5). Later, Falstaff escapes the wrath of Master Ford in a buck-basket “with stinking clothes that fretted in their own grease” (3.5.113-14), and since it is “whiting-time” (3.3.132), Mistress Ford sends the buck-basket “to the laundress in Datchet-mead” (3.3.148) a direction repeated by the servant: “To the laundress, forsooth” (3.3.152).
Of these words, however, buck alone furnishes not only a laundry term, but a raunchy pun as well. Questioning her husband’s unwholesome interest in the laundry, Mistress Ford chides, “You were best meddle with buck-washing,” at which Ford exclaims, as the servants carry the basket out beneath his very nose: “Buck! I would I could wash myself of the buck! Buck, buck, buck! ay buck! I warrant you, buck, and of the season too, it shall appear” (3.3.155-59). So much repetition in such a state of agitation signals a word of great import.
To the innocent understanding (so they would have their husbands believe) of the chaste wives, buck-washing begins with steeping the dirty clothes in a solution of lye to bleach them—it is, after all, “whiting time” (3.3.131). Thus, a buck-basket is merely a basket to carry laundry to the “bucking-place” (or bucking-ham). But to a frantic husband under threat of witolly (cuckolding), buck would automatically signify the male of various horned species, such as deer and goat; and most likely, he thinks, himself—the cuckold, the man whose wife is unfaithful, the man with horns on his forehead.
Paradoxically, buck also refers to notoriously lusty male animals, as stags, goats (satyrs), rabbits, or hares—or Falstaff: the (would-be) perpetrator rather than the passive victim of cuckoldry. In the final scene at Herne’s Oak, Falstaff uses both meanings within a few lines; he enters “with a buck’s head upon him” and invokes the power of Jove: “Thou wast a bull for thy Europa, love set on thy horns” (5.5.1-4). He implores the wives to “divide me like a brib’d-buck, each a haunch . . . and my horns I bequeath to your husbands” (5.5.24-27).
But why, if horns signify hot-bloodedness, would they also signify a man who apparently lacks it? Moreover, if the cuckoo lays its eggs in other birds’ nests, why should the one whose nest was fouled be called “cuckoo”? Originally, so the theory goes, the sign of the horn and cries of “cuckoo” were directed toward the wronged husband to warn of the approach of his wife’s paramour. Over time, the signals were understood as identifying the cuckold himself, whether or not the lover were present; thus the poor, unfortunate husband became “cuckold” and “wore the horns.”
Nowhere has Shakespeare’s language changed so much as in its slang—especially its slang for lechery, lasciviousness, and cuckoldry. The Merry Wives of Windsor provides a treasury of visual and verbal references to cuckoldry. Aside from the attention to bucking and such direct labels as cuckold, peaking Cornuto, and wittolly, Shakespeare twice alludes to Actaeon, the unfortunate Greek hunter turned into a stag (with horns) and torn to pieces by his dogs after he stumbled upon Diana bathing. Ford characterizes himself as horn-mad, a term also used by Mistress Quickly of Dr. Caius in another context.
In the end, of course, Falstaff wears the horns, not as buck or cuckold, but as a chump—or, as he says, “I do begin to perceive that I am made an ass” (5.5.119). Master Ford promises never again to imagine horns (mistrust his wife), and Master Page pronounces universal forgiveness: “What cannot be eschew’d must be embrac’d” (5.5.237). Above all, honorable love triumphs.