Falstaff Stumbles

In a wild comedy like Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor everybody wants everybody else to act. The only thing they need to do for that is giving authorative commands. Yet, Falstaff will fail. Read the last part of the series about the imperative.

Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor is Shakespeare set into music. In this opera, composed by Otto Nicolai and first performed in 1849, Shakespeare’s character John Falstaff, a drunkard and Junker tries to extract money from wealthy wives after falling down the social ladder. He falls even further when the objects of his intrigue, Frau Reich and Frau Fluth, weave a net of schemes and pranks he cannot escape. The opera is popular on German stages for its fireworks of wit, its fast-paced story and, of course, for its energetic music. The language of the libretto, written by poet and playwright Salomon Hermann Mosenthal, is sharp and straight and because no one is ever alone onstage (more duets than arias!), and because everyone wants to impose their will to everybody else, the imperative becomes the main tool of communication.

To create the imperative, we change the spelling of the verb and place it in the first position in the sentence. Hearing a verb as the first word of a statement sharpens our attention and raises suspense. Will the addressee do what has been requested? Frau Reich demands from Frau Fluth: Hört mich an. (anhören sep. = to listen to) Frau Fluth responds: Lest, dass ich es hören kann, read so that I can listen. (lesen = to read)

We can direct an imperative toward four possible persons or groups of persons (du, ihr, Sie and wir), but the Weiber von Windsor, their husbands, and Falstaff are concerned only with du and ihr.

1. du

We want a person we address with du to listen (anhören) to us and to read (lesen).

We cut off the -en ending and omit the du.

Hör uns an! Lies! (The verb lesen is irregular, hence the change of vowel.)

Certain verbs need an extra -e to attain a smoother sound. Their verb stem ends with -t, -d, or -s, e.g., warten, reden, blasen.

Irregular verbs with the vowel -e, (sprechen, helfen, or lesen) that change to -i or -ie in second person (du sprichst, hilfst, liest) and third person (sie spricht, es hilft, er liest) keep -i or -ie in the imperative mood:

Sprich! Herr Fluth wants his wife to tell him where her lover is.

When Frau Reich warns that Herr Fluth is approaching a compromising scene in a jealous fury, Falstaff cries out, Hilf, Himmel!

2. Ihr, ihr

Let’s express the wishes or commands for anhören and lesen to people we address with Ihr (pronoun for people of higher social rank) and ihr (pronoun for people of lower social rank).

We cut off the -en ending, add a -t and omit the Ihr or ihr.

Hört uns an! Lest!

lassen = to prompt or instigate another activity, e.g., sehen lassen

Feeling uncomfortable at Frau Reich’s suggestion of hiding him in a laundry basket, Falstaff wishes to take a look at it first: Lasst sehen den Korb geschwind.

Na wartet, das soll euch schlecht bekommen! Just wait, that will do you no good, Falstaff mumbles to himself after the men in the pub agree to have a drinking contest with him.

fassen = to grab
strafen = to punish
sengen obs. = to singe, to slap or beat leaving a stinging pain

In act three, the plotters of the ultimate prank deploy a firework of imperatives calling the mosquitos and wasps to torment poor Falstaff: Fasst ihn! Straft ihn! Sengt ihn, lasst ihn drehen. In the Mückentanz, the “elves” stoke the harassment even more: Stecht! Quält den Tor (fool)!

Even the audience is not spared the imperative. In the last sentence of the libretto, the ensemble asks the spectators to forgive (verzeihen). Verzeihet auch Ihr, und hätten Euch die lustigen Weiber gefallen.


Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor and its language appears in my book Die Frist ist um—Navigate the Language of 10 German Operas. You will learn about the opera’s vocabulary, phrases, its characters’ humor and feistiness, and the linguistics of four duets and arias.

Available at: lulu.comamazon.com and bookstores.

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Bernd Hendricks. Born in Duisburg, Germany. Based in Berlin. Writer, German Language Educator. I was six years old when I went to the opera for the first time. My Grandma took me to Hänsel und Gretel at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Duisburg. The first time I met an opera singer personally was during my time as foreign correspondent in New York when at a Christmas party a baritone pelted me with questions about the language of Zauberflöte. He was preparing for his role as Papageno. After my return to Berlin in September 2010, I have been giving German lessons to singers on their audition tours. My workshops in Berlin, Vienna, and London are based on my widely read book Ach, ich fühl’s—German for Opera Singers in Three Acts: Studying, Speaking, Singing. My latest book, Die Frist ist um—Navigate the Language of 10 German Operas, takes you on a journey through the language of the most popular and often performed operas in the German-speaking countries. I am also the author of several non-fiction books and two novels.

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