The Merry Wives of Windsor
Mistress Ford — married to Ford and a friend of Mistress Page
Mistress Page — a friend of Mistress Ford; she and her husband disagree about who should marry their daughter, Anne
Falstaff — a knight and a scoundrel
Ford — husband of Mistress Ford; calls himself Brooke
Page — husband of Mistress Page
Sir Hugh Evans — the local clergyman; he is Welsh
Caius — the local doctor; he is French
Anne Page — daughter of Page and Mistress Page
Fenton — a suitor for Anne Page's hand
Slender — a suitor for Anne Page's hand
Shallow — a figure of the law, who is foolish
Mistress Quickly — Caius's servant
Bardolph, Pistol, and Nim — Falstaff's men
Host — host of the Garter Inn
William Page — Anne's brother and Page's son
Simple — Slender's servant
The Merry Wives of Windsor was probably written around 1597. It is Shakespeare's most middle-class play in setting, subject matter, and outlook. It's also one of his most farcical, using physical gags and linguistic jokes to establish a comic tone that influences the play's ultimate spirit of reconciliation. It is concerned with phenomena of an emerging merchant/guild middle class filling the gap between agrarian peasant and landed gentry.
According to theatrical legend, Elizabeth I saw King Henry IV, Part I and liked the character of Falstaff so much she asked Shakespeare to write another play about him, allegedly giving him only fourteen days. It was once thought that Shakespeare put aside King Henry IV, Part II to complete The Merry Wives of Windsor, and he included several characters who appear in both plays, including Pistol, Nim, Bardolph, Mistress Quickly, and Shallow. Falstaff and his entourage were supposedly good friends with Prince Hal, later Henry V, which lends a royal flavor to the archetypal suburban events of The Merry Wives of Windsor. Windsor, its castle still used as a residence by royalty today, has always been considered a royal town.
The Merry Wives of Windsor captures life in an English provincial town in the late sixteenth century and refers to other, older plays. The main plot closely resembles II Pecorone, a 1558 Italian play by Ser Giovanni Fiorentino, which in turn draws on ancient Roman comedy.
Scholars concur that the first performance was on April 23, 1597, at a feast of the Order of the Garter, which Queen Elizabeth I attended. There are two different versions: the First Quarto (1602) and the First Folio (1623). The Quarto is most likely a reconstruction from memory by actors and others. It is half the length of the Folio version, and is likely poorly remembered, or trimmed for provincial performances. The Folio version is printed from a manuscript that was based on either a playhouse promptbook or an authorial manuscript, and has a close connection with the first performance of the play.
Sir John Falstaff, a rogue who is “financially challenged,” hatches a scheme to raise funds by seducing Mistresses Ford and Page at the same time in an attempt to get at their husbands' money. Falstaff, however, has overestimated his charm and his ingenuity. The two women are friends, and discovering his plot, decide to make him suffer for his impertinence. They send him letters encouraging his advances.
Mistresses Ford and Page enjoy their fun. Falstaff is in danger of being discovered and hides in a basket of dirty laundry, which is then tossed into the River Thames. He is later dressed as a woman and beaten. Finally, the women tell their husbands what's going on, and all plot one final humiliation for the old knight.
Meanwhile, Page's daughter, Anne, is being courted by two suitors favored by her parents, but she is in love with Fenton. It is decided that Sir Hugh Evans will lead Anne and the town's children dressed as fairies in a late-night attack on the knight as he waits in the woods for Mistresses Page and Ford. Anne's father, Page, tells Slender, one of Anne's suitors, that he should elope with his daughter after the prank. Mistress Page pulls her favorite suitor, Doctor Caius, aside and tells him the same thing. Because she will be in disguise, the two men will recognize Anne by the color of her dress. Anne, meanwhile, makes plans of her own to elope with Fenton.
The Merry Wives of Windsor was a great favorite of Friedrich Engels, coauthor with Karl Marx of the Communist Manifesto. No doubt he enjoyed the way Shakespeare made fun of the emerging bourgeoisie. With the exception of The Comedy of Errors, it is probably Shakespeare's most overtly farcical play.
Falstaff is convinced to dress up as the god Herne (complete with antlers). While he waits in anticipation for the women to come to him, he is suddenly set upon and tormented by Anne and the children, dressed as fairies. The wives and husbands eventually reveal themselves to Falstaff, who is forgiven his roguish ways.
Slender and Doctor Caius reappear, chagrined. Both men erred on the color of Anne's dress (Slender thought it was white; Caius thought it was green) and ran off with boys instead of Anne. Fenton arrives with Anne. The two of them are married and Anne's parents begrudgingly accept the fact.
Mistresses Page and Ford determine that wives can lead boisterous, vivid lives (i.e., be merry) without having to betray their husbands. Page understands this, but Ford takes some convincing. The romance of Fenton and Anne Page affirms the idea of romantic love as a means of transcending class.
The Merry Wives of Windsor also emphasizes the provincial mindset, by making fun of a community that in turn makes fun of outsiders. Slender's pretensions make him look like a fool. Justice Shallow, whose authority derives from the Crown, ends up much the same. Sir Hugh Evans, the Welsh clergyman, is mocked for his foreign accent, as is Dr. Caius. Slender and Mistress Quickly depend on cliché, while Quickly hears sexual double entendres in Latin conjugations and declensions. The hostility of the rising merchant class to the aristocracy is clearly seen in Page's rejection of Fenton's request for Anne's hand and the continued abuse of the impoverished knight, Falstaff.
While the play celebrates the mistresses' autonomy (due in part to their husbands' wealth and social positions), the only woman who is “liberated” is Anne, who avoids a marriage chosen for her by her parents in favor of a partnership of her own choosing against their will.
“If there be no great love in the beginning, yet heaven may decrease it upon better acquaintance, when we are married and have more occasion to know one another: I hope, upon familiarity will grow more contempt” (Act I, Scene I).
“This is the short and the long of it” (Act II, Scene II).
“This is the third time; I hope good luck lies in odd numbers…. There is divinity in odd numbers, either in nativity, chance, or death” (Act V, Scene I).