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Merry Wives of Windsor is a comedy, or farce. It resembles The Comedy
of Errors in that it relies heavily on mix-ups and slapstick to win
the guffaws of the audience. In this respect, the play resembles
an American television staple, the situation comedy. It even has the types
of characters that appear in American TV sitcoms: everyday middle-class
folks. There are no kings and queens, no dukes and duchesses, no earls
Written: Probably between 1597 and 1599.
Performance: There is evidence that the play may have debuted before
Queen Elizabeth I at Windsor Castle on April 23, 1599.
Printing: Pirated quarto, 1602, published with misquoted passages and
omissions of entire scenes; 1623 as part of the First Folio, the first
authorized collection of Shakespeare's plays.
farcical plot of tricking the trickster can be traced to the Roman playwright
Titus Maccius Plautus (254-184 B.C.)–in particular, to his 205 BC play
Gloriosus (Latin pronunciation: ME lez Glor e OH sus). This play, written
in Latin, is about a boastful but stupid Greek soldier, Pyrgopolynices,
who is tricked by slaves.
is believed that Shakespeare wrote The Merry Wives at the request
of Queen Elizabeth I and debuted it before her in 1599. Supposedly, she
so enjoyed the character of Falstaff in Henry IV Part I and
IV Part II that she asked Shakespeare to write
another play featuring FaIstaff, according to John Dennis, author of a
1702 play based on The Merry Wives.
the dedication of his play, Dennis wrote that "This comedy was written
at [Queen Elizabeth I's] command, and by her direction, and she was so
eager to see it acted that she commanded it to be finished in fourteen
days . . ." (Quoted in
Shakespeare: The Complete Works, edited by
G.B. Harrison. New York: Harcourt, 1952, page 937).
it is true that Shakespeare wrote the play in just two weeks, he must have
burnt many midnight candles. But he was young, in his mid-thirties, and
had an agile mind that could keep his quill in constant motion.
action takes place in Windsor in Berkshire County, England, during the
Elizabethan Age. Windsor, a few miles west of London, is the site of Windsor
Castle, a royal residence from the time of William the Conqueror, who reigned
as king from 1066 to 1087. The play was said to have debuted at Windsor
Castle before Queen Elizabeth I.
Protagonist: Sir John
Sir John Falstaff:
A fat knight with a robust appetite for food, drink, women and their money,
and mischief. Falstaff is also a character in Henry IV Part I and
IV Part II and an offstage presence in Henry V.
Mistress Ford, Mistress
Page: Merry wives wooed by Falstaff.
Shallow: A country
justice whom Falstaff and his comrades victimize by killing his deer, beating
his men, and breaking into his lodge. Shallow may have been a caricature
of Sir Thomas Lucy (1532-1600), a Stratford-born justice of the peace,
member of Parliament, and tracker of English Catholics who refused to recognize
the Church of England. According to an undocumented account, Lucy prosecuted
Shakespeare for stealing a deer from his land.
Slender: Cousin of
Shallow who accuses Falstaff's friend, Pistol, of picking his pocket.
Ford: Husband of
Page: Husband of
Page: Son of Mr. Page.
Anne Page: Daughter
of Mistress Page.
Fenton: A gentleman
who loves Anne Page.
Sir Hugh Evans: A
Doctor Caius: A French
Host of the Garter Inn
Bardolph, Pistol, Nym:
Troublemaking friends of Falstaff
Robin: Page of Falstaff.
Simple: Servant of
Rugby: Servant of
Servant of Doctor Caius.
Michael J. Cummings...©
a quiet town on the south bank of the River Thames west of London, basks
in peace and harmony until Sir John Falstaff and his rowdy companions–Bardolph,
Pistol and Nym–arrive from the big city to steal, poach, and bully. Robert
Shallow, a country justice, tells Falstaff and his comrades: “You have
beaten my men, killed my deer, and broke open my lodge” (1.1.53). Abraham
Slender, Shallow’s cousin, accuses Pistol of picking his pocket. At the
house of George Page, a gentleman of Windsor, the accused and the accusers
settle their differences over wine and a repast of hot venison pasty.
dining, Falstaff’s appetite strays from food to females. Mistress Page,
it seems, has a certain allure–namely her pocketbook. Her friend, Mistress
Ford, is likewise endowed. Both women rule the purse strings in their households.
Ever short of money but long on schemes to get some, Falstaff later pens
a love letter and makes a copy of it, then charges Pistol and Nym to bear
the letters to Mistresses Page and Ford. When Pistol and Nym refuse to
serve as toadies, Falstaff enlists a page boy, Robin, to deliver the letters.
Falstaff then commands the useless Pistol and Nym to “vanish like hailstones”
(1.3.40). Angry, they decide to tattle on Falstaff to Mr. Page and Mr.
Mistress Page and Mistress Ford meet again, they compare the letters and
discover that they are the same. “I warrant he hath a thousand of these
letters, writ with blank space for different names” (2.1.16), Mistress
Page observes. When she proposes revenge against Falstaff, Mistress Ford
agrees to do whatever it takes to get even. They first recruit Mistress
Quickly, an expert at playing pranks. She is a maid in the household of
a French physician, one Doctor Caius. Mistress Quickly informs Falstaff
that Mistress Ford thanks him profusely for the letter. Then she requests
that he come to Mistress Ford’s house between ten and eleven one morning,
when her husband is not at home.
subplot running through this play focuses on three men wooing Anne Page,
the daughter of Mistress Page. These men are Abraham Slender, Doctor Caius,
and a gentleman named Fenton. Slender, a foolish bumpkin, has the support
of Shallow, Mr. Page, and a Welsh parson named Sir Hugh Evans. Caius has
the backing of Mistress Page. Fenton must fend for himself. Fenton at first
woos Miss Page primarily to improve his financial condition. However, he
changes during the course of the play. Shakespeare reveals the winner of
the Anne Page sweepstakes at the end of the play.)
Pistol and Nym snitch on Falstaff, Mr. Page merely shrugs and dismisses
the matter, saying, “If he should intend this voyage towards my wife, I
would turn her loose to him; and what he gets more of her than sharp words,
let it lie on my head” (2.1.70). In other words, Page trusts his wife.
She will not fall for fat old Sir John. Ford, however,
becomes jealous. Pretending his name is Brook, he meets with Falstaff.
(Because Falstaff has never met Ford, he does not know that “Brook” is
Mistress Ford’s husband.) Brook offers to pay Falstaff to woo Mistress
Ford. Ford explains that he loves her but dares not approach her because
she has a reputation to uphold as a married woman. If Falstaff can “drive
her then from the ward of her purity, her reputation, her marriage-vow”
(2. 2. 84), Brook says, she will be ripe pickings for him. Falstaff, of
course, accepts the assignment. After all, there’s money to be made. Then
he tells Brook that he has already scheduled a tryst with Mistress Ford,
noting the day and the hour. Brook makes a mental note.
the merry wives, Mistress Page and Mistress Ford, have prepared a fitting
punishment for Falstaff. The scheme begins to unfold after Falstaff arrives
at the appointed time and addresses Mistress Ford as “my heavenly jewel”
(3.3.24). She tells him that “heaven knows how I love you” (3.3.35). A
knock at the door disrupts their intimacy. It is Mistress Page. When Mistress
Ford describes her to Falstaff as “a very tattling woman” (3. 3. 40), Falstaff
hides. Mistress Page enters. Then, speaking loudly enough for Falstaff
to hear, she says word is out that Mistress Ford is entertaining a man.
What’s more, her husband is on his way to the house with officers to search
for the man. What the women do not realize is that Mr. Ford really is on
his way to the house with Mr. Page and other citizens–including Doctor
Caius and Sir Hugh Evans–to ensnare Falstaff and Mistress Ford. As they
near the house, Mistress Ford “admits” to Mistress Page that she has a
man in the house. Mistress Page, continuing to play her part but still
unaware that Mr. Ford is approaching the house, says: "O, how have you
deceived me! Look, here is a basket: if he be of any reasonable stature,
he may creep in here; and throw foul linen upon him, as if it were going
to bucking: or–it is whiting-time–send him by your two men to Datchet-mead"
large basket had been set out by Mistress Ford as part of her and her friend’s
plot against Falstaff. He would think it a good place to conceal himself.
They were right. Out of sight of Mistress Page, Falstaff plops into the
basket and covers himself with dirty laundry. Just as Ford is arriving,
servants remove the basket and dump it in a muddy ditch near the Thames.
Falstaff emerges from the pile of clothes full of muck. Ford searches the
house. When no philanderer is found, he is made to look a fool in front
of Page and the others. After the men leave, the wives enjoy a good giggle
over the coincidence and Mistress Ford remarks, “I know not which pleases
me better, that my husband is deceived, or Sir John” (3.3.73).
decides to try again, telling “Brook” he will arrive at the Ford residence
between eight and nine when, according to another communication from Mistress
Ford, the husband will be out bird hunting. After Falstaff arrives, Mistress
Page again comes calling and Falstaff again takes refuge in the shadows.
When she asks whether Mistress Ford has a man in the house, mentioning
Falstaff by name, Mistress Ford says no. Mistress Page says she is greatly
relieved to hear that, for Mr. Ford is again on the way to the house with
citizens of the town. Mistress Ford then “admits” Falstaff is indeed on
the premises, and the women disguise him as “the fat woman of Brainford”
(4.2.35), the aunt of Mistress Ford’s maid. It so happens that Mr. Ford
despises the Brainford woman, and when he shows up with Page, Doctor Caius,
and Evans, he beats the fat woman (Falstaff) mercilessly until Falstaff
escapes the house. While Ford searches for Falstaff, his wife lets him
in on the plot against Sir John. Ford apologizes to his wife for doubting
her, and then they all agree to play one more prank on Sir John.
from having been beaten “into all the colours of the rainbow” (4.5.52),
Falstaff is almost ready to call it quits. But Mistress Quickly–again a
conniver in the plot against Sir John– importunes him to try a third time.
He agrees, hoping “good luck lies in odd numbers” (5.1.3). He is to go
to Windsor Forest at midnight in the guise of a ghost that haunts the environs
of an oak tree. (This oak tree–known as Herne’s Oak–actually existed for
more than six hundred 600 years. In 1863, it succumbed to the fury of a
storm.) Because the ghost wears antlers and carries a chain, Mistress Quickly
provides them for Falstaff. When he arrives at the oak at the stroke of
twelve, he is wearing his deer’s head and praying that the gods will assist
him. Hiding nearby are Mistresses Page and Ford, as well as a small army
of recruits–including Pistol, Sir Hugh Evans and neighborhood children–dressed
as fairies, hobgoblins, and other creatures of the night. Mistress Ford
addresses him lovingly and says Mistress Page is with her. Falstaff says:
“Divide me like a brib’d buck, each a haunch: I will keep my sides to myself,
my shoulders for the fellow of this walk, and my horns I bequeath your
the women hear a noise, they run off and the whole company of creatures
descends upon Falstaff. They pinch him everywhere and singe him with tapers.
They then sing a song:
Fie on sinful fantasy!
Mistress Page then reveals the
hoax to Falstaff. Ford gloats, saying “Now, sir, who’s a cuckold now?”
(5.5.80). Falstaff says, “I do begin to perceive that I am made an ass”
(5.5.82). And who gets Anne Page? Slender and Doctor Caius think they do
when they each steal away with one of the disguised night creatures. But
it is Fenton who winds up with comely Anne. They have run off and married.
All ends happily, with no hard feelings, as Mistress Page invites everyone
to her home to sit by the fireplace and have a good laugh.
Fie on lust and luxury!
Lust is but a bloody fire,
Kindled with unchaste desire,
Fed in heart, whose flames
As thoughts do blow them,
higher and higher.
Pinch him, fairies, mutually;
Pinch him for his villainy;
Pinch him, and burn him,
and turn him about,
Till candles and starlight
and moonshine be out. (5.5.71)
climax of the play takes place in the final act when Falstaff becomes the
brunt of an elaborate practical joke and admits, "I do perceive that I
am made an ass."
can hold their own against men–and the dictates of custom.
Wives of Windsor takes place in an age when males often regarded females
as playthings and when parents often chose the suitors for their daughters.
But it is the women who win the day in this comedy. Two ordinary housewives,
Mrs. Page and Mrs. Ford, get the better of a gold-digging philanderer,
Falstaff. And Anne Page goes against the wishes of her parents when she
runs off with Fenton. The outcome of the play must have pleased the women
in Shakespeare's audience. One of them was Queen Elizabeth I, according
to evidence indicating that the play was first performed before her at
Windsor Castle. It is interesting to note, though, that the women who make
a fool of Falstaff, a knight, are members of the middle class, not the
nobility or aristocracy. If the queen indeed delighted in the victory of
the merry wives, her enjoyment may have been tempered by this fact–or so
one may speculate.
things are not as they seem. Falstaff first deceives the wives. The
wives then deceive Falstaff and their husbands. Mr. Ford and Mistress Quickly
also deceive Falstaff. Falstaff deceives himself.
breeds trouble. Falstaff gets into trouble because he is insincere,
pretending to be lovestruck when he is really money-struck.
is fair play. The wives turn the tables on Falstaff, and he gets his
Prose Than Verse
Merry Wives of Windsor is unusual in that Shakespeare wrote most of
it in prose instead of verse or poetry. Pistol is the only character who
speaks most of his lines in verse. The reason for his high-flown speech
may be Shakespeare's attempt to poke fun at a prominent Elizabethan actor
who worked for a company that competed with Shakespeare's acting company.
G.B. Harrison explains: "Pistol was created to be a walking parody of the
great actor Edward Alleyn, chief of the rival company, the Lord Admiral's
Men. Alleyn was the chief exponent of the older style of heavy, robustious
rant" (G.B. Harrison, ed. Shakespeare: The Complete Works. New York:
Harcourt, 1952, Page 939).
in the Play
Shakespeare's time, aristocrats considered it fashionable to place their
health care in the hands of a physician from another country. To have a
doctor from the European continent was rather like having a BMW or a Mercedes-Benz
in the driveway in the modern world. Shakespeare mocks these foreign physicians
through his characterization of Doctor Caius. Caius is proud and overbearing,
fancies himself an outstanding fencer, and believes Anne Page is in love
with him. He speaks in broken English that sometimes goes very far awry,
as in the following unintentional pun he utters after Mr. Page invites
Mr. Ford, Sir Hugh Evans, and Caius to breakfast. After Ford and Evans
accept the invitation, Caius says: "If dere [there] be one or two, I shall
make-a the turd" (End of Act II).
wrote most of the The Merry Wives in the prose of everyday speech.
Pistol is the only character who speaks all his lines–except very short
ones–in verse. Consequently, the play contains fewer elegant figures of
speech than his other plays, written mostly in verse. Nevertheless, the
play does feature memorable tropes, including the following:
Sometimes the beam
of her view gilded my foot, sometimes my portly belly. (1.3.32)
Questions and Essay Topics
In a metaphor, Falstaff compares
the gaze of Mistress Page to a golden ray of light.
Why, then the world’s mine
Which I with sword will
In a metaphor, Pistol compares the
world to an oyster. The line also contains alliteration (why, world’s,
which, with, and will.)
Hang no more about me; I
am no gibbet. (2.2.9)
Falstaff’s metaphor compares himself
to a gallows.
He shall not knit a knot
in his fortunes with the finger of my substance. (2.2.29)
Page uses alliteration (not,
and knot; of fortunes and finger) (s
sounds in substance). The lines also contain metaphors comparing
accumulating money to knitting, money itself to a knot, and a finger to
Have I lived to be carried
in a basket, and to be thrown in the Thames like a barrow of butcher’s
offal? Well, if I be served such another trick, I’ll have my brains ta’en
out, and buttered, and give them to a dog for a new year’s gift. The rogues
slighted me into the river with as little remorse as they would have [if
they] drowned a blind bitch’s puppies, fifteen i’ the litter; and you may
know by my size that I have a kind of alacrity in sinking . . . . (3.5.5)
Falstaff uses the following figures
of speech: simile (thrown in the Thames like a barrow of butcher’s offal),
hyperbole (I’ll have my brains ta’en out, and buttered, and give them
to a dog for a new year’s gift), simile (The rogues slighted me
into the river with as little remorse as they would have [if they had]
a blind bitch’s puppies), and alliteration (kind, alacrity,
1. In an argumentative essay,
take a stand on whether Shakespeare intended The Merry Wives of Windsor
as a statement in favor of women’s rights. In your essay, you may wish
to take into account the treatment of women in other Shakespeare plays.
2. The Merry Wives of
Windsor is entirely different from other Shakespeare plays in that
it focuses on the everyday life of middle-class people. (Other plays center
on kings, queens, emperors, nobles, wealthy aristocrats, etc.) Does this
difference manifest itself in the dialogue of the play–or in any other
aspect of the play?
3. What was life like for
middle-class Englishmen in Shakespeare’s time?
4. In an essay, compare
and contrast the Falstaff of Henry IV Part I with the Falstaff of The Merry
5. To what extent does The
Merry Wives poke fun at the love of money? In researching your answer,
you may wish to start with these lines:
Did her grandsire leave her seven hundred pound?
on DVD (or VHS)
Sir Hugh Evans
Ay, and her father is make her a petter [better] penny.
Justice Shallow I
know the young gentlewoman; she has good gifts.
Sir Hugh Evans Seven
hundred pounds and possibilities is goot [good] gifts. (1.1.23-26)
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