The Merry Wives of Windsor

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Editor: Anne Marie Hacht
Date: 2007
Document Type: Critical essay; Work overview; Character overview; Plot summary
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The Merry Wives of Windsor


A story that has never been proven states that William Shakespeare wrote The Merry Wives of Windsor in 1597 because Queen Elizabeth I asked him to do so. According to the story, the queen had enjoyed the character Sir John Falstaff in another of Shakespeare's plays (Henry IV) and wanted to see a play about Falstaff in love. The story goes on that Shakespeare had only fourteen days to write this comedy.

Whether or not that story is true, The Merry Wives of Windsor is not really about Falstaff in love but rather about Falstaff in trouble. The good knight, who is so full of himself as to believe that any woman he looks at will swoon at his feet and do anything he suggests, fails miserably in this play to seduce two married women. He wants to seduce them not just for the physical pleasure of doing so, but mostly to win their confidence and he then hopes they will open their purses to him. Falstaff may have won a title of nobility, but he is seriously low on cash.

The wives he woos are very close friends who readily reveal their secrets to one another. They soon discover Falstaff's plans, and most of this play involves their schemes to bring Falstaff down. One of those wives, Mistress Ford, is doubly rewarded for her efforts, as she not only humiliates Falstaff, she also brings her own husband down on his knees. Ford is an extremely jealous husband, and his wife teaches him a serious lesson.

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For Shakespeare's audiences, at the time of Queen Elizabeth I's reign, the plot and characters would have made this a familiar play. The characters and themes, particularly that of the cuckold (or betrayed) husband, were common in plays of that time, referred to as a citizen comedy. However, Shakespeare does not go along with the established rules of this form of comedy. In his play, although there is a threat of betrayal—that is, if Falstaff gets his wish—Shakespeare turns the theme on its head. That is how he created much of the humor of this play. The local knight does not get his way; and the husbands (and wives) prevail.

The play is unusual in reference to the other plays of Shakespeare's. For example, the language, although filled with purposefully construed comical misinterpretations, is written mostly in prose rather than in a combination of blank verse and sonnet, as are many of his other plays. In addition, Falstaff is not the only character that has been borrowed from another play. Bardolph, Shallow, Pistol, Nym, and Mistress Quickly also come from Shakespeare's Henry IV.

Although The Merry Wives of Windsor has not received as much critical analysis as other Shakespearean plays, it was very popular in its time, maybe not just because it made its audiences laugh but also because it was one of the few plays that felt at home with the Elizabethan patrons. This play remains the only comedy that is completely set in the England of Shakespeare's time and depicts the family lifestyle of ordinary citizens.


Act 1, Scene 1

Shakespeare's comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor begins outside Page's house in Windsor. Justice Shallow, an old and whiney man, is talking with his cousin Slender and Hugh Evans, a local Welch pastor. Pastor Evans discloses that he has a plan to help Slender win the hand of Page's daughter, Anne. When Page comes outside to welcome the men into his house for some food, Shallow asks if Falstaff is in the house. Page tells him that Falstaff is there. Shallow states that he will not go in because Falstaff has offended him. Falstaff comes out with his men and boldly confronts Shallow, confessing that he did indeed hunt on Shallow's land and killed a deer. Falstaff does not apologize or see anything wrong with this. Shallow is beside himself with indignation, so Evans and Page attempt to help mitigate the grievance. In the meantime, Slender, a weak and silly man, also confronts Falstaff, accusing Falstaff or his men—Slender is not sure who—of picking his pockets after they got him drunk the night before. Nothing is resolved, but Page asks everyone to come into his house to eat and to forget about these petty grievances.

Mistress Ford shows up, and Falstaff pays extra special attention to her, praising her, telling her he wants to get to know her better. When Mistress Page enters, she invites everyone into the house. Everyone but Slender goes into the house. Then Shallow and Evans come back out to get Slender. First they ask him if he could love Anne Page. Slender is very nervous about this idea and says all the wrong things, though the men know that his intentions are well meant. When Anne comes out to get Slender, he becomes even more agitated, making a fool of himself. Page finally comes out and makes everyone go to dinner.

Act 1, Scene 2

Evans gives a letter to Simple, Slender's servant, and tells him to deliver the letter to Mistress Quickly, who is the town gossip and a friend of Anne's. Mistress Quickly knows Anne well. The purpose of the letter is to convince Mistress Quickly to help Slender win Anne's hand.

Act 1, Scene 3

Falstaff and his men are at the Garter Inn. Falstaff is low on money and first makes a deal with Host, the innkeeper, to take on one of Falstaff's men, Bardolph, in exchange for a cut in the cost of his room. Then Falstaff reveals to Nym and Pistol his plan to have a sexual affair with both Mistress Page and Mistress Ford. He hopes to woo them, then take some of their money. Falstaff has written two letters, and he asks Pistol and Nym to deliver them. They will have nothing to do with Falstaff's schemes. Falstaff leaves in a huff. Nym tells Pistol that he has a way to get revenge on Falstaff. Nym will go to Page and tell him what Falstaff is up to. Pistol will do the same with Ford.

Act 1, Scene 4

Simple arrives at Dr. Caius's house. Mistress Quickly greets him. Simple has brought a letter from Parson Evans, asking Mistress Quickly to help him gain the hand of Anne Page for Slender. Dr. Caius, who also wishes to woo Anne, comes home and finds Simple there. When he discovers why Simple has come, he writes a letter, challenging Page 543  |  Top of Article
Illustration of Sir John Falstaff and Mistress Ford in Act III, scene iii, by Hugh Thompson, 1910 Illustration of Sir John Falstaff and Mistress Ford in Act III, scene iii, by Hugh Thompson, 1910 (© Blue Lantern Studio/Corbis) Evans to a duel for trying to interfere with Dr. Caius's attempts to win Anne. He wants Anne because he believes he deserves her. Dr. Caius is rather pompous. He rules his house through loud and demanding commands. His workers are afraid of him.

Dr. Caius leaves and Fenton appears at a side window. Mistress Quickly goes to greet him. Fenton, of the three suitors of Anne, is the one who is genuinely in love with her. Mistress Quickly tells Fenton that she is working on making a success of Fenton gaining Anne's hand. After Fenton leaves, Mistress Quickly, in an aside to the audience, states that Anne does not love Fenton. Mistress Quickly does not say whom Anne loves, but she does say that only she knows the mind of Anne.

Act 2, Scene 1

Mistress Page reads the letter from Falstaff, in which he proposes that they meet for an affair. Upon finishing, Mistress Ford appears. The women compare letters and find that Falstaff has written exactly the same letters, word for word, to both women. They make fun of his fat size and his opinion of them. Then they decide to seek their revenge. They leave to conceive of a plot.

Pistol enters with Ford. Pistol is trying to convince Ford that Falstaff has made a proposal to Ford's wife. Ford is a very jealous man and becomes upset at the news. Meanwhile, Nym tells Page that Falstaff is after his wife, too. Page is very confident in his relationship with his wife and makes a joke of it. He does not believe Nym, thinking that these men were fired by Falstaff and now want to do Falstaff harm. Ford, on the other hand, is mean toward his wife, believing that she is up to something.

Shallow and Host tell Ford and Page that there is to be a duel between Dr. Caius and Evans. Shallow asks that Page act as witness. Ford takes Host to the side and tells him that he is going to pay a little joke on Falstaff and asks Host to introduce him as Brook, when he comes to the inn. In another aside, Ford calls Page a fool for trusting his wife. He, on the other hand, will get to the bottom of it.

Act 2, Scene 2

Mistress Quickly comes to see Falstaff at the inn. She tells him that Mistress Ford sends a message that her husband will not be at home between ten and eleven, and she wishes him to visit her. Mistress Quickly also tells Falstaff that Mistress Page is also flattered by his letter; but her husband does not plan to be away, so she is sorry that they cannot meet. However, she hopes that a time will come in the future. Falstaff is impressed with his abilities to capture these women. He tells Mistress Quickly he will be at Mistress Ford's place at the recommended time.

Mistress Quickly leaves and Ford (disguised as Brook) enters. He makes a deal with Falstaff, offering him money to seduce Mistress Ford. The reason behind this, as Brook/Ford tells Falstaff, is that he wants to seduce Mistress Ford too. But so far, she will not give in to him. Brook/Ford flatters Falstaff, telling him how great his reputation with women is. If Falstaff uses his skills on Mistress Ford and wins, then Brook/Ford contends that his task will be that much easier. Before Brook/Ford leaves, Falstaff tells him that as coincidence will have it, he has been invited to the Ford home by Mistress Ford herself. Falstaff will be there, he tells Brook/Ford, between ten and eleven o'clock. Brook/Ford leaves partly excited because he has fooled Falstaff and partly disgusted that he is about to prove that his wife is unfaithful.

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Act 2, Scene 3

Dr. Caius waits in a field for Evans to show up for the duel. Host, Shallow, Slender, and Page appear. Shallow tries to argue that it is a shame for Caius and Evans to be fighting. Caius is a doctor, a mender of bodies, and Evans is a mender of souls. Host, in the meantime, makes fun of Caius, using English words that the French doctor does not understand. While Host is actually insulting Caius, Host tells the doctor that he is flattering him.

Act 3, Scene 1

Evans is in another field, waiting for Caius to appear. Simple has gotten the directions mixed up and has taken Evans to the wrong field. Caius eventually appears with Page, Host, Shallow, and Slender. Evans and Caius start to fight but the men break them up. They start to fight again but in the midst of it they talk to one another, suspecting that Host has set up this duel just so he can make the doctor and the pastor look like fools. Caius and Evans stop fighting. After everyone leaves, they decide to get revenge on Host.

Act 3, Scene 2

Ford bumps into Mistress Page on the street. When she tells him that she is on her way to his house to meet with his wife, Ford quietly scorns Page for being such a fool as to trust his wife, who is on her way to meet Falstaff at Ford's house.

Enter Page, Shallow, Slender, Host, Evans, Caius, and Caius's servant Rugby. Ford explains that he is supporting Slender's attempt to win his daughter; but he says that his wife is promoting Dr. Caius. Host asks about Fenton. Host suggests that he thinks Fenton is the better match. Page is very much against it. Ford asks that some of the men come home with him to dinner. He tells them that besides eating, he will show them some excitement. He promises them "a monster."

Act 3, Scene 3

At Ford's house, Mistress Page and Mistress Ford set up their plan to fool Falstaff. They have a large basket of dirty clothes sitting in the living room and have told two servants what to do with it when they call. Robin, the young boy page of Falstaff's arrives to tell the women that Falstaff is almost at the door. Robin has been brought into the wives' secret. The young boy is tricking his master and has not divulged that Mistress Page is there at the house.

Falstaff appears and woos Mistress Ford, telling her that he loves her and her alone. He wishes her husband dead. He will make her a lady of the court. Suddenly Robin, the young boy, rushes in, telling them that Mistress Page is running toward the house. Falstaff hides behind a curtain, while Mistress Page tells Mistress Ford that her husband is coming this way, with several men with him. Ford has heard that Mistress Ford may be having an affair with a gentleman and is on his way home to check. The wives made up this story beforehand to fool Falstaff. They did not know that Ford really was on his way home to catch his cheating wife.

Mistress Page comes up with the idea of stuffing Falstaff in the laundry basket. Two servants appear and carry Falstaff out of the house while inside the basket. Just then Ford, Page, and the other men appear. Ford asks what is in the basket. The wives say it is only laundry, and Ford allows the servants carrying the basket to pass by. Then he and the other men go through a mad search of the house. Ford is crazy to find Falstaff. The other men just go along with him, only half believing they will find anyone. They know how jealous Ford is and believe his jealousy has gotten the better of him.

The wives scheme to set up Falstaff again. While their husbands are hunting in the morning, they will invite Falstaff to the house again.

Act 3, Scene 4

Anne is with Fenton. Fenton professes his love for her, although he is not sure how he will win favor with her father. Anne presses him to continue to try. Then Shallow and Slender appear with Mistress Quickly. Mistress Quickly pulls Fenton to the side while Anne meets with Shallow and Slender. Shallow has to do most of the talking for Slender, who is all tongue-tied. Anne tells Shallow to allow Slender to woo for himself. But when Slender is alone with Anne, he is even worse. Anne's father appears and greets Slender wholeheartedly. When Page sees Fenton, he becomes angry and wants to know what Fenton is doing there. He tells Fenton to stay away from his daughter and he leaves, taking Shallow and Slender with him.

Mistress Quickly tells Fenton to appeal to Mistress Page, who is sitting with Anne. Fenton asks Mistress Page to accept him. She tells him that she will neither accept him nor deny him. She needs to talk to Anne about whom she loves Page 545  |  Top of Articleand then may consider him. Fenton leaves a ring with Mistress Quickly and tells her to give it to Anne. Mistress Quickly then leaves to meet with Falstaff.

Act 3, Scene 5

Ford, again disguised as Brook, is with Falstaff at the inn. Falstaff is telling Brook/Ford what happened with Mistress Ford. He says that in the middle of kissing her, Mistress Page arrives telling Mistress Ford that her husband is coming. Falstaff says he was there when the husband arrived, but the wives hid him in a laundry basket and he was carried out of the house. Brook/Ford can hardly stand what he is hearing. He sees how he was fooled.

Falstaff goes on and on about how much he has suffered, having been dumped out of the laundry basket by the servant men into the river. Brook/Ford then asks if Falstaff will have nothing more to do with Mistress Ford. Falstaff answers that he will visit her one more time, that morning, while her husband is hunting. Falstaff leaves. Ford cannot contain himself. He will not be fooled again, he claims. He will catch Falstaff in his house with his wife if it is the last thing he will do.

Act 4, Scene 1

This scene opens in the street, with Mistress Quickly, Mistress Page, and her son William. Evans, who is also the schoolteacher, passes by. Mistress Page says that her husband believes William has not been studying hard enough. Mistress Page asks Evans to quiz her son. Evans asks the boys for declensions of several Latin verbs. Mistress Quickly, who is uneducated, thinks the words have sexual undertones and is shocked that a child is learning such words. Evans, in his Welsh accent, makes the words hard to understand. This scene does not fit into the plot of the story and is used as a comedy routine to entertain the audience.

Act 4, Scene 2

At Ford's house, Falstaff is wooing Mistress Ford again. Mistress Page bursts in and Falstaff tries to hide. Mistress Page tells Mistress Ford that her husband is coming with a group of men again and that he knows how Falstaff escaped last time in a basket. Mistress Ford confesses that Falstaff is there and the women suggest that he hide in the basket again, but Falstaff refuses. Instead, they decide to disguise him as a woman. Because Falstaff is so portly, he will look like a maid that Ford hates and swears is a witch. Falstaff goes upstairs while Mistress Page tells Mistress Ford that her husband really is on his way and really knows about Falstaff having been hidden in the basket. Mistress Ford decides to trick her husband by having her servants standing at the door with the basket again, so her husband will think Falstaff is in it.

Ford enters his house and is crazed when he sees the men with the basket. He opens it up to find it empty. Then Mistress Ford asks the old woman (who is Falstaff in disguise) to come downstairs to leave. Ford cannot stand the sight of her and chases her around the house, beating her with a stick. Falstaff, in disguise, finally leaves. Ford leads the other men around the house, still searching for Falstaff. The wives decide to confess what has happened, in the hopes that men will work with them in a public disgrace of Falstaff.

Act 4, Scene 3

At the Garter Inn, Bardolph, Falstaff's manservant, is with Host. Bardolph tells Host that there are Germans with the duke who are in need of three of Host's horses. This is part of a scheme that Evans and Dr. Caius have created to get revenge on Host.

Act 4, Scene 4

At Ford's house, the wives have shown their husbands the letters that Falstaff sent them that began this caper. The men are drawn into the plot of publicly disgracing Falstaff. Ford apologizes to his wife and swears he will never be jealous again. Everyone works on the plot, using an old superstition about fairies. In the meanwhile, Page turns to Evans and says that he will, on the night they trick Falstaff, steal Anne away with Slender and have them married. On the other side of the room, Mistress Page schemes to have Anne steal away with Dr. Caius.

Act 4, Scene 5

At the Garter Inn, Bardolph enters to tell Host the Germans have run off with his horses. Evans arrives and tells Host to be aware of some Germans who have stolen from other people in other towns. Then Dr. Caius arrives and tells Host that there is no such duke. This is the revenge they have been planning.

Mistress Quickly arrives to tell Falstaff that both Mistress Page and Mistress Ford would like Page 546  |  Top of Articleto meet with him one more time. They depart to Falstaff's room so that Mistress Quickly can divulge the wives' plan.

Act 4, Scene 6

Fenton arrives and asks Host to help him to marry Anne. Ford has told Anne to wear a white dress and leave the fairy plot to marry Slender. Mistress Ford has told Anne to wear a green dress and leave to marry Dr. Caius. Fenton wants Host to provide a minister so he and Anne can be married. Fenton promises Host money if he can do this for him.

Act 5, Scene 1

Mistress Quickly convinces Falstaff to meet both women in the park that night. Falstaff believes there might be magic in the number three and agrees to meet the women one more time. Ford as Brook, again, appears and Falstaff says he will tell him about all the strange things that have happened. Falstaff says that he will have his revenge tonight.

Act 5, Scene 2

At the Windsor Park at night, Page, Shallow, and Slender enter in costumes, with children dressed as fairies. Slender confirms that Anne told him that he is to look for her dressed in a white dress. They will greet one another with a password, and then they will go off to be married.

Act 5, Scene 3

Mistress Page, Mistress Ford and Dr. Caius enter next. Mistress Page tells the doctor to look for Anne in a green dress. Dr. Caius is happy and leaves. The wives prepare to meet Falstaff for their final stage of revenge on him.

Act 5, Scene 4

Evans, dressed in costume, enters with more children in fairy costumes.

Act 5, Scene 5

Falstaff enters, disguised as Herne (the focus of an old story, a great hunter and keeper of the Forest of Windsor), with large horns on his head. Mistresses Page and Ford arrive but soon hear a noise and are frightened away. Evans and Mistress Quickly, along with a group of children, appear. Falstaff falls onto the ground, covering his face. Mistress Quickly talks of magic and fairies. Evans says he smells a man, and Mistress Quickly tries to burn him while she sets the children to pinching him, testing to see if he is honest.

Finally, everyone comes forward. Ford tells Falstaff that he was Brook. The wives let him know that they had played with him all along. Falstaff realizes that he has been made the fool.

Slender comes running into the group; he has by the hand, a costumed youth, dressed in a white dress. He has been tricked. It is a young boy under the dress, where it should have been Anne. Then Dr. Caius comes running with another youth in hand, one dressed in a green costume. It is another young boy, not Anne. Finally Fenton and Anne come forth and confess that they have been married. Their parents are angry but Fenton says that they should be ashamed of themselves for trying to marry Anne to someone she does not love.

Sidebar: HideShow


  • In 1982, The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) produced a televised version of Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor. Stealing the most attention in this adaptation was the actor Ben Kingsley, who created a very comical, if not pathetic, portrayal of the jealous husband Ford. Kingsley's performance alone is well worth the effort of seeing this film, which is now available on DVD.
  • The Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi's last opera, Falstaff (1893), was based on The Merry Wives of Windsor. A slightly later operatic adaptation was created by English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, called Sir John in Love (1929).

Then everyone, including Falstaff, is invited to a feast at Page's house. The play ends with a statement by Ford, who says that Brook shall finally have his wish, "For Brook this night, shall lie with Mistress Ford."

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Bardolph is one of Falstaff's men. His is a minor role, often found waiting on Falstaff rather than taking part in the action of the play. In the beginning of the play, when Falstaff admits that he is short of cash, he asks Host to take the service of Bardolph in exchange for Falstaff's room and board. Bardolph is one of the borrowed characters that Shakespeare took from his play Henry IV.


Brook (sometimes spelled Brooke) is the disguise that Ford makes for himself when he meets with Falstaff at the Garter Inn. Ford takes on this alter-persona so that he can make a deal with Falstaff. He asks Falstaff to seduce Mistress Ford, so that she will then have broken her vows to be faithful to her husband, an excuse she has allegedly used to avoid having an affair with Brook. Once Mistress Ford has given herself to Falstaff, however, Brook tells Falstaff, it will be easier for him to also seduce her. Brook claims he loves Mistress Ford. It is through this gimmick that Ford hopes to prove that his wife is cheating on him.

Dr. Caius

Dr. Caius is a local doctor. He is French and speaks with a thick accent. He also misuses some English words. Because of this, he is often made fun of. Dr. Caius wants to marry Anne Page, not necessarily out of love but rather as one might run a race to win a trophy. Caius believes he deserves Anne. Caius is Mistress Page's choice for Anne to marry, presumably for the position that Caius holds in the community.

As an outsider, Caius relates to Evans, the Welsh parson. They put their heads together and come to realize that the local people mock them; and so they work together to seek revenge, particularly on Host, who at one time sets Caius and Evans up in a duel against one another. Caius is used to show the sentiments, in Shakespeare's time, against foreigners. He also represents an older form of suitor, one who can promise money but not necessarily love.

Sir Hugh Evans

Evans is a Welsh parson. He helps to open the play with Shadow and Slender, who are scheming on how to win Anne's hand for Slender. Evans eventually befriends Dr. Caius, the other outsider in this play. Together they scheme to get revenge on Host, who often mocks them. Evans is used as comic relief in the first scene of act 4, when he tests Mistress Page's young son, William, in Latin. Evans mispronounces words and some of his logic is faulty—things that modern audiences might have missed but would have proven funny for Shakespeare's audiences.

Sir John Falstaff

Falstaff is a borrowed knight from Shakespeare's earlier play Henry IV. He is fat, conceited, and very sure of himself. He believes women will fall for him if he pays attention to them, which he does not just to seduce them but also to steal some of their money. He is married, but no mention of his wife is made in the play. He pursues married women because they are the controllers of their husbands' finances, or at least this is what Falstaff believes.

Falstaff may have a haughty title but he is all but destitute. His men steal, and share their bounty with him. He hunts in other people's woods and steals their sources of food. He is eloquent, especially in the art of wooing, but he is also rather naïve when it comes to women. Because he believes himself to be smarter than women, he does not suspect the wives in this play are capable of uncovering his plot.

In Shakespeare's time, country wives were often seduced by gentlemen of noble rank, so Falstaff's ideas are not very creative. What is new in this play is the cleverness of the women to unmask Falstaff for what he is—a conniving womanizer and a thief. Page is the only person in this play who seems to enjoy Falstaff, or at least to forgive Falstaff for his weaknesses. Page invites Falstaff to dinner several times, even after Page discovers that Falstaff has been trying to take his wife to bed. In the end, Falstaff is forced to face his errors as the people in the community publicly humiliate him. Falstaff never apologizes, but he does say, "I do begin to perceive that I am made an ass." However, in one of his last lines in the play, he is still very pompous, as he ridicules Evans's Welsh accent, referring to Evans's speech as "one that makes fritters of English." It is bad enough that Falstaff has been the center of a public ridicule, but according to Falstaff, having to take insults from Evans was the worst part of it.


Fenton is a noble gentleman, mistrusted by Page to be a proper suitor for his daughter. There were a Page 548  |  Top of Article
Brewster Mason as Sir John Falstaff, Richard Moore as Master Ford, Ben Kingsley as Slender, Tim Wylton as Bardolph and Emrys James as Evans in Act I, scene I at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, 1975 Brewster Mason as Sir John Falstaff, Richard Moore as Master Ford, Ben Kingsley as Slender, Tim Wylton as Bardolph and Emrys James as Evans in Act I, scene I at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, 1975 (© Donald Cooper/Photostage. Reproduced by permission) lot of noblemen in Shakespeare's time that owned titles and land but had little cash. Even Fenton admits to Anne that the idea of marrying her was at first determined because he knew her father had wealth. However, Fenton tells Anne that after he came to know her, he fell in love with her.

Fenton represents a more modern look at love and marriage, at least for Shakespeare's time, when marrying for love was not a common practice. Fenton and Anne, in disobeying her parents, tricking the other suitors, and finding a minister who would marry them in secret, display strength for theatre-goers in the Elizabethan era. Anne could have been disowned by her father, and then the couple would have no money to sustain them. Their love, however, was so strong they were willing to take the chance. Anne admits her love for Fenton, and at the end of they play, they do marry.


Ford is a very well-off country man, one of the prime characters of this play, and the very jealous husband of Mistress Ford. He appears to be a fool, as jealousy jerks him around by the nose; he loves his wife one minute and curses her the next for his perceived notions that she is cheating on him. Although Mistress Ford sets up her scheme of trickery to catch Falstaff in her net, she soon realizes that she can also bring her own husband to his knees. The harder Ford tries to catch his wife under the seductive spell of Falstaff, the sillier he looks. He disguises himself as Brook and offers Falstaff money to woo Ford's wife. In this way, Ford will know when Falstaff is with her and will be able to expose them, or at least this is what Ford believes. But his jealousy blinds him. When he has the chance to uncover Falstaff's plan, he ignores blatant clues that are set before him.

Toward the end of the play, Ford admits his foolishness and begs forgiveness. His wife, who truly loves him in spite of his crazy jealousy, takes him into her arms. When Ford confronts Falstaff at the end, he claims victory over him Page 549  |  Top of Articlewhen he states that Brook (Ford's disguise) has won Mistress Ford and will spend the night with her. This is a sign that Ford has healed. He admits his mistakes and then pokes fun at himself.

Mistress Ford

Mistress Ford is one of the merry wives and a prime character of this play. She is married to Ford, the jealous husband. She is a close friend of Mistress Page's, who confides in her that she has received an almost perfect duplication of the letter Mistress Ford was given from Falstaff. Mistress Ford has a delightful sense of humor when it comes to Falstaff. Instead of being disgusted by his advances, she makes fun of his gestures and then schemes with Mistress Page to ridicule the knight. Mistress Ford, although hurt by her husband's jealousy, is willing to accept him after he learns his lesson and apologizes to her, demonstrating not only a clever wit but an open heart. She is confident in herself, able to lure Falstaff into her web and is undistracted by the chances she takes to make a fool of her husband and his jealous antics.


Host runs the Garter Inn, where Falstaff stays during the play. He is a secondary character, involved in the subplot of mocking Evans and Dr. Caius. He is the victim in Evans's and Caius's scheme of stealing Host's horses. Host also takes on Bardolph, one of Falstaff's men, in exchange for Falstaff's room and board. In the end, Host is all but bankrupt. However, Fenton offers him money to help Fenton wed Anne.


Nym is one of Falstaff's men, a minor character in this play. He is involved in some of the thievery that exists around Falstaff, such as stealing pocket money from one character or another and sharing it with Falstaff. However, Nym will not become involved in Falstaff's scheme to woo the wives of Page and Ford. Instead, Nym goes to the husbands and tells them of Falstaff's plans.


Page is a country gentleman, living comfortably well. He is one of the main characters, the husband of Mistress Page, and the father of Anne and William. In comparison to Ford, Page is an ideal husband. He scoffs at Falstaff's men when they tell him that Falstaff is scheming to seduce his wife. Page has complete faith in his wife's love and completely trusts her. Page is a very forgiving man and a peacemaker. When other villagers complain of Falstaff's manners and lack of virtue, Page invites everyone to forget their petty grievances and come to dinner. Even at the end of the play, when Falstaff's plans of seduction are exposed, Page invites the old knight to join them in a feast. Page also forgives his daughter and Fenton, her new husband, although he was totally against their marriage. Page did not trust Fenton because he suspected the nobleman was marrying his daughter for Page's money. His anger is quieted rather quickly, though, and the play ends with Page not only forgiving Fenton and his daughter but asking everyone else to pardon any offenses that were incurred throughout the course of this make-believe expanse of time

Anne Page

Anne is the young girl of marriage age who has three suitors in this play. Although she does not appear often on stage, she is the center of the largest subplot. Three men, one of them a simple fool, the other an old arrogant man, and the third a gentle nobleman, all vie for her hand. Anne is bored with the fool and repulsed by the old arrogant man. Her heart is saved for the nobleman. She pleads with her father to accept her choice, but her father does not like him. Anne turns to her mother, who refuses to hear her pleas of love. Anne decides that the only way to true happiness is to trust her own instincts. So she tricks her parents and the two suitors and marries Fenton at the end of the play. Anne represents an emerging model of womanhood in Shakespeare's time, a woman with a voice of her own and the courage to stand up to her parents and to tradition.

Mistress Page

Mistress Page is the other merry wife in this play, married to Page and mother to Anne and William. She is very comfortable in her marriage and confident in her love of her husband. She is also a very close friend of Mistress Ford's and feels sorry for her because of Mistress Ford's jealous husband. She comforts Mistress Ford when Ford belittles his wife and mistrusts her. Mistress Page receives a letter from Falstaff, a duplicate of the one that Mistress Ford shows her. She laughs at Falstaff's arrogance and then immediately works on a plot Page 550  |  Top of Articlefor revenge. Mistress Page pretends to not know of Falstaff's wooing Mistress Ford and walks in on them, warning Mistress Ford that her husband is coming home. Falstaff falls for this scheme twice, which amuses both Mistress Page and Mistress Ford. Their merriment culminates when Ford beats Falstaff while Falstaff is disguised in woman's clothing, a befitting conclusion to the trouble he tried to make for the wives.

Although witty and charming, Mistress Page is very controlling in relationship to her daughter's future. She wants her daughter to marry Dr. Caius and does not listen to her daughter's confession of love for Fenton. Mistress Page schemes against her husband, trying to trick him when his back is turned, and tries to marry Anne to Dr. Caius in secret. However, her daughter, who must have inherited her mother's wittiness and ability to scheme, runs off with her own heart's choice, Fenton. Mistress Page is not one to hold anger in her heart though. In the end, she forgives Anne quite quickly and, after ridiculing Falstaff, she suggests that her husband invite the old knight to dinner.

William Page

William is the son of Page and Mistress Page. His only scene is a very short one. He appears with his mother, Mistress Quickly, and the pastor Evans. Evans quizzes William on different Latin words and word meanings. The young boy does well, proving that he has been studying, despite his father's notions to the contrary. William is like the straight man in a comedy routine as Evans and Mistress Quickly make the audience laugh in this scene.


Pistol is another of Falstaff's men. Like Nym, Pistol is involved in thievery but refuses to take part in the scheme that Falstaff devises to woo Mistresses Page and Ford. Pistol goes with Nym to tell the husbands of Falstaff's plans.

Mistress Quickly

Mistress Quickly is one of the borrowed characters from Shakespeare's earlier plays Henry IV and Henry V. Mistress Quickly is not well educated and her misinterpretations of language cause many moments of laughter. She is the busybody of the community, involved in everyone's affairs. People come to her to find out details of other people's lives, such as Fenton, who asks Mistress Quickly to help him gain the approval of Page and his wife, so Fenton can marry Anne. Mistress Quickly also helps the Mistresses Ford and Page deceive Falstaff. She tells Falstaff that the wives are very interested in him and also relays their messages as to when to meet. Mistress Quickly's observations are not always true. She often believes she is the only one who understands everything that is happening in the community. Due to her lack of education, though, her interpretations are often misguided by her own emphasis on sexuality.


Robin is the young boy who works as Falstaff's page. When the Mistresses Ford and Page are tricking Falstaff, Robin vows himself to help the wives and becomes involved in their scheme.


Rugby is Dr. Caius's servant. His role is very minor, used mostly just to show how pompous Caius is as he orders Rugby to follow him around.


Shallow is the local justice and cousin to Slender. He is an old, somewhat whiney man who promotes Slender as a suitor for Anne Page.


Simple, as his name implies, is the very simpleminded servant to Slender. He delivers messages, sometimes quite incorrectly.


Slender is cousin to Shallow and one of Anne Page's suitors. He is very awkward around Anne, becoming tongue-tied in her presence. He talks of foolish things and is extremely nervous and unsure of himself. He wants Anne's hand mostly because his cousin Shallow suggests it. For some unexplained reason, Slender is Page's choice for his daughter's husband. The only credit Slender demonstrates in front of Page is that he is easily ordered around, doing whatever he is told.



In Shakespeare's play The Merry Wives of Windsor, the character Ford is an extremely suspicious man, making him an easy target for Page 551  |  Top of Articlejealousy. Although his wife gives him no cause to be so jealous, Ford is rude with his wife, accusing her at every turn, of betraying him. When Mistress Ford is approached by Falstaff, who states that he wants to have an affair with her, she realizes that this is a great opportunity to get back at her husband. So she hatches a plan not only to humiliate Falstaff but also to teach her husband a lessons.

Jealousy, which Shakespeare also demonstrates in the tragedy of Othello in a more serious vein, can completely distort one's perceptions. This green-eyed monster, as Shakespeare coined the phrase, can debilitate a person's rational mind and drive that person crazy. Ford has the potential to be such a man. He loves his wife but does not trust her. So he hatches his own scheme to try to prove that his wife is cheating on him. It is interesting to note that in some ways, Ford almost derives pleasure in his search. One side of him wants to prove that his wife is betraying him but another side wants to show his friends that he was right all along, that he has had good reason for his runaway emotions.

As if to demonstrate just how insane his jealousy has made him, Shakespeare has Ford continually berate Page for being so stupid in trusting his wife. Not only does Ford relish being right in proving his wife's infidelity with Falstaff, he also is excited about exposing Page for the fool he is for not seeing how Page is also being made a cuckold. Ford says in the second scene of act 2: "Cuckold? the devil himself hath not such a name. Page is an ass, a secure ass." Then Ford says: "God be prais'd for my jealousy!" In other words, he believes himself a better man for his jealous emotions. Anyone who is not, such as Page, is less blessed.

Ford finds a comfort in his outlandish emotions. He believes his jealousy is more true to him than Page's faith in his wife. Then Ford reveals himself even further when he says that he will discover his wife with Falstaff and be avenged. And when he does this, he will be able to "laugh at Page," which appears to be just as enticing as exposing his wife and Falstaff. Ford's jealousy, at this point, has reached such a high pitch that it has completely consumed his life. It is the source of his energy. Nothing will stop him, except the truth. When Ford eventually discovers the truth and that his wife is indeed faithful—he is humbled by it.

Through Ford, Shakespeare demonstrates how blind jealousy can make a person. Ford has a devoted wife, whom he might have lost through his jealousy. His wife is strong, although in the beginning of the play, the audience can see her frustration. Had she been less in love with her husband, the jealousy might have ruined them both.

A Cuckold

In Shakespeare's time, a cuckold was a term used to describe a man who did not know that his wife was having a sexual affair with another man. To be called a cuckold was demeaning in many ways. First, it was humiliating that the wife went to bed with another man. Second, it insinuated that the man could not control his wife. A cuckold was also ridiculed because he could not satisfy his wife due to her seemingly unnatural sexual appetite. Shakespeare often used the cuckolded husband, or at least the idea of such betrayal, in both his comedies and in his tragedies, such as Othello.

In The Merry Wives of Windsor, Ford, in disguise as Brook, has trouble swallowing the term when Falstaff continues to refer to Mistress Ford's husband as being a cuckold. The word cuckold seems more discomforting to Ford than the actual possibility of the affair between Ford's wife and Falstaff. The references to a cuckold are often accompanied with the idea that the husband grows horns on his head because of his blindness, or ignorance, of his wife's illicit affairs. Later, at the end of the play, when Falstaff is wearing horns in the last scene, Ford is able to throw the term back at Falstaff, asking "Now, sir, who's a cuckold now?"

Love and Marriage

Shakespeare presents various forms of love in this play, setting them against one another for comparison and evaluation. First, there is the love of Mistress Page and her husband. This is a very healthy type of love and marriage. The two people trust one another and for the length of the play, treat one another as equals. Page laughs at Falstaff's approach to his wife, knowing that his wife's love for him is secure. Page also demonstrates a more general love, a love of mankind, as he does his best to bring together the different opponents in the many arguments that occur in the course of this play. Standing opposite this pair, is the marriage of Ford and Mistress Ford. They also have love of one Page 552  |  Top of Articleanother but it is very different from the Pages's love. Mistress Ford is completely frustrated about her husband's lack of trust in her. Ford is extremely jealous and insecure both in himself and in his wife. That mistrust could eventually destroy their marriage. However, Mistress Ford's love is strong, so she patiently waits for her husband to rid himself of his negative emotions. When given the opportunity to help Ford see the light, Mistress Ford decides to take matters into her own hands and give her husband a lesson, demonstrating just how faithful she is.

A foil for both of these married couples is Sir John Falstaff. He is married, but his wife never appears. Falstaff lives as a bachelor throughout the play, wooing other married women with no thought of his wife. He is the worst example of a husband that is involved in this play. He shows no emotions for anyone, except for himself. Whereas Ford is overly invested in his emotions, to the point that they begin to drive him crazy, Falstaff seems incapable of any feeling, not even remorse after he has been caught and exposed. Of the three main husbands, Page is the most rational in his love. It flows freely for his wife but he is not obsessed with it.

Then there is the subplot, which revolves around Anne Page. Her three suitors exemplify three different concepts of marriage, with or without love. Slender does not appear to know what he wants in marriage, love, or even life. He is a bit of a buffoon, doing what he is told and rarely questioning his own emotions. His cousin Shallow tells Slender that he should woo Anne. Then Shallow tells him when to woo Anne. When Anne appears, it is Shallow who does the wooing for Slender. Anne sees that Slender is a fool and has no interest in him. Even this does not seem to bother Slender. Page wants Anne to marry Slender, though it is hard to determine why Slender is Page's choice, except that maybe Slender is safe, has his own money, and will do as he is told. This, Shakespeare is saying, would not be a good choice for Anne.

The second suitor is Dr. Caius, who appears to have a better idea of what he wants in life. He has, after all, gone through college, studying medicine, and obtaining his credentials to practice his skills. However, Caius shows very little emotion, except when he is bossing people around. His manner shows that he expects everyone around him to do what he decides is best for him. People are just pawns in Caius's life. Those who are not make fun of him, most of which goes over Caius's head. Caius is never shown wooing Anne. Rather, Caius goes through Mistress Quickly and Mistress Page when he talks of marriage. The idea of a wife for Caius appears to be like a commodity, something to be bought and brought home. Anne is aware of the lack of affection on Caius's part, and she, likewise, has no feelings for the older man.

Fenton, on the other hand, is so honest about his feelings that he even confesses that at first, before he got to know Anne, he considered marrying her for her father's money. He tells Anne that this changed when he realized that her value was greater than any amount of gold. This is the love of Shakespeare's choice, as well as Anne's. Ironically, the marriage between Anne and Fenton, despite the fact that both Page and his wife are against it, is the one most likely to be as fresh, healthy, and invigorating as the marriage of Anne's parents. This is because the marriage is based on love.


There is a lot of discussion of money in this play. First, there is the mention of the money that Page has, thus making the marriage of Anne such a reward. Shallow talks Slender into wooing Anne because of the money he would receive in exchange.

There is likewise the issue of a lack of money, represented by Falstaff and his crew of men. They are all accused of some sort of theft, whether it is from picking Slender's pockets or Falstaff killing deer on Shallow's land, also called poaching; in Elizabethan England, poaching was a crime akin to stealing money or other goods. Later, Falstaff must give away the services of one of his men in order to pay Host for his room and board at the inn. And when Nym and Pistol ask to borrow money from Falstaff, they are turned away. They are all broke.

Brook comes to Falstaff and offers him money to woo Mistress Ford. Fenton gives Mistress Quickly money so that she will help him marry Anne. And finally, there is Dr. Caius, whom Mistress Page chooses as a husband for her daughter because he has money. There is also Page, who dislikes Fenton as a choice of husband for Anne because Fenton does not have money.

Money, in this play, does not determine class. Falstaff and Fenton are actually in a social class that outranks that of Page and Ford. And yet Page and Ford live more comfortably because Page 553  |  Top of Articlethey both have money. This portrayal shows the rise of the middle class, the merchants and businessmen, who may not own a lot of land or live in castles but who, nonetheless, control much of the action in the play based on many factors, the most dominant of which is money. Falstaff, the major representative of the impoverished nobility, on the other hand, is made to look like a fool. Fenton escapes Falstaff's fate, but only because he marries into the moneyed merchant class and thus wins its favor.


The act of revenge is played out in many different ways in this comedy. The main plot is filled with it as the wives seek their revenge on Falstaff for his having been so arrogant as to send duplicate letters to each of them. It was not bad enough that he thought he could woo them away from their husbands, but Falstaff added the insult of not even caring enough to compose separate letters for each woman. They therefore decide that Falstaff must be punished for his conceit.

The wives are playful in their revenge at first, dumping Falstaff in the river for his deceit. But as the play continues, the wives heap more punishment upon him because they find him such an easy target. The wives' scheming becomes more complicated when Mistress Ford realizes that she can also seek revenge on her husband who has hurt her with his unending jealousy. The wives' second plot against Falstaff is probably more dependent on Mistress Ford's revenge on her husband than anything to do with Falstaff. Falstaff just happens to be the character through which Mistress Ford can teach her husband a lesson. At the successful completion of the second scheme, Falstaff is beaten, to the enjoyment of the wives, who laugh as Ford chases Falstaff through the house, hitting him with sticks and pokers.

The husbands want to become involved in the revenge once they learn of the mischievous actions of Falstaff. And so Falstaff is punished once again.

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  • Research the role of women in Elizabethan times. List their duties and responsibilities, the jobs they held, the variations between women of different classes, their education, their dress, etc. Once this list is compiled, present it to your class to stimulate a discussion of women and their lives in the United States in various periods. Possibilities are Western pioneer women, women in the early colonies, women in the 1920s, 1950s, or women of today. How does each era differ? Are there any similarities?
  • Find definitions of jealousy as described by psychologists. What are the effects of jealousy? What remedies are suggested? What defects are found in a personality who succumbs to jealousy? What different levels are there of jealousy? Are any of these levels actually healthy in any way? Present your findings to your class.
  • What were the highest qualities that knights in the Middle Ages were supposed to uphold? What were their primary duties? How were they viewed in their communities? How does Sir John Falstaff, as he is rendered in this play, compare to those standards? Present a chart to your class, not only listing the optimal traits of medieval knights, along with Falstaff's strengths or weaknesses, but also drawing caricatures of both the best possible knight and what Falstaff might have represented.
  • Mistress Page sets up Falstaff's last public humiliation of this play by referring to the story of Herne the Hunter. Research this fable, focusing on modern adaptations of the story, and create a short play about Herne which shows what he stands for today in some cultures.

Shakespeare encourages revenge, it appears, or at least that was the convention of comedy in his time. With revenge comes laughter and enjoyment, at least for those who successfully seek revenge and win it. The play does soften the edges a little at the end, however. Page encourages everyone who has either sought revenge, or been the victim of it, to come together, forget everything that has been done, and find some way to get along.

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Shakespearean Citizen Comedy

The Merry Wives of Windsor is classified as a comedy and fits into the mold of what was referred to, in Shakespeare's time, as a citizen comedy. The basic elements of this play, such as the jealous husbands, the merry wives, the practical jokes, and the leering knights, were common and therefore familiar to theater-goers of the late 1500s and continuing into the seventeenth century. Most of the humor is based on the differences in the various classes, either between the lower and middle classes or the middle and higher classes. This is the basic structure of Shakespeare's play, however, he created his own unique changes to the form. In the end, the merry wives, who were often lured away from their husbands by the knights in other plays, were more faithful to their vows of marriage and more clever in their duping of the knight. The husbands, therefore, did not become cuckolds, as they would have in other plays. In Shakespeare's hands, instead of the husband becoming the fool, the knight was made into one.

Shakespeare's Blank Verse

Shakespeare typically writes his plays in blank verse, a metered form of poetry without any rhyming scheme. In his play The Merry Wives of Windsor he continues to use blank verse but only infrequently. In many of his plays, Shakespeare used blank verse to set off the language of members of the upper classes from that of the common citizens. In some ways, he does the same in this play. Fenton, for example, most often speaks in blank verse. One can recognize this form just by looking at the way the words and phrases are set on the page. For example, in act 3, scene 4, Fenton is professing his love to Anne Page. The ends of the sentences do not reach the right-hand side of the page, and each new phrase, beginning on the left side of the page begins with a capital letter. The lines are metered, and one can count the syllables in each line. They will add up to ten. This is called iambic pentameter, which is five sets of two syllables, with the first syllable unstressed and the second one stressed. See the first line of iambic pentameter in Fenton's speech: "He doth object, I am too great of birth." The word he is unstressed. The word doth is stressed. The first syllable in the word object is unstressed. And the second syllable in that word is stressed. Then, continue reading through the line with the same rhythm or beat.

Fenton is not the only character that speaks in blank verse. Falstaff does it occasionally too. What is surprising is that Mistress Quickly also is provided with blank verse. She is one of the least likely characters to speak in this way, especially because it is obvious, according to her misunderstanding or misinterpretation of language in other parts of the play. However, the only time Mistress Quickly is given lines in blank verse is when she is pretending to be the Fairy Queen in act 5. So for this occasion, she has been promoted to the noble class, in a way, and therefore her language is also elevated.

The majority of the lines in this play are written in prose, as if the characters were making general conversation as they would if the were not on a stage.


In act 4, in particular, Shakespeare has fun playing with words. This is another way that he can make his audience laugh. A pun is created when one word that sounds just like or similar to another word is used to either make another person laugh or to confuse that person, or to make some other rhetorical point. In order to create a pun, a language must have homonyms, or words that sound the same but are spelled differently. English has a lot of these words. One example of a homonym would be the set of words see and sea.

In act 4, scene 1, William Page, the young son of Mistress Page, is being tested by Evans in Latin. Evans asks William to give him the word fair in Latin. William answers "Pulcher." Mistress Quickly, however, hears the word "Polecat" come out of William's mouth and declares that there must be something else that is much more fair than a polecat. The educated members of the audience would have gotten this joke, as most of them would have studied Latin.

The confusion continues through the scene, as Mistress Quickly confuses the Latin word "caret" for the vegetable carrot; and when William produces the genitive case plural of the pronoun he (horum, harum, horum), Mistress Quickly thinks that the young boy is calling someone a whore, and berates Parson Evans for teaching the boy such words.

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Queen Elizabeth

To understand the culture surrounding Shakespeare's plays, it is important to understand the reigning monarch. Queen Elizabeth I, the only surviving child of the infamous King Henry VIII (1491–1547) and his second wife, Anne Boleyn, was the ruling power in England from 1558, when she was just twenty-four-years old, until 1603. She ruled for forty-five years, providing a strong influence on her people, the economy, and the political power that the country would enjoy. It was also during her reign that England enjoyed a cultural, scientific, and artistic renaissance.

In 1554, four years before her coronation, Elizabeth spent two months as a prisoner in the Tower of London for her alleged involvement in trying to stop her half-sister, Queen Mary I, from marrying the king of Spain—an alliance that would have strengthened Mary's bid to return England to Catholicism. There was even a consideration to put Elizabeth to death, though no one wanted to be responsible for killing a member of the then-powerful Tudor family, of which Elizabeth was a part. Upon Mary's death in 1558, Elizabeth ascended the throne.

Queen Elizabeth was a very popular queen. Part of this might have been due to the fact that her predecessor was relentless in her pursuit of controlling the lives of her people, persecuting them for their religious beliefs if they did not return to Catholicism. For the many deaths that were accredited to her reign, Queen Mary came to be called Bloody Mary. Queen Elizabeth, in contrast, was well liked for her varied interests in science, the arts, and even for her tastes in fashion.

Elizabeth is often referred to as the Virgin Queen because she never married. She was in love though, with Robert Dudley, a man who was socially beneath her, which did not matter to her but did affect her council, who refused to sanction a marriage between them. Some historians contend that Elizabeth did not want to marry for fear of losing her independence and control of her wealth. Another theory associates her unwillingness to marry to the experience that her mother suffered under Henry VIII. Elizabeth's mother was accused of treason, was imprisoned in the Tower of London and was eventually beheaded.

Portrait of of Queen Elizabeth I in her coronation robes, circa 1590 Portrait of of Queen Elizabeth I in her coronation robes, circa 1590 (© Fine Art Photographic Library/Corbis)

In 2002, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) conducted a poll to find out who were the top one hundred greatest Britons ever. Queen Elizabeth I ranked seventh, the highest rating for a monarch in that poll. Queen Elizabeth died on March 24, 1602, at the age of sixty-nine, the oldest age for a reigning monarch up until that time.

Elizabethan Marriage

Typically, in Elizabethan times, upper-class women (and many young men also) had very little say about whom they would marry. Many weddings were arranged, most often for the benefit of the family, either in social prestige, land, or wealth. Many women of the Elizabethan Age were raised to believe that they were inferior in intellect and virtue and therefore subservient to men. (This caused some havoc for Queen Elizabeth I, of course.) For a young woman to obey her father was not only a sign of compliance with society but also with the church. The woman was also expected to bring a dowry consisting of money or valuable objects, with her for her husband. Husbands ruled the finances, but women who were entitled to an Page 556  |  Top of Articleinheritance were able to manage their own affairs. The legal age for marriage was twelve for girls and fourteen for boys, though rarely did boys and girls of this young age get married. In the nobility, future husbands and wives may not have met their mates until the day of the wedding. Although arranged marriages were common in the upper classes, there also was an attitude, even in the church, that parents should also listen to the desires of their children in making marriage partner choices.

Windsor, Berkshire, England

Windsor is the setting for Shakespeare's play The Merry Wives of Windsor and is known for the royal castle that is built there, the largest, inhabited castle in the world. Windsor is located in southeast England on the River Thames.

The British town was established around 1066 when William the Conqueror chose the site for a fort. The castle that now stands in Windsor has been used as a royal residence since the eleventh century. Prisoners have also, involuntarily, made the castle their home, when the castle was used to imprison foreign royalty, such as King John II of France from 1356–1360.

It has been said that the first performance of Shakespeare's play The Merry Wives of Windsor was held inside Windsor Castle. The Garter Inn, where Falstaff stays in the play, is based on a real establishment in Windsor, now called the Hart and Garter on High Street.

Knights of the Order of the Garter

The Garter Inn was named after the Royal Order of the Garter, a somewhat elitist fraternity of knights. There were several different orders, but the Order of the Garter was considered the most pre-eminent. King Edward III (1327–1377) is said to have established the Order of the Garter some time around 1348, possibly as an attempt to create a virtual Knights of the Round Table from the myths surrounding the tales of King Arthur and Sir Galahad. The Order of the Garter always contained twenty-four knights, the current monarch and the Prince of Wales. The home base was Windsor Castle. The origin of the symbol of the garter is obscure. Some believe it might have been the garter of one of the king's lovers. Others believe that the garter was a special emblem of chivalry, given to knights on special occasions and worn just below the knee.

Legend of Herne the Hunter

In The Merry Wives of Windsor Mistress Page tells of the myth of Herne, a local story passed down probably from Celtic mythology. Herne was a godlike creature who was said to lead a procession of spirits through the countryside, hunting, killing, and feasting on everything in their sight. In pre-Christian times, Herne was associated with the god of fertility and imagined to be a stag, or male deer. The figure of Herne was both erotic and frightening, the ultimate wild man of the forest. Whenever the alarm was sounded that Herne was in the woods, people would lock up their animals in the barn and then hide themselves in their houses so they would not be chased, molested, or eaten. There are many such stories in Europe about a wild man or wild woman of the forest. Each country has its own list of names associated with these godlike characters. Herne is specifically linked to Windsor and was said to haunt Windsor Great Park at night. In the play, Mistress Page suggests that Falstaff be costumed as Herne, including wearing the head and horns of a stag.

In the Middle Ages, the wild man or woman of the forest was connected to witchcraft and sometimes referred to as Satan. In contemporary times, pagan religions are turning to the Great Hunter as a positive symbol of the masculine element of God.

Elizabethan Class Structure

In Elizabethan England, life was changing away from an emphasis on community and toward the individual. There was a definite social structure with nobility and the knights at the top of the ladder, as it had been in the Middle Ages, but change was in the air. The merchant class was growing fast both in numbers and influence, but also in wealth.

The nobility had privileges that the other classes did not enjoy. Nobles, for the most part, were divided into two sections, the old nobles, whose titles had been handed down from generation to generation, and the new nobles, with titles recently granted by a monarch. Most of the old nobles were Catholic, and, for the most part, new nobles were Protestant. Nobles did not have to vow an allegiance to the Church of England and therefore, the old nobles were not persecuted when Henry VIII or Elizabeth I was in power. At the head of a noble family was a duke, baron, or an earl. Queen Elizabeth was known, as Page 557  |  Top of Articlewas her father, as a monarch not very willing to grant new titles, as they saw the nobility as a threat to their power. Elizabeth's council, however, was made up of people from the noble class.

Being a member of the noble class did not guarantee wealth. Some nobles were rich in land but poor in cash. Money did not necessarily come with the title—quite the opposite, in some cases. Nobles were often responsible for housing, feeding, and entertaining foreign dignitaries and paying all the expenses they incurred. They also had their reputations as lavish entertainers to keep up, especially when it came to the monarchs. Queen Elizabeth was known for her travels around the country. She would stay with noble families rather than staying in inns, bringing part of her court with her, and expecting to be taken care of as she went from one noble house to another. Fenton was a member of the noble class, while Sir John Falstaff was a member of the gentry, a slightly lower ranking class.

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  • 1600s: Windsor is a small town on the Thames River. It is a community of merchants and their servants and surrounds the focal point, Windsor Castle, which is an active center of nobility and gathering place for the Knights of the Garter.
    Today: Over 100,000 people live in Windsor, which has become a popular tourist attraction, known for its history and a huge Legoland, which includes amusement park rides, interactive building projects, and a simulation of the city of London built out of Lego building blocks.
  • 1600s: Queen Elizabeth I rules England, proclaiming which religion her citizens should follow as well as exemplifying contemporary fashion. Her interest in the arts helps to promote the burgeoning renaissance, especially in literature.
    Today: Queen Elizabeth II is the figurehead monarch in the United Kingdom. Her family is often mocked in the local tabloids. Members of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, most of them elected by British citizens, rule the country.
  • 1600s: Besides new titles being given to individuals by the current monarch, titles such as baron, earl, and duke are inherited from one generation to the next, through the male line, thus guaranteeing that a noble family will remain in this social class until the family completely dies out.
    Today: There are no more inherited noble titles. Titles are given by the monarch, through the advice of parliament, and last only until that person dies.
  • 1600s: Knights are warriors and are considered part of the aristocracy of England. They were the ranking officers in the military.
    Today: The title of knight is only an honorary one, often given to people who accomplished great feats in areas such as sports, entertainment, the arts, and science. For instance, the singer Elton John was knighted, as was the creator of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee.

Below Fenton's and Falstaff's social class came that of Ford and Page. This was the merchant class. The rise of the merchant class was due to several changes in English society. The increase in trade with other countries as England's explorers traveled around the world increased the wealth in the merchant class. Traders sold woolen products from England and brought back new commodities from other exotic locations from which to make a profit at home. Young boys were receiving formal educations, and literacy rates were rising, giving men wider opportunities in the job market. The Black Page 558  |  Top of ArticlePlague had killed thousands of people, which produced a labor shortage. This gave laborers an advantage, and wages were rising as a result. There were also professional guilds to which a boy could apprentice himself, learn a trade, and eventually go out and open his own shop. These are some of the circumstances that helped men accumulate wealth, and in some instances, provide a means of climbing up from a poor class to a merchant class. Most members of the merchant class owned their own homes and were beginning to vie with nobility in the ownership of land. Political power for the merchant class was also on the rise, providing its members a voice in government. Such was the case for Nicholas Mosley, a member of the merchant class who became mayor of London in 1599. Page and Ford fit the profile of the merchant class.

The lower class members rarely received an education, owned property, or had any say in their government. They worked for the lowest wages, taking on jobs as servants and maids to members of the other classes. Mistress Quickly, as well as Simple and Rugby, are representative of the lower class.

Food Eaten in Elizabethan Windsor

There is much mention of food in the this play. Page and Ford ask people to eat with them at the end of many of the scenes. Many people still raised their own domestic animals, which included cows, lambs, chickens, ducks, geese, and goats, which would be slaughtered for the noontime meal, the biggest meal of the day. Also swans, peacocks, pigeons, and doves might have been included. On the wild side, animals such as deer, wild boar, rabbits, hedgehogs, herons, cranes, and pheasants might have been added to the table. There were also many different types of fish caught and cooked for the meal, including shellfish such as oysters, mussels, and cockles. As for vegetables, tomatoes were considered suspicious, maybe even poisonous, and were seldom eaten. In place of potatoes, which had not yet become very popular or easy to find, people ate turnips. There were also greens like spinach, carrots, cabbage, and beets, vegetables that are still common today. However, eating raw vegetables, as might be found in a salad, was not considered healthy. Apples, figs, and grapes were often served. These and other fruits were cooked with the meats to make the main course sweeter. For dessert, fruits were baked into pies and cakes, but there was no sweet chocolate yet. The only taste of chocolate in Elizabethan times was a thin, bitter drink with no sugar added. Tea had not yet been introduced from India, so there was no tea time, as is popular in England today.


The Merry Wives of Windsor is not one of Shakespeare's most critically analyzed plays. Although audiences in Shakespeare's times have been described as enjoying this comedy, critics over the years have tended to ignore it for the most part, calling it inferior to Shakespeare's other comedies. However, this comedy is unique in that it is the only one of Shakespeare's comedies set in England from the first scene to the last.

Andrew Dickson, writing in his book The Rough Guide to Shakespeare calls The Merry Wives of Windsor a "subtly crafted and often genuinely funny play." He goes on to describe the play as one that "portrays a bustling, vivid tapestry of small-town life" in Shakespeare's time. Dickson states that Shakespeare avoided the "hard-bitten, satirical genre" of comedy that focused on a more cynical slice of life in the bigger city, such as London, and instead exposed a softer tone in this play, one that Dickson refers to "as suburban in tone."

Of the wives in this play, Dickson describes them in this way: "They are as well equipped to deal with Ford's jealousy as they are to neutralize Sir John." Dickson continues: "While allowing Ford's ludicrous suspicions to build, they [the wives] engineer a scene in which both men are shown up to be the fools they really are." In conclusion, Dickson analyzes the plot by stating that "if the comic community of The Merry Wives is to heal its wounds, Shakespeare suggests, Falstaff needs not just to be thrown out but to be utterly humiliated." In other words, "if the wives are to prove themselves" as true merry wives, then "the duper needs to be duped."

Maurice Charney, writing in his All of Shakespeare states that this play is "more convincingly redolent of town life in Elizabethan England than anything else that Shakespeare wrote." As evidence of this, Charney points out how Page invites everyone in for a meal at the beginning of the play, and Mistress Page invites everyone in to a feast at the end of the play, demonstrating the Page 559  |  Top of Articlegenuine sense of community at the time this play was written, especially in small town locations such as Windsor was then. However, Charney chides the wives in this play, stating that they "are not so merry as we expect them to be, in fact, they are distinctly smug, moralistic, and self-satisfied. Their animus against Falstaff is excessive and they are constantly asserting their virtue in a priggish fashion."

Norrie Epstein, writing in her book, The Friendly Shakespeare, likens The Merry Wives of Windsor to an episode of I Love Lucy for its comedic routine. Then Epstein writes: "There's nothing heavy-handed about this play; it celebrates the solid domestic virtues of thrift, marital fidelity, and good humor. It's one of those plays that work better in performance than on the page, since it's filled with sight gags and spoken humor, including outrageous accents and bawdy malapropisms, that are hilarious on stage." In an attempt to demonstrate how comical this play is, as Epstein writes, Terry Hands, a director of the Royal Shakespeare Company in England, in a 1985 production of the play, decided to set the play in more modern circumstances, bringing it up to a 1950s suburban location. "Hands wasn't simply trying to jazz up an old play. His interpretation, as critics pointed out, is closer to Shakespeare's intention." In doing this, Hands gave his audience a chance to "immediately comprehend Shakespeare's jibes at middle-class snobbery and the characters' provincialism, and experience what an Elizabethan viewer might have felt when he saw the play. In this case Hands didn't modernize the play in order to shock, humor, or patronize the audience, but to make it comprehensible—and funny."


Joyce Hart

Hart, a freelance writer and published author, examines the emotional state of the character Ford as he frets about the play, lost in a contorted world of jealousy.

Although the title characters of Shakespeare's play The Merry Wives of Windsor are Mistress Page and Mistress Ford, most of the critical attention is often placed on the old, misogynist knight, Sir John Falstaff. Still, it is the character of Ford, the jealous husband, who is the most complex. The paramount emotion, the one that is most obvious in the character of Ford, is his jealousy. But behind this emotion, or maybe entwined in this character's psychological torment, are many other, sometimes contradictory, feelings that direct his actions and his communications. Yes, the wives' tricks are motivated by the obnoxious foolery of Falstaff, but the women's rewards from their pranks against Falstaff are minor and short lived. The real and more gratifying gain from their mischief is the lifting of the veil of jealousy from Ford's eyes, allowing him to see his wife as the faithful and loving woman that she is. So it is not Falstaff that turns this play around but rather the foolish husband Ford.

In order to define his characters, Shakespeare pits one with another, exposing them by showing how they differ. So it is with Ford, who first appears in act 2, scene 1, with the other husband, Page. With them are Pistol and Nym, who have just told the husbands that Falstaff has sent letters to their wives in attempts to woo them. The first thing to notice is the difference in the reactions of the husbands. Right off the bat, Page does not believe the messenger and makes fun of Nym's language, making light of the message Nym has brought. "I never heard such a drawling, affecting rogue," Page says of Nym. It is almost as if Page has not even heard the news that Nym has brought, that Falstaff is making a play for Page's wife. Page is not distracted by what Nym has told him—not one bit.

In stark contrast to Page is Ford, who is already on edge and about to fall into the deep abyss of his jealousy. Ford does not come right out, as Page did, and say that the news that Pistol has brought him is false. Rather, Ford, who already mistrusts his wife, says: "Well, I hope it be not so." This is a weak statement, one that insinuates that Ford has doubts about his wife. Ford's second statement is even worse. He demeans his wife. Ford cannot believe that anyone could be in love with, or make a play for, Page 560  |  Top of Article
Peter De Jersey as Fenton, Catherine Mears as Anne Page, and Gemma Jones as Mistress Meg Page, in Act III, scene iv, at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, 1992 Peter De Jersey as Fenton, Catherine Mears as Anne Page, and Gemma Jones as Mistress Meg Page, in Act III, scene iv, at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, 1992 (© Donald Cooper/Photostage. Reproduced by permission) her. "Why, sir, my wife is not young," he says, as if he is surprised that someone else might find her attractive enough to want to have an affair with her. And then when Page calls Nym a "Cataian," a reference to a person who is an untrustworthy boaster, Ford's response is that he thought Nym "twas a good sensible fellow." So Ford trusts Nym more than he trusts his wife; while Page does just the opposite. When Shakespeare puts Ford alongside of Page, one might wonder how more different two men could be.

Next, Shakespeare pairs Ford with his wife in the same scene. She addresses him with "sweet Frank," and questions why he appears to be in pain. Ford brushes her off, announcing abruptly that there is nothing wrong with him and then he tells her to get home. He is lying, on one hand, and rude and insensitive on the other. All Ford can think about is himself and his fast growing insecurities.

Before this scene ends, Ford and Page address one another again, discussing the messages they have just received. Ford is obviously riled, even more so when he learns that Nym and Pistol are Falstaff's men. Page, on the other hand, is humored by what he has just heard. Page tells Ford that he does not believe Falstaff would do such a thing as woo his wife, and if Falstaff did, then he would deserve what he would get—a good tongue lashing from Page's wife. That is how confident Page is in himself, his wife, and his marriage. On the other side of the issue is Ford, who is already thinking he will become a cuckold, as Pistol has suggested by mentioning the "odious" name and the reference to "the horn." Ford's thoughts are running wildly through his head; he is afraid of being publicly humiliated. It is uncertain which thought weighs more heavily in Ford's mind: losing his wife or being mocked by his neighbors. Then Ford once again warns Page, telling him to be careful about being so confident. Ford, unlike Page, cannot imagine turning his wife over to Falstaff, which is ironic, because shortly after this scene, that is exactly what Ford does.

So far Ford has displayed jealousy at the thought that his wife might betray him and, at Page 561  |  Top of Articlethe same time, disbelief that any other man would want her. He has also demonstrated his insecurities, which he tries to cover up by demeaning his wife and practicing self-deception, while feeling superior to Page by insinuating that Page is a fool to trust his wife. The main difference between Ford and Page, at this point, is that Page has his feet firmly rooted to the ground while Ford has jettisoned himself into outer space, where he floats around in a field of emotional meteors that bombard him, knocking him first in one direction and then another.

As soon as Ford learns that Falstaff is staying at the Garter Inn, he begins to hatch a scheme, just as devious as Falstaff's. In the next scene, the audience finds Ford, disguised as Brook, at the Garter Inn, looking for Falstaff. Ford believes himself to be superior to Falstaff, although he spends the first half of his visit praising Falstaff for his intelligence, his prowess with women, his breeding, his authenticity, his bravery and his vast courtly experience. The only advantage that Ford admits is his money, which he throws at Falstaff to win him over to his own scheme. But of course, Ford is not being quite honest. If he believes he can trick Falstaff, then Ford has to believe that he is smarter than Falstaff; and he obviously does not believe that Falstaff is authentic, or else he would not even be there. As far as Falstaff's breeding and his prowess, Ford is more than likely being honest. Falstaff comes from a class superior to Ford's, and Ford's greatest insecurity is his dealings with women.

It is interesting to note that Ford is asking Falstaff to woo his wife, something that Ford seems unable to do. When Ford is with his wife, his insecurities turn him into a brute. As Brook, Ford says if Falstaff can woo Mistress Ford, than Brook will have a better chance of wooing her too. Here is irony again. It is through Brook's scheme to woo Mistress Ford that Ford himself will come to know of his wife's love. So, in essence, Brook's plan works. It just does not work in the same way that Ford had thought it would.

After he leaves Falstaff, Ford talks in an aside to the audience. He can barely contain his emotions. Falstaff, while talking to Brook, referred to Ford as a cuckold, a "mechanical salt-butter rogue," and a "knave." None of these are flattering, and it is difficult, in Falstaff's presence, for Ford to pretend (as Brook) to be unaffected by what Falstaff is saying. But once he is out of Falstaff's company, Ford is bursting with contradictory emotions. He has been insulted and humiliated, but because he is in disguise, he is split—laughing with Falstaff at the foolish husband Ford, while steaming under his mask. In his aside to the audience, Ford proves himself to be confused. "Who says this is improvident jealousy?" He asks. His jealousy is not careless, in other words, but rather it is right on target, Ford is saying. He completely discounts the fact that jealousy is in and of itself careless and then tries to convince himself that this negative emotion is beneficial. He is not only going to prove that he is right in mistrusting his wife, he assumes, he is going to also ensure that the circumstances are set in place so that his wife can barely refuse the onset of Falstaff's amorous attack. Instead of protecting his wife from the knight, Ford feels more accomplished in proving the negative, proving that his wife is unfaithful and that jealousy is good. What does he hope to gain? Is being right more important than keeping his wife? Obviously so. This is one way that Ford proves to the audience that he is a fool.

Ford admits other things in his aside to the audience. The first emotion he reflects on is not anger but rather impatience. He says he is bursting with it, anxious to see his scheme through to the end. He can barely stand waiting to disgrace his wife in front of the community. Better her than him. Ford rants on about how he will soon have another man in his bed with his wife, his house will be ransacked, and he will lose much of his money. He tells the audience: "See the hell of having a false woman!" Ford wants sympathy here. He wants the audience to feel sorry for him, just as he feels sorry for himself. He is playing out the old cliché of cutting off one's nose to spite one's face, although he says he does not really want to do this. He wants to prove his wife's guilt so that he can prove himself more sophisticated, more confident, than he really is. He does not really want to give his wife away to Falstaff, not so much because he wants to keep her (or at least he does not yet admit this) but because he fears, above all else, being called a cuckold. This would be worse than losing his wife. Worse than being called a jealous husband. He mentions negative names that people could call him, such as terms used for the devil. None of them are as bad. Not even "the devil himself hath" such a name as cuckold, he says. There is nothing worse than that.

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Though the audience knows by now that Ford is a fool, Ford does not see this. It is Page who is the fool in Ford's eyes. Actually, Ford calls Page an "ass" because "he will trust his wife; he will not be jealous." Such a twisted mind Ford has, as he calls out valiantly, as if he were holding a sword in hand and were about to charge at an enemy: "God be prais'd for my jealousy!" Ford will use his weapon of jealousy to expose his wife, seek revenge on Falstaff, and make Page look like a fool. Well, he will get two out of three, and that is not so bad. He will get his revenge on Falstaff, in spite of himself. Ford will do so, not by his merits but rather by the wits of his merry and faithful wife.

Ford is so blinded by his jealousy that he misjudges almost everyone he encounters. He is so wrapped up in a world of his own misguided imagination that what he thinks he sees in everyone else is exactly what is most apparent about himself. For instance, in act 3, scene 2, Ford runs into Mistress Page, who is walking down the street with Falstaff's servant boy. Ford questions if Page has any eyes, allowing his wife to be in the company of Falstaff's boy. Page must be blind and his thoughts asleep, Ford concludes. As Ford watches Mistress Page walk to Ford's house, he decides to add a new victim to his plot. When he is the victor in his scheme, he imagines, he will "pluck the borrow'd veil of modesty from the so-seeming Mistress Page." His list of rewards is mounting. He will expose everyone's sins. He can barely stand still with the thought of all the accolades he will receive. The audience can almost read Ford's mind. Ford is going to pull the cover off everyone's eyes as he exposes Page's folly, Falstaff's deceit and thievery, and the merry wives' untrustworthiness. This is proof that Ford is enjoying his own misery. He is so absorbed in his thoughts of victory that he has completely lost sight of the pain of disclosure. If he is victorious, he is going to realize his two worst fears—the loss of his wife and the community's right to call him cuckold. He is working against himself and, in a strange way, enjoying it.

Before this second scene ends, Ford is seen with some of the men. He entices them to come to his house, where he promises they will see a monster. Shakespeare is being ironic again. In his play Othello, Shakespeare coined the phrase the Green-eyed Monster, to refer to the wild emotion of jealousy. When Ford promises a monster, he is thinking of Falstaff, of course. But when the men get to Ford's house, the only monster they will see is the green-eyed one as portrayed by the jealous husband Ford. Once again, Ford projects his own image out into the world rather than seeing it inside himself.

In act 3, scene 5, Shakespeare has Ford slapping himself in the face, saying, "is this a dream: do I sleep? Master Ford, awake! awake, Master Ford!" Surely, Ford needs to wake up; and as Brook, he is trying to do just that. But Ford remains asleep, although he thinks he has awakened. "I will proclaim myself what I am," he says. Ford makes this statement although he does not fully understand the depth of its meaning. This is a true statement. Ford will definitely proclaim who he is. This is because Ford will finally see himself as the fool.

Finally the veils are pulled from Ford's eyes. His wife shows him the letter she received from Falstaff, tells her of her plans of revenge on the knight. This brings Ford to his knees, asking his wife for forgiveness. With the veils lifted, Ford regains strength and becomes involved in yet another scheme to further humiliate Falstaff in front of the whole community. This last degree of humiliation is not so much for the wives, for they have had their fun with him. This is for the men, and Ford relishes it. He will disguise himself once more as Brook and entice Falstaff to make another appearance, this time in the park at midnight. The money that Ford extends this time is to buy costumes for the children. Falstaff's shame for having put Ford through his torturous journey is well worth it, at least in Ford's way of looking at it.

In the end, literally the very last lines of the play, Ford enjoys a final jab at Falstaff's expense. Ford says everyone should go to a feast, laugh at Slender and Caius, who have lost their chances to marry Ann. But most of all, they should all enjoy the joke that Ford most enjoys. "And, Sir John Falstaff, now shall you keep your word, / For Brook this night shall lie with Mistress Ford." Ford does not mention, although it would have proven that he truly had learned his lesson, that everyone should join him in a good laugh at the foolish husband that Ford had once been.

Source: Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on The Merry Wives of Windsor, in Shakespeare For Students, Second Edition, Thomson Gale, 2007.

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Sidebar: HideShow


  • Falstaff: A Novel, published in the United States in 2003 (in England in 1976) is Robert Nye's fictionalized version of one of Shakespeare's naughtiest characters. In Nye's version, Falstaff is eighty-one-years old and is dictating his memoirs. He recalls incidents in both of Shakespeare's plays in which he appeared: Henry IV and The Merry Wives of Windsor
  • Shakespeare's other early comedies include Love's Labor's Lost (1598), which is about three noblemen who promise to devote the next three years to their studies without any distractions from women, when three beautiful, courtly women appear. The other famous comedy is Two Gentlemen from Verona (1594–1595) which is a play about two men falling in love with the same woman and their challenges in trying to win her favor.
  • Myron Stagman's Shakespeare-In-Essence: The Adventures of Falstaff (2002) illuminates the humorous character of Falstaff through an analysis of this fictional man, providing the reader with a better understanding of how and why Shakespeare created him.
  • For a more contemporary British playwright, read one of Tom Stoppard's comedies, such as Jumpers (1972) or Arcadia (1993). Jumpers focuses on a philosophical professor who studies morality while immorality spreads throughout his household. In the latter play, Arcadia, Stoppard weaves elements of science into his characters' actions, specifically the concept of chaos. If the world is, in effect, like a machine that will eventually break down, the play suggests that people should therefore learn to enjoy themselves.

Leslie S. Katz

Katz provides a general overview and analysis of The Merry Wives of Windsor, arguing that its status as a "minor" play in Shakespeare's canon is undeserved. The critic explains the historical and cultural background of the play, which was likely commissioned to honor Queen Elizabeth I on St. George's Day in 1597.

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Source: Leslie S. Katz, "The Merry Wives of Windsor: Sharing the Queen's Holiday," in Representations, No. 51, Summer 1995, pp. 77-93.

Nancy Cotton

In the following essay, Cotton analyzes the historical belief that witchcraft could cause impotence, a belief widely held in medieval Europe and one that persisted into Shakespeare's time. The critic examines those characters in The Merry Wives of Windsor who are rendered impotent by "magical female power."

That sorcery could cause impotence was widely believed in medieval Europe. "By the middle of the twelfth century," according to G. L. Kittredge's history of English witchcraft, "such a condition, thus caused, was an accepted ground for divorce, and for the next three hundred years these cases were so numerous that this species of sorcery became an everyday matter." The belief persisted into Shakespeare's day. King James I in the preface to his Daemonologie in 1597 asserts the power of witches to weaken "the nature of some men, to make them unable for women." Reginald Scot in The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584) ridicules the Malleus Maleficarum for affirming "that the vertue of generation is impeached by witches, both inwardlie, and outwardlie: for intrinsecallie they represse the courage, and they stop the passage of the mans seed, so as it may not descend to the vessels of generation: also they hurt extrinsecallie, with images, hearbs, &c." In spite of his skepticism, Scot retails several racy stories about young men whose "instruments of venerie" were stolen from their bodies by witches. One young man in particular "went to a witch for the restitution thereof, who brought him to a tree, where she shewed him a nest, and bad him clime up and take [his] toole." Such a hiding place is common, Scot continues, for "some have found 20. and some 30. of them in one nest, being there preserved with provender, as it were at the racke and manger." The image of the nest in the tree where the witch hides the stolen "toole" indicates that the witch's power to castrate lies in her genitals; that is, her power as a witch is her power as a woman. Just this masculine association of impotence with female magic is dramatized by Shakespeare in The Merry Wives of Windsor.

The main plot of Merry Wives turns on Ford's fear of being cuckolded, which, according to psychoanalytically oriented criticism, is equivalent to "psychosocial castration." Ford, the character obsessed with cuckoldry, is also the character obsessed with witchcraft. His phobia provides the wives an opportunity to play a rough practical joke on Falstaff by disguising him in the clothes of Mother Prat, Mrs. Ford's maid's aunt, the fat woman of Brainford. Ford, according to his wife, "cannot abide the old woman of Brainford. He swears she's a witch, forbade her my house, and hath threat'ned to beat her" (IV.ii.85-87). As she expects, Ford accuses the supposed old woman of witchcraft and gives her a cudgelling. His violence is striking because among the crowd of villagers present only Evans, the Welsh parson, agrees that "the Page 567  |  Top of Articleoman is a witch indeed" (IV.ii.192-93) and also because the stage image shows a man beating a woman, the solitary example in Shakespeare. We laugh because we are interpreting the visual image: like Mrs. Ford and Mrs. Page we know that the "old woman" is really the scoundrelly Falstaff, and we laugh because Merry Wives is a farce, a genre in which blows provide merriment rather than pain. If we shift our perspective to that of the Windsorites, however, we see that every character on stage accepts Ford's right to beat the old woman of Brainford solely because "he cannot abide" her. The men he has brought with him do not interfere, and their lack of action rests on the unspoken premise that it is acceptable to beat, not just a witch, but a woman. In fact, Elizabethan moralists condoned and sometimes encouraged beating a woman when that woman was one's wife. The acceptability of wife-beating is clear when, in the course of tricking Falstaff yet again, Mrs. Quickly mollifies his anger at having been beaten by telling him that the wives have also suffered, "speciously one of them. Mistress Ford, good heart, is beaten black and blue, that you cannot see a white spot about her" (IV.v.111-13).

The sequence of Ford's emotions suggests that the witch-beating is, indeed, a symbolic wife-beating. Just prior to this scene Ford, having discovered that his wife has tricked him about Falstaff, has worked himself into a rage that looks like lunacy to his neighbors. He addresses his wife with Othello-like sarcasm: "Come hither, Mistress Ford, Mistress Ford, the honest woman, the modest wife, the virtuous creature, that hath the jealious fool to her husband! I suspect without cause, mistress, do I?" (IV.ii.129-32). When again Ford does not find Falstaff, his rage explodes in violence against the "witch." Because the real target of his rage is not Falstaff but his wife, the "witch" becomes a surrogate for the woman he really wishes to beat. The surrogate wife-beating abruptly deflates his rage to penance, and at his next appearance his first words—"Pardon me, wife" (IV.iv.6)—are precisely those he might say had he actually beaten Mrs. Ford. There is, then, psychological truth in Mrs. Quickly's report in the next scene that Mrs. Ford is "beaten black and blue."

Shakespeare indicates the symbolic substitution of witch for wife by naming his witch for the place of her origin in Ford's mind: "Brainford." The names Ford calls the woman as he cudgels her—"quean" and "polecat" (IV.ii.172,185)—are both slang terms for a whore, indicating that he projects on to her the infidelity he supposes in his wife. Moreover, he uses to her the same sarcasm he has just used to his wife and with the same motive, his anxiety to demonstrate that he is not deceived by the woman:

She comes of errands, does she? We are simple men, we do not know what's brought to pass under the profession of fortune-telling. She works by charms, by spells, by th' figure, and such daub'ry as this is, beyond our element; we know nothing. (IV.ii.173-78)

As he pursues the witch out of his house, Ford urges his neighbors to follow, just as he insisted that they come to his house to witness his exposure of his wife. The reason he gives the men—"I beseech you follow; see but the issue of my jealousy" (IV.ii.195-96)—is a peculiar reason for pursuing a witch.

Ford's unconscious identification of wife and witch suggests that he equates the witch's spells with the wife's power to cuckold or "unman" him. Magical spells might unman anatomically, or, as King James says, they might unman functionally, causing impotence or failure of offspring. Indications that Ford, before Falstaff appears in Windsor, feels unmanned in these ways would account for both his chronic jealousy and his witch phobia. For example, his feeling of impotence is suggested in the tale he tells Falstaff when he disguises as "Mr. Brook," a failed suitor to Mrs. Ford:

I have long lov'd her, and … bestow'd much on her; follow'd her with a doting observance … But whatsoever I have merited, either in my mind or in my means, meed I am sure I have receiv'd none … so that I have lost my edifice by mistaking the place where I erected it. (II.ii.194-217)

Perhaps Ford's story tells more than he intends, an idea reinforced by the other jokes in the play about failed erections. Brook's fiction of failure with Mrs. Ford may reveal some truth about Ford's marriage, just as the alias he invents suggests his real name. Ford might feel impotent (= bewitched) because he has no children. In this regard, the Fords are noticeably contrasted with the Pages, their contemporaries and closest friends, who have both a daughter and a son. Ford has no heir and is not likely to have one because, as he says, "my wife is not young" (II.i.111). If Ford feels inadequate because he lacks a son, he would be reminded every day of the inadequacy by his close association with Page, and a sense of inferiority Page 568  |  Top of Article
Benjamin Luxon as Sir John Falstaff disguised as Herne and being attacked by fairies and spirits, in Act V, scene V, English National Opera, London Coliseum, 1994 Benjamin Luxon as Sir John Falstaff disguised as Herne and being attacked by fairies and spirits, in Act V, scene V, English National Opera, London Coliseum, 1994 (© Donald Cooper/Photostage. Reproduced by permission) would account for a peculiar feature of his jealousy, that his desire to outsmart Page concerns him more than his feelings for his wife. He nurses plans for revenge against his enemy as a means of triumphing over his friend: "I will prevent this, detect my wife, be reveng'd on Falstaff, and laugh at Page" (II.ii.310-11). The climactic item in the series is not "detect my wife" but "laugh at Page." Similarly, in the next Act, he gloats, "I will take him [i.e., Falstaff], then torture my wife, pluck the borrow'd veil of modesty from the so-seeming Mistress Page, divulge Page himself for a secure and willful Actaeon; and to these violent proceedings all my neighbors shall cry aim" (III.ii.40-44). Again the syntactical sequence shows that Ford's most pleasurable anticipation is in exposing Page.

Ford's unconscious sense of failure as husband and father turns into paranoia about female power, a fear that appears in his language about both his wife and the witch:

I will rather trust a Fleming with my butter, Parson Hugh the Welshman with my cheese, an Irishman with my aqua-vitae bottle, or a thief to walk my ambling gelding, than my wife with herself. Then she plots, then she ruminates, then she devises; and what they think in their hearts they may effect, they will break their hearts but they will effect. (II.ii.302-8)

His transition from "she" to "they," from "may effect" to "will effect," shows an irrational fear of women as "they." The same irrationality and the same linguistic pattern appear in his sarcastic outburst to the supposed Mother Prat:

Have I not forbid her my house? She comes of errands, does she? We are simple [i.e., innocent] men; we do not know what's brought to pass under the profession of fortune-telling. (IV.ii.173-76)

The same shift from singular to plural, from "I" to "we," shows Ford's mind pitting deceitful "them" (women/witches) against innocent "us" (men).

Ford is not the only male in Merry Wives to experience impotence in the face of magical female power. Falstaff is symbolically castrated by "witches" in the finale when Mrs. Ford and Page 569  |  Top of ArticleMrs. Page "dis-horn" (IV.iv.64) him of his disguise as Herne the Hunter after summoning up the assistance of a band of supposed fairies. The identification of witches and fairies is an ancient, though not universal, folklore tradition that came into prominence at this time because of the witch persecutions. It should be added that Falstaff's two previous humiliations at the hands of the wives have also been associated with impotence. First, after he is dumped out of the buck-basket into the Thames, Falstaff compares himself to Mrs. Ford's servingmen who, in Mrs. Quickly's inimitable malapropism, "mistook their erection" (III.v.39-40). Second, having been dressed in women's clothing, an age-old sign of effeminacy, he says, "If it should come to the ear of the court, how I have been transform'd … they would whip me with their fine wits till I were as crestfall'n as a dried pear" (IV.v.93-99). The fallen crest, like the mistaken erection, is another image of impotence such as that which Jeanne Addison Roberts sees embodied in his name: Fall staff. In short, the language designates all three tricks that Mrs. Ford plays on Falstaff as forms of emasculation. As he says to the disguised Ford, "I went to her, Master [Brook], as you see, like a poor old man, but I came from her, Master [Brook], like a poor old woman" (V.i.15-17). The wives have schooled him in what he should have realized from the beginning, that he is too old for courtship. His first advances astonish Mrs. Ford: "One that is well-nigh worn to pieces with age to show himself a young gallant!" (II.i.21-22); and at the end of the play Page taunts him as "old, cold, wither'd" (V.v.153-54).

Even in his diminished avatar in Merry Wives, however, Falstaff is irrepressible: the old knight transfers the impotence of age to the young, scorning youthful lovers as "lisping hawthorn buds, that come like women in men's apparel, and smell like Bucklersbury in simple time" (III.iii.71-73). In fact, the other failed suitors, although youthful, are also emasculated when the courtship plot repeats the pattern of the marital plot. Slender and Caius are symbolically castrated when Anne Page, disguised as a fairy, elopes with Fenton, tricking them into marrying disguised boys, thus metaphorically transforming them to women, like Falstaff's "hawthorn buds."

The last scene of the play not only provides the most dramatic of these symbolic castrations of the failed suitors in both plots but also the most vivid of the stage images of the women as witches. The wives, by tricking Falstaff into entering Windsor Park at midnight "with a buck's head upon him" (V.v.s.d.), transform him into a deer, which, as he realizes, makes him an "ass" (V.v.119). This suggests the power of witches to "transubstantiate … them whom they bewitch into asses," the subject of numerous medieval tales. Much has been written about the image suggested here of Falstaff as Actaeon, man transformed into stag, as a Renaissance emblem of lust. It should be emphasized, however, that the agency of Actaeon's supernatural transformation, as here, was female, the goddess Diana. By Shakespeare's time Diana was often named as the queen of the fairies and sometimes of witches; Titania—the name chosen by Shakespeare for Oberon's queen—is another name for Diana. Thus the Actaeon allusions in the play underline not only male lust but also female magic.

Witch images appear in another way in that the stage picture shows a horned man in the woods at midnight. "No man means evil but the devil," says Page on his way to Windsor Park, "and we shall know him by his horns" (V.ii.12-14). Page and the other characters hiding, in their plan to humiliate Falstaff, intend justice. Falstaff is the only man in this scene who intends harm—in cuckolding Ford—and the comic parallel with the devil is underlined by Falstaff's joking reference to his disguised self as "a true spirit" (V.v.29). With the entry of Mrs. Ford and Mrs. Page, we see the wives of the town going into the woods at night to meet a horned man, a devil: the central stage action images a witches' sabbath. According to tradition, the witches' sabbath included devil worship and sexual orgies. The devil, appearing in the form of a monster, or horned man or beast, was adored, as King James puts it, by "the kissing of his hinder partes." The language as well as the stage image of Falstaff's meeting with the wives strongly suggest these ceremonies when Mrs. Ford enters in the dark asking, "art thou there, my deer? my male deer?" and he responds obscenely, "My doe with the black scut?" (V.v.16-18). When Mrs. Ford reveals that Mrs. Page is with her, Falstaff offers to make love to them both: "Divide me like a brib'd buck, each a haunch" (V.v.24). The "haunch" of the man in horns is rather like the "hinder part" of a devil. If, in fact, Evans is also disguised in horns, his arrival with Mrs. Quickly dressed as queen of the fairies doubles the image of the witches' revels.

Page 570  |  Top of Article

Submerged in the final scene, then, is a sinister stage image of women consorting with the devil. The image embodies and recapitulates both Ford's worst imaginings and Falstaff's heady Act I fantasy of making love to two Windsor wives at once. If Mrs. Ford and Mrs. Page were, in fact, having a joint assignation in the woods with Falstaff, they would indeed be the "queans" and "witches" that Ford jealously supposes. Like the witch of Brain-ford, however, these evil and lustful wives exist only in masculine imagination. Symbolically castrating Falstaff, they do to the knight what Ford feared cuckoldry would do to him. Thus it is appropriate that Falstaff rather than Ford wear the horns in the final scene—a matter much debated—because he is the man rendered impotent by female betrayal and left without a woman.

The finale also associates the other two female characters in the play with magical power: Mistress Quickly and Anne Page are disguised as fairies. Because the four women manipulate and control the action, the last scene makes the same connection between female power and magic that Ford made earlier when he beat the supposed witch, Mother Prat. The name of the witch can now be seen as generic. Earlier in the play, "prat" in its slang meaning of "buttocks" was laughably appropriate for the fat knight. The older meaning of "prat," according to the OED [Oxford English Dictionary], is "a trick; a piece of trickery or fraud; a prank; a frolic." The fifth-act tricks of the women, with their supernatural aura, make them all Mother Prats, that is, tricky women.

The comic ending, when it destroys the men's fantasies of adultery and betrayal, cancels the sinister associations of female magic. The wives' trick on the would-be cuckolder restores potency to the husband, Ford, who, in the last lines of the play boasts to Falstaff, "To Master [Brook] you yet shall hold your word, / For he to-night shall lie with Mistress Ford" (V.v.244-45). Like the merry wives, Anne Page uses her magical power of feminine deceit to render the unworthy suitors impotent and to ratify the power of her husband, Fenton, who defends her because her trickery serves marriage: "Th' offense is holy that she hath committed, / And this deceit loses the name of craft" (V.v.225-26). The word "craft" combines both the meaning of "trick" and its older meaning of "witchcraft" to emphasize the magical quality of Anne's female power, now, like the power of the merry wives, tamed to the uses of marriage.

Images of impotence and magic thus pervade Merry Wives to a greater extent than previously realized. They also display a causal connection. The play projects a masculine vision of any woman as a potential witch, or Mother Prat, because of her power to reject and/or deceive a man who desires her. This vision is dispelled when the wives use their female "craft" to support their husbands' power, metamorphosing deceit into merriment.

Source: Nancy Cotton, "Castrating (W)itches: Impotence and Magic in The Merry Wives of Windsor," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 38, No. 3, Autumn 1987, pp. 320-26.

Barbara Freedman

In this essay, Freedman examines the character of Falstaff both within The Merry Wives of Windsor and among Shakespeare's history plays. The critic discusses the buffoonery of Falstaff in The Merry Wives, commenting on the previous critical response to the character and offering her own opinion on the character's importance and meaning.

We can understand the nature and the history of the criticism on The Merry Wives as a series of attempts to come to terms with the disturbing response that the buffoon, and the punishment he requests, evokes. Critics are unanimous in their annoyance at Falstaff's buffoonery, in their disgust at his cruel punishment at Windsor Forest, and in their desire to look outside the text to explain away both these responses. The apocryphal accounts of the play's origin offer critics one solution. If, as John Dennis asserted in 1702, the play was written in fourteen days at the Queen's command—or if, as Nicholas Rowe reported, these demands were further qualified by the Queen's request that Shakespeare write a play which portrayed Falstaff in love—it becomes easy to blame critical dissatisfaction on external grounds: the play was hastily written, was probably highly derivative, and could not, given such constraints, adequately reflect Shakespeare's creative genius.

A second, more popular critical response has been literally to disown the play's main character, Falstaff. Such critics direct our attention to the discrepancies between the more vital Falstaff of the history plays and the "old, cold, withered" buffoon before them, concluding that this is neither Shakepeare's Falstaff nor our Page 571  |  Top of Articleown. A. C. Bradley's response is indicative of this critical trend:

[Falstaff is] baffled, duped, treated like dirty linen, beaten, burnt, pricked, mocked, insulted, and, worst of all, repentant and didactic. It is horrible. It is almost enough to convince one that Shakespeare himself could sanction the parody of Ophelia in the Two Noble Kinsmen. But it no more touches the real Falstaff than Ophelia is degraded by that parody.

A third means of avoiding the problem of Falstaff's buffoonery has been to moralize the issue. Either the community is to be blamed for unfair behavior, or Falstaff is to be blamed for his villainy in order for these critics to accept the play's action. Jeanne Addison Roberts' article, "Falstaff in Windsor Forest: Villain or Victim?" bluntly states the moralizers' dilemma: "Is Falstaff … a social menace who brings on himself a well-deserved punishment? Or is he a nearly-innocent victim, entrapped by the scheming wives and used by society for its own rather devious ends?" Roberts concludes that he is both and turns to historical parallels of scapegoating to explain the ambiguity of Falstaff's criminal status.

The view of Falstaff as scapegoat eludes the moralizers' dilemma in enabling us to see him as guilty and innocent at once, but it demands an identification with the wives, with their community, and with certain professed social aims that is problematic, if not impossible, given the way in which the play is written. The result is a fourth means of evading our response to the play: focusing on historical situations which inform the play's pattern of events but which fail to explain Shakespeare's use of them. While vestiges of a primitive scapegoat ritual certainly loom large in The Merry Wives, the fact remains that the Falstaff of The Merry Wives is not a ritual scapegoat but a realistically drawn dramatic character with psychological validity. The wives who punish him are not "defenders of the social order" but offended women with minds and plans of their own—both of which they refuse to share with the other members of their community. Even when the entire community is involved in Falstaff's punishment, and that is only one action in a much larger sequence of events, the punishment is not a ritual scapegoating but a self-conscious and playful parody of that ritual. Furthermore, Falstaff's humiliation in Windsor Forest is neither necessary nor successful in "purging" the Windsor community. The crisis of a manipulative view of others and of reality which plagues Windsor society is only "mythically" solved by the symbol of Fenton and Anne Page's freely willed marriage at the play's end; a tragicomic awareness of our inability to control the outcome of events, and our inability to stop trying to control events, is tellingly underlined by the fact of that wedding as well.

On the surface, the play reads as a citizen comedy: Falstaff is a threat to the community, and his punishment at the hands of the Windsor wives is merry, moral, and survival-oriented. Yet if we consider our emotional response to the play or attempt to understand what desires the author may be fulfilling through creating and sharing its core fantasy, there is a second possible view of the action. We don't—or I don't—always feel as if the wives simply represent the interests of a sane society. And Shakespeare apparently didn't either, for he has these wives doubt their own intentions and then protest far too much: "What think you?" Mrs. Ford asks Mrs. Page, "May we, with the warrant of womanhood and the witness of a good conscience, pursue him [Falstaff] with any further revenge?" (IV.ii.179-81). Mrs. Page's reply is a confident one: "The spirit of wantonness is, sure, scared out of him. If the devil have him not in fee simple … he will never, I think … attempt us again" (IV.ii.182-85) The wives then blithely forge ahead with a new plan to "still be the ministers" of Falstaff's punishment, rationalizing their action with such pithy couplets as "Against such lewdsters and their lechery / Those that betray them do no treachery" (V.iii.20-21) Their vindictive reaction to Falstaff's "love letter" is understandable the first time, but they feed his flattery and egg him on to future sexual transgressions most cruelly—and unnecessarily. Quite simply, the wives and their "sane community" do not provide ample motivation for this fantasy, and if we identify with them, we won't fully understand why Shakespeare was writing this play. Facts are facts. Shakespeare was interested, for some strange Page 572  |  Top of Articlereason, in writing about clownish male sexual humiliation and punishment, in making us laugh at something essentially disturbing: an aggressive and yet guilty sense of sexuality. The play expresses an obvious pleasure in being caught, in being humiliated, in being punished for sexual transgressions. Perhaps if we consider the play as Falstaff's fantasy—a self-directed farce of repeated self-humiliations—we will be closer to the true spirit of the play.

Punishing Falstaff could have been a good deal more fun if The Merry Wives were written as traditional farce. Central to that genre is a pattern of sexual transgression and punishment for that transgression which is usually well disguised. Insofar as farce, by definition, derives humor from absurd plot aggression directed against flat characters, it characteristically enables us to enjoy aggression whose cause and effect is denied. In The Merry Wives, however, we have a self-conscious use of farce for didactic aims: a self-conscious punishment for sexuality which is disturbing as much as it is humorous. Surely Shakespeare knew he would be losing a few laughs by having us chant, along with the Windsor community,

    Fie on sinful fantasy!
    Fie on lust and luxury!
    Lust is but a bloody fire,
    Kindled with unchaste desire,
    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.

Punishing Falstaff may be fun at first, but without the disguises of traditional farce, it becomes serious business. By the second and third times around, as critics have noted, it becomes downright humiliating.

To understand the highly self-conscious, punitive view of sexuality in Merry Wives, it is useful to examine the play in the larger context of the plays Shakespeare wrote around the same time. It is enlightening, for example, to see how the play anticipates, and gives comic expression to, the same sexual conflicts that characterize such tragedies as Othello and King Lear. Common to Shakespeare's plays of this period is a focus on an aging male protagonist facing, or attempting to evade, a decrease in mental and physical agility, and facing, or attempting to evade, accompanying fantasies of emasculation and humiliation by women. Since there are two Lears and two Othellos, that there are two Falstaffs should not, perhaps, be so confusing; a play about Falstaff in love is a play about male sexuality in middle age, which for Shakespeare seems to connote a definite falling off from what one was before, a sense of impending impotence of mind and body. Shakespeare emphasizes Falstaff's decline by choosing to depict the comic defeat of a character with an established reputation for vitality, and by forcing him to acknowledge, early on in the play, a disturbing shift in the state of affairs and a need to adjust accordingly: "Well, sirs, I am almost out at heels," he complains to his men, adding: "There is no remedy—I must cony-catch, I must shift" (I.iii.28-31). Shakespeare focuses on the onset of intellectual inadequacy when he has Falstaff repeatedly forget and need to be reminded of times and dates after demonstrating remarkable mental agility in the play's opening scene. But the comedy's major concern is with a sense of sexual inadequacy, a loss of manliness; hence, the majority of its plots concern impotent old men trying to prove their masculinity through foolishly conceived duels and even more foolishly conceived sexual liaisons, none of which comes to fruition.

One defense against this crisis is narcissistic self-aggrandizement, achieved through a costly dependence on external proofs of one's grandeur; this is most evident in the heroics of an Othello or a King Lear. The Merry Wives also begins with old men foolishly parading their official titles in a pathetic attempt to restore their shattered self-esteem. Falstaff's overblown self-image and subsequent downfall merely anticipate, in comic fashion, the hubris and destruction of the tragic heroes who are to follow. Unlike Lear, Falstaff manages to retain his preposterously grandiose self-image despite numerous humiliations, yet he does so only to be set up for repeated comic pratfalls.

A second defense characteristic of this crisis is a premature adjustment to declining powers in the form of a regression to an infantile posture of dependency upon woman. Lear would draw from Cordelia an absolute declaration of love so that he might comfortably fulfill his plans "to set my rest On her kind nursery" (I.i.123-24); without Desdemona, Othello's occupation is gone. Falstaff Page 573  |  Top of Article
The Fair on St Georges Day, c 15591560 (etching and engraving), by Pieter Brueghel, the Elder The Fair on St George's Day, c 1559–1560 (etching and engraving), by Pieter Brueghel, the Elder (The Fair on St George's Day, c1559–60 (etching and engraving, 1st state), Brueghel, Pieter the Elder (c1515–69) (after), photograph. Museum purchase with funds from The Brown Foundation, Inc, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas, USA/The Bridgeman Art Library International) mirrors Lear in his wholly unrealistic plans to make a living off disinterested Windsor wives: "They shall be my East and West Indies, and I will trade to them both" (I.iii.64-66). Ford, like Othello and Lear, is plagued with unrealistic fantasies of possessiveness and fears of abandonment. In sum, The Merry Wives is a world of impotent old men wholly dependent upon asexual maternal figures for financial and emotional well-being—so much so that the primary action of the play is the devising of crafty plots whereby one can draw from these women one's sustenance.

As taking from woman in this play is imagined in terms of an infantile dependency on maternal figures, it is not surprising that sexuality is described in oral images. Eating seems to be the major preoccupation of Windsor society; everyone is always coming from or going to a dinner. And close analysis reveals that the Windsor characters' attitudes towards dining parallel their attitudes towards coupling in the play. Basically, there are two dominant attitudes towards eating and sexuality in The Merry Wives. The creed of comedy, and its ideal of sexuality, is the benevolent oral merger, based on trust in the other, and represented by Master Page. For Page, eating is sharing, being a Host is not losing oneself but finding oneself, creating harmony. Page speaks of "drink[ing] down all unkindness" (I.i.175) and of making amends at the table; eating, for him, is a creative, restorative process. Correspondingly, Page is patient, trustful, and giving in his relationships with others, most obviously with his wife. The opposing creed of farce, and its view of sexuality, is the destructive oral merger, based on a distrustful compulsion greedily to devour or prey upon others, and a fear of like retribution for that sin. For Falstaff, eating is stealing, a sign of transgression which brings on punishment, a devouring which leads to being devoured. His monstrous size is our first clue to his greedy intent. In this play we first meet him eating stolen deer at Page's house; he soon attempts to steal Page's "dear," his wife, as well. Yet her desire appears to Falstaff to be as destructive and devouring as his own. He tells us that "she did so course o'er my exteriors with such a greedy intention that the appetite of her Page 574  |  Top of Articleeye did seem to scorch me up like a burning-glass" (I.iii.59-61). Falstaff's burning by the Windsor fairies at the play's conclusion records the triumph of this maternal devouring. His hungry preying is similar to Ford's jealous possessiveness. The stealing and possessiveness are simply two sides of one coin, resulting from a sense of not having enough inside, and so being unable to give to others, and from a feeling that one must take in order to counteract what others take from one, in turn. Ford fears that everyone will steal from him, and yet so does Falstaff; they simply defend against that threat differently. In sum, if Page is the perfect host, Falstaff is the perfect parasite; their attitudes towards eating and sexuality correspond to these roles.

Hostile fantasies of hurting, preying upon, and devouring that which sustains one naturally call forth guilty fantasies of retribution. The parasitical Windsor males who would prey upon women are punished through sexual frustration, sexual humiliation, symbolic castration, and symbolic devouring. Quickly cruelly leads on Anne Page's suitors in the subplot, as the merry wives entice and frustrate Falstaff in the main plot. Anne's suitors are publicly humiliated by being led into abortive duels and, even worse, abortive marriages (being wed to "great lubberly boys"); Falstaff is humiliated by having his sexual desires and desirability mocked by the community. Falstaff's symbolic castration is discussed by Jeanne Roberts who notes that the community's aim, as described by Mrs. Page, is to "dis-horne the spirit" (IV.iv.62); Roberts also points out that the dialogue concerning the horns strongly suggests that Falstaff's horns are removed from his head by the community immediately. The symbolic devouring of Falstaff occurs in the greasy knight's public burning. The traditional association of fire with a destructive devouring is already made by the community, who notes that "lust is but a bloody fire" (V.v.93) and then burns Falstaff accordingly for it.

Yet farce provides a partial solution to this guilty attack on the self for destructive sexuality—a particular, defensive mode of dealing with guilty self-punishment. Unlike Lear, who is the passive victim of his daughter's cruel attacks, Falstaff unmans and humiliates himself. He is not only foolish to begin with, thereby already collaborating in the Windsor women's plot to punish him, but he plays the fool repeatedly, thereby helping it along. Whereas the tragic mode of heroic challenge and attack is followed by a martyred submission to persecutory fantasies, the farcical mode moves from mock transgression and self-emasculation through punishment to laughing forgiveness: the pattern of the buffoon. Falstaff dismisses his own train before the wives deceptively win away his page; Falstaff allows himself to be fooled without an Iago, although the women do egg him on in his self-flattery. Falstaff willingly dons Mother Prat's clothes in an attempt to avoid punishment, whereas Lear agonizes over the woman's tears that threaten his masculine self-image. As if to avoid punishment for womanish dependency, for an aggressive taking from woman, Falstaff becomes foolish woman, emasculates himself, and asks for ridicule and humiliation. In a sense, Falstaff takes the option that Lear couldn't and willingly plays the fool. It is this active role in the pattern of transgression and punishment that keeps the play a comedy and enables us to understand it in terms of the tragic works that follow.

In an article on the psychodynamics of clowning, Richard Simons presents a case study of a typical buffoon. The man's obsessive clowning is analyzed as a complex mode of enacting the same transgressions and simultaneously defending against the same fears, as those typical of circus clowning, of farce in general, and of The Merry Wives of Windsor in particular. The patient, about fifty years of age, described as "old, balding, toothless, obese, hard of hearing, and impotent." He enjoyed telling the other patients of the one time a doctor had considered placing him in a nursing home. He lived with his mother and sister and felt deeply ambivalent toward them, bound in dependency upon them and yet despising their control. From childhood on, he recounted, he had played the fool; he was the student clown who was always caught drawing ugly pictures of the teacher on the blackboard just as she walked in the room. The patient expressed displeasure about being mocked by the other patients but seemed to derive a great deal of secret pleasure from it. For he would continually place himself in situations where he would be caught attacking someone, ideally female authority figures, and would then give his peers due information and cause to join in his reprimand and yet simultaneously laugh at his foolishness.

Simons explains this patient's clowning as a means of enabling an acceptable release of aggression. First, joking provides a socially acceptable means of releasing hostility, a means of projecting Page 575  |  Top of Articleone's fears and one's deficiencies onto others and then mocking them for it. Second, the clown is a fool, so his self-abasement takes the sting out of his attacks. Yet insofar as clowning depends upon "being caught," it is particularly safe, for it provides the clown with a means of escaping the anxiety, guilt, and self-punishment arising from his hostile thoughts and acts. In being found out and punished, the clown can disown and project the role of superego onto an audience whom he can in turn bribe through humor and self-abasement. The typical student clown, then, manages to vent hostility against the teacher, and the pleasure in getting caught is a means of acting out and disowning superego aggression; he can then bribe the superego through his humorous self-abasement before teachers and peers.

The defense mechanism of clowning may also be understood as an effective means of mastering oral anxieties. The oral tendency is to preserve an attachment to the introjected object at all costs, yet maintaining that relationship is problematic, given the conflicts which characterize the disturbed oral personality's primary relationship. The first accessible defense mechanism for maintaining a frustrating object relationship is the splitting of the maternal image into idealized and malevolent components. Yet insofar as the oral personality has characteristically failed to master primary ambivalence towards the object, it is unable to neutralize destructive feelings towards the self and the other which derive from the split maternal image. Ridden with guilt over destructive feelings towards both the object and the self, the subject seeks a means of controlling the attacks of its irrationally harsh superego. Seeking punishment is a means of controlling inner hostility; through manipulative harassment, an external, regulatory process for doling out aggression is set up. Finally, insofar as seeking punishment is also a means of seeking attention, it provides a means of maintaining a relationship, however unsatisfactory the quality of that relationship may be.

Clowning as a technique provides the professional and literary buffoons with the same defensive means of expressing aggression that it affords the amateur. While clownish hostility is invariably directed against authority figures, both male and female, it is interesting to note that the clown is traditionally a male figure and serves the function, in our society, of playing on fears of and hostility toward women. The clown's traditional garb is itself an attack on women, a hideous caricature of her made-up face, stiff hairdo, and flimsy clothing. Like the typical buffon and comedian, Falstaff projects his own deficiencies onto others and then laughs at them for it; in this case, the Windsor elders are ridiculed for their impotence and parasitic behavior. But Falstaff seems especially concerned with attacking powertul maternal figures and then being discovered and humiliated by them. His dependence on and aggression toward women have been analyzed, but we may add that they are given expression through costume as well as through action. In a memorable scene between Falstaff and his alter ego, Master Ford, Falstaff dresses up as Mother Prat—by name a punitive maternal figure. Ford vents his anger at the old woman because of her fortune-telling, her alleged control over situations "beyond our element" about which "we know nothing" (IV.ii.154). Aggression against a punitive maternal figure is thus released by both men in this scene. But Falstaff's aggression toward women upon whom he is dependent and his curious desire to be punished for it are most obvious in his ridiculous plan of writing degrading love letters to a number of maternal figures in the community who are sure to see through him and make him suffer for his advances. The traditional clown and Falstaff set themselves up to be caught; being chased and beaten is the essence of farce action, and Falstaff's role is to be continually found out and humiliated for the same sin. In both cases, we can understand this degrading clowning as a means of safely transgressing against authority figures and then safely being punished for it, by innocently playing out and disowning punishment. Or, to return to the familiar classroom paradigm, Falstaff is the class clown, the merry wives are the teacher, and we are his peers who both punish and laugh at this foolish figure.

To place the play in a larger context, I pose the following conundrum: Why is this image of man, with his aggressive and yet guilty sense of sexuality, his focus on humiliation and abuse at the hands of woman, preoccupying Shakespeare between the writing of a Twelfth Night and a Hamlet? Or "why," as William Green asks us in his introduction to the Signet edition of the play, "when engrossed in writing romantic comedy … does [Shakespeare] suddenly backtrack to the farcical treatment of love that he successfully presented in The Taming of the Shrew?" The most prevalent philosophical concern in Shakespeare's Page 576  |  Top of Articleplays of the time period is not with the potential, ever renewing accommodations and adjustments to life which comedy celebrates but with a tragic awareness of man's limitations. Throughout the plays is a disturbing sense of the impossibility of purposive language and action in a world of flux, created by man and sustained by his frail faith in himself and in others. This conflict is commonly expressed in the form of a triad. One term is an ideal world order, received from one's fathers, and often represented by them: a world that in each subsequent incarnation, is increasingly revealed to be less viable and less self-aware. This is the ideal world of a Friar Laurence, a Richard II, an old Hamlet; it is Hector's ideal of intrinsic value, Othello's dream, and Lear's fantasy. A recognition of its flaws is necessary but, ultimately, neither comforting nor useful; threatening to take its place is a world of chaos. As Ulysses reminds us,

    Take but degree away, untune that string,
    And hark what discord follows. Each thing meets
    In mere oppugnancy …
    Then everything include itself in power,
    Power into will, will into appetite.
    And appetite, an universal wolf,
    So doubly seconded with will and power,
    Must make perforce an universal prey
    And last eat up himself.

This is our second term, the chaotic world which Bolingbroke opened up like a Pandora's box: a world peopled by Ajax and Pompey Bum, Falstaff and his crew, Goneril and Regan, and Othello's Anthropophagi who eat each other up. In between the ideal and the real, the private and the public, the past and the present, is a mediator attempting to join the two; after Hamlet, that mediator simply represents a makeshift, manmade order subject to constant attack from without and within, sustained only by human imagination, faith, and respect.

The problem of maintaining a makeshift, imaginative, communal order in the face of external attack and a loss of faith in a previous order is given comic expression in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Representing the old order in the form of its restitutions of law and religion are the farcical Windsor elders. Threatening to replace them are the chaotic forces of power, will, and appetite, represented by the ridiculous buffoon Falstaff and his farcically swaggering crew. Shakespeare reenacts his tragic dilemma on the familiar testing ground of English soil, Windsor community—and on the familiar testing ground of English comedy as well. What sustains Windsor society is its commitment to the opposite of the manipulative, predatory, capitalistic behavior in which both parties engage—its commitment to a creed of communal trust, faith, and harmony, as represented by Master Page. The possibility of tragedy threatens, however, when Shakespeare rests an order, as he must, on imaginative grounds; trust implies mistrust, and every Page has its counterpart Ford in Shakespeare's works. Yet Ford is here linked with Falstaff; the miser becomes the thief's alterego, and through this identification, the threat that Ford presents can be safely overcome. After all, this is a comedy. What makes the play humorous is Shakespeare's portrayal of the Windsor elders in such a way that their impotence is comic rather than tragic, and his portrayal of the forces of chaos in terms of comic weaknesses as well. What makes the play comedy, rather than farce, is the addition of an alternative which has all the trappings of success, a mediating term with which we can identify and which will save the community.

This triad has its psychological coordinates as well, and these are well brought out in Shakespeare's post-1600 plays. For the old world, the sanctioned order now revealed as hollow, we have an old, narrowly defined, heroic masculine persona which is no longer viable or appropriate. For the new, predatory "order," we have an identity based on dependency on others (particularly women) in time: a tragic sense of being as subject to continual redefinition by untrustworthy mirrors. In the post-1600 plays, these two options are often presented in the characters of the omnipotent superhero and the emasculated cuckold. The ideal mean, a secure masculine sexual identity dependent upon the possibility of intimacy without self-destruction, a successful sense of being with and through others, is depicted in The Merry Wives in the confident relationship of the Pages.

In the tragedies, Shakespeare becomes fascinated with attacking and exposing the world of the fathers, and exploring and resolving this sense of relationship with woman as dependent and devouring. There is a growing identification with heroic transgression, on the one hand, and with an ultimately passive submission to these Page 577  |  Top of Articledestructive powers, be they the forces of evil without or within, glorified in the form of heavenly ministers, on the other. The comedies equally deal with transgressions against fathers and mothers, but they provide a defensive means of dealing with the accompanying guilt—in this case, through a manipulative, humorous baiting of others into an attack which enables regulation of hostile feelings, and through humorous self-abasement which mitigates that attack. Simons notes, "Clowning is thus an adaptive effort on the part of the ego to deal with … castrative fears, a defense against and a partial punishment for incestuous and aggressive impulses, an abandonment of the oedipal struggle with regression to more infantile levels, and a communication to the therapist: 'Don't be frightened of me. I'm no rival. I'm only a clown—a fool—old and weak—fat—bald—impotent.'" How does clowning alleviate the punishment accompanying the transgressions enacted in the tragedies of the time period? "If," as Simons argues, "he [the clown] can actively play at these fears, perhaps they will not come true. If he can confess and expose them to ridicule, perhaps no further punishment will be exacted. If he can get his friends to laugh at them, perhaps they are not so terrifying as they seem." In The Merry Wives of Windsor, Shakespeare's friends agree to laugh with him once more, and to stall off the terrors that are to come.

Source: Barbara Freedman, "Falstaff's Punishment: Bufoonery as Defensive Posture in The Merry Wives of Windsor," in Shakespeare Studies, Vol. 14, 1981, pp. 163-74.


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Through biography and photographs, Gurr provides a look at the life of Shakespeare and his times.

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Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2896100028