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Type of Work
Composition and First Performance
More Prose Than Verse
Satire on Physicians
Figures of Speech
Study Questions and Essay Topics
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2003, 2008, 2016
The Merry Wives of Windsor
is a comedy. Like Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors,
it relies heavily on mix-ups and slapstick
to win the guffaws of the audience. In this
respect, the play resembles an American
television staple, the situation comedy. It even
has the types of characters that appear in
American TV sitcoms: everyday middle-class
folks. There are no kings and queens, no dukes
and duchesses, no earls and barons.
and First Performance
According to conjecture, Shakespeare
completed The Merry Wives of Windsor
between 1597 and 1599. Two English Shakespeare
Dennis (1658-1734) and Nicholas Rowe (1674-1718)—maintained
that Shakespeare wrote The
Merry Wives at the request of Queen
Elizabeth I and that it debuted before
her. Rowe said that she so enjoyed the
character of Falstaff in Henry
IV Part I and Henry
IV Part II that she asked
Shakespeare to write another play
featuring FaIstaff. Dennis wrote in the
prologue of a 1702 play, The Comical
Gallant, that the queen was so eager to see
it acted that she commanded it to
be finished in fourteen days. . .
." (Quoted in Shakespeare: The
Complete Works, edited by
G.B. Harrison. New York: Harcourt,
1952, page 937).
edition of the play was published in 1602 by
London printer Thomas Creede with misquoted
passages and omissions of entire scenes. An actor
performing in the play may have copied the play
haphazardly and submitted it to Creede. A second
quarto, also a defective copy, appeared in 1619. A
more faithful copy of Shakespeare's manuscript of
the play was published in 1623 as part of the First Folio, the first
authorized collection of Shakespeare's plays.
Shakespeare's farcical plot of
tricking the trickster can be traced to the
Roman playwright Titus Maccius Plautus (254-184
B.C.)—in particular, to his 205 BC play Miles
Gloriosus (Latin pronunciation: ME lez
Glor e OH sus). This play, written in Latin, is
about a boastful but stupid Greek soldier,
Pyrgopolynices, who is tricked by slaves.
Shakespeare may also have drawn upon other
sources, which the British Library identifies at
in Full: Shakespeare in Quarto.
The action takes place in Windsor
in Berkshire County, England, during the
Elizabethan Age. Windsor, a few miles west of
London, is the site of Windsor Castle, a royal
residence from the time of William the
Conqueror, who reigned as king from 1066 to
Protagonist: Sir John Falstaff
John Falstaff: A fat knight with a robust
appetite for food, drink, women and their money,
and mischief. Falstaff is also a character in Henry
IV Part I and Henry IV Part II and
an offstage presence in Henry
Ford, Mistress Page: Merry wives wooed by
A country justice whom Falstaff and his comrades
victimize by killing his deer, beating his men,
and breaking into his lodge. Shallow may have been
a caricature of Sir Thomas Lucy (1532-1600), a
Stratford-born justice of the peace, member of
Parliament, and tracker of English Catholics who
refused to recognize the Church of England.
According to an undocumented account, Lucy
prosecuted Shakespeare for stealing a deer from
Cousin of Shallow who accuses Falstaff's friend,
Pistol, of picking his pocket.
Husband of Mistress Ford.
Husband of Mistress Page.
Page: Son of Mr. Page.
Page: Daughter of Mistress Page.
A gentleman who loves Anne Page.
Hugh Evans: A Welsh parson.
Caius: A French physician.
Host of the Garter Inn
Pistol, Nym: Troublemaking friends of
Page of Falstaff.
Servant of Slender.
Servant of Doctor Caius.
Quickly: Servant of Doctor Caius.
Characters: Other servants.
By Michael J. Cummings © 2003
Windsor, a quiet town on the south
bank of the River Thames west of London, basks
in peace and harmony until Sir John Falstaff and
his rowdy companions—Bardolph, Pistol and
Nym—arrive from the big city to steal, poach,
and bully. Robert Shallow, a country justice,
tells Falstaff and his comrades: “You have
beaten my men, killed my deer, and broke open my
lodge” (1.1.53). Abraham Slender, Shallow’s
cousin, accuses Pistol of picking his pocket. At
the house of George Page, a gentleman of
Windsor, the accused and the accusers settle
their differences over wine and a repast of hot
While dining, Falstaff’s appetite strays from
food to females. Mistress Page, it seems, has a
certain allure—namely her pocketbook. Her
friend, Mistress Ford, is likewise endowed. Both
women rule the purse strings in their
households. Ever short of money but long on
schemes to get some, Falstaff later pens a love
letter and makes a copy of it, then charges
Pistol and Nym to bear the letters to Mistresses
Page and Ford. When Pistol and Nym refuse to
serve as toadies, Falstaff enlists a page boy,
Robin, to deliver the letters. Falstaff then
commands the useless Pistol and Nym to “vanish
like hailstones” (1.3.40). Angry, they decide to
tattle on Falstaff to Mr. Page and Mr.
When Mistress Page and Mistress Ford meet again,
they compare the letters and discover that they
are the same. “I warrant he hath a thousand of
these letters, writ with blank space for
different names” (2.1.16), Mistress Page
observes. When she proposes revenge against
Falstaff, Mistress Ford agrees to do whatever it
takes to get even. They first recruit Mistress
Quickly, an expert at playing pranks. She is a
maid in the household of a French physician, one
Doctor Caius. Mistress Quickly informs Falstaff
that Mistress Ford thanks him profusely for the
letter. Then she requests that he come to
Mistress Ford’s house between ten and eleven one
morning, when her husband is not at home.
(A subplot running through this play focuses
on three men wooing Anne Page, the daughter
of Mistress Page. These men are Abraham
Slender, Doctor Caius, and a gentleman named
Fenton. Slender, a foolish bumpkin, has the
support of Shallow, Mr. Page, and a Welsh
parson named Sir Hugh Evans. Caius has the
backing of Mistress Page. Fenton must fend
for himself. Fenton at first woos Miss Page
primarily to improve his financial
condition. However, he changes during the
course of the play. Shakespeare reveals the
winner of the Anne Page sweepstakes at the
end of the play.)
After Pistol and Nym snitch on Falstaff, Mr.
Page merely shrugs and dismisses the matter,
saying, “If he should intend this voyage towards
my wife, I would turn her loose to him; and what
he gets more of her than sharp words, let it lie
on my head” (2.1.70). In other words, Page
trusts his wife. She will not fall for fat old
Sir John. Ford, however, becomes jealous.
Pretending his name is Brook, he meets with
Falstaff. (Because Falstaff has never met Ford,
he does not know that “Brook” is Mistress Ford’s
husband.) Brook offers to pay Falstaff to woo
Mistress Ford. Ford explains that he loves her
but dares not approach her because she has a
reputation to uphold as a married woman. If
Falstaff can “drive her then from the ward of
her purity, her reputation, her marriage-vow”
(2. 2. 84), Brook says, she will be ripe
pickings for him. Falstaff, of course, accepts
the assignment. After all, there’s money to be
made. Then he tells Brook that he has already
scheduled a tryst with Mistress Ford, noting the
day and the hour. Brook makes a mental
Meanwhile, the merry wives, Mistress Page and
Mistress Ford, have prepared a fitting
punishment for Falstaff. The scheme begins to
unfold after Falstaff arrives at the appointed
time and addresses Mistress Ford as “my heavenly
jewel” (3.3.24). She tells him that “heaven
knows how I love you” (3.3.35). A knock at the
door disrupts their intimacy. It is Mistress
Page. When Mistress Ford describes her to
Falstaff as “a very tattling woman” (3.3.40),
Falstaff hides. Mistress Page enters. Then,
speaking loudly enough for Falstaff to hear, she
says word is out that Mistress Ford is
entertaining a man. What’s more, her husband is
on his way to the house with officers to search
for the man. What the women do not realize is
that Mr. Ford really is on his way to the house
with Mr. Page and other citizens—including
Doctor Caius and Sir Hugh Evans—to ensnare
Falstaff and Mistress Ford. As they near the
house, Mistress Ford “admits” to Mistress Page
that she has a man in the house. Mistress Page,
continuing to play her part but still unaware
that Mr. Ford is approaching the house, says:
"O, how have you deceived me! Look, here is a
basket: if he be of any reasonable stature, he
may creep in here; and throw foul linen upon
him, as if it were going to bucking: or—it is
whiting-time—send him by your two men to
The large basket had been set out by Mistress
Ford as part of her and her friend’s plot
against Falstaff. He would think it a good place
to conceal himself. They were right. Out of
sight of Mistress Page, Falstaff plops into the
basket and covers himself with dirty laundry.
Just as Ford is arriving, servants remove the
basket and dump it in a muddy ditch near the
Thames. Falstaff emerges from the pile of
clothes full of muck. Ford searches the house.
When no philanderer is found, he is made to look
a fool in front of Page and the others. After
the men leave, the wives enjoy a good giggle
over the coincidence and Mistress Ford remarks,
“I know not which pleases me better, that my
husband is deceived, or Sir John”
Falstaff decides to try again, telling “Brook”
he will arrive at the Ford residence between
eight and nine when, according to another
communication from Mistress Ford, the husband
will be out bird hunting. After Falstaff
arrives, Mistress Page again comes calling and
Falstaff again takes refuge in the shadows. When
she asks whether Mistress Ford has a man in the
house, mentioning Falstaff by name, Mistress
Ford says no. Mistress Page says she is greatly
relieved to hear that, for Mr. Ford is again on
the way to the house with citizens of the town.
Mistress Ford then “admits” Falstaff is indeed
on the premises, and the women disguise him as
“the fat woman of Brainford” (4.2.35), the aunt
of Mistress Ford’s maid. It so happens that Mr.
Ford despises the Brainford woman, and when he
shows up with Page, Doctor Caius, and Evans, he
beats the fat woman (Falstaff) mercilessly until
Falstaff escapes the house. While Ford searches
for Falstaff, his wife lets him in on the plot
against Sir John. Ford apologizes to his wife
for doubting her, and then they all agree to
play one more prank on Sir John.
Smarting from having been beaten “into all the
colours of the rainbow” (4.5.52), Falstaff is
almost ready to call it quits. But Mistress
Quickly—again a conniver in the plot against Sir
John—importunes him to try a third time. He
agrees, hoping “good luck lies in odd numbers”
(5.1.3). He is to go to Windsor Forest at
midnight in the guise of a ghost that haunts the
environs of an oak tree. (This oak tree—known as
Herne’s Oak—actually existed for more than six
hundred years. In 1863, it succumbed to the fury
of a storm.) Because the ghost wears antlers and
carries a chain, Mistress Quickly provides them
for Falstaff. When he arrives at the oak at the
stroke of twelve, he is wearing his deer’s head
and praying that the gods will assist him.
Hiding nearby are Mistresses Page and Ford, as
well as a small army of recruits—including
Pistol, Sir Hugh Evans and neighborhood
children—dressed as fairies, hobgoblins, and
other creatures of the night. Mistress Ford
addresses him lovingly and says Mistress Page is
with her. Falstaff says: “Divide me like a
brib’d buck, each a haunch: I will keep my sides
to myself, my shoulders for the fellow of this
walk, and my horns I bequeath your husbands”
When the women hear a noise, they run off and
the whole company of creatures descends upon
Falstaff. They pinch him everywhere and singe
him with tapers. They then sing a song:
Fie on sinful
Mistress Page then reveals the hoax
to Falstaff. Ford gloats, saying “Now, sir, who’s
a cuckold now?” (5.5.80). Falstaff says, “I do
begin to perceive that I am made an ass” (5.5.82).
And who gets Anne Page? Slender and Doctor Caius
think they do when they each steal away with one
of the disguised night creatures. But it is Fenton
who winds up with comely Anne. They have run off
and married. All ends happily, with no hard
feelings, as Mistress Page invites everyone to her
home to sit by the fireplace and have a good
Fie on lust and luxury!
Lust is but a bloody fire,
Kindled with unchaste desire,
Fed in heart, whose flames
As thoughts do blow them, higher
Pinch him, fairies, mutually;
Pinch him for his villainy;
Pinch him, and burn him, and turn
Till candles and starlight and
moonshine be out. (5.5.71)
The climax of the play takes place in
the final act when Falstaff becomes the brunt of
an elaborate practical joke and admits, "I do
begin to perceive that I am made an ass" (5.5.82).
The tone of the play is lighthearted and
mischievous, especially when Falstaff becomes the
victim of practical jokes.
The main conflict develops after Falstaff
writes love letters to Mistress Page and Mistress
Ford, hoping that this ploy will enable him to gain
access to their money. Unfortunately for him, the two
women compare the letters and vow revenge against
Falstaff. A secondary conflict develops after Mr. Ford
learns from Pistol and Nym that Falstaff is making a
play for his wife. Jealous, he turns against Falstaff
while also doubting his wife's faithfulness. These
conflicts bring about the comic events described in
the plot summary above.
Women can hold their own
the dictates of custom.
The Merry Wives of Windsor takes place in an
age when males often regarded females as
playthings and when parents often chose the
suitors for their daughters. But it is the women
who win the day in this comedy. Two ordinary
housewives, Mrs. Page and Mrs. Ford, get the
better of a gold-digging philanderer, Falstaff.
And Anne Page goes against the wishes of her
parents when she runs off with Fenton. The outcome
of the play must have pleased the women in
Shakespeare's audience. One of them was Queen
Elizabeth I, according to evidence indicating that
the play was first performed before her at Windsor
Castle. It is interesting to note, though, that
the women who make a fool of Falstaff, a knight,
are members of the middle class, not the nobility
or aristocracy. If the queen indeed delighted in
the victory of the merry wives, her enjoyment may
have been tempered by this fact—or so one may
All things are not as they seem.
Falstaff first deceives the wives. The wives then
deceive Falstaff and their husbands. Mr. Ford and
Mistress Quickly also deceive Falstaff. Falstaff
Insincerity breeds trouble.
Falstaff gets into trouble because he is
insincere, pretending to be lovestruck when he is
Turnabout is fair play.
The wives turn the tables on Falstaff, and he gets
his just desert.
The Merry Wives of Windsor is
unusual in that Shakespeare wrote most of it in
prose instead of verse or poetry. Pistol is the
only character who speaks most of his lines in
verse. The reason for his high-flown speech may be
Shakespeare's attempt to poke fun at a prominent
Elizabethan actor who worked for a company that
competed with Shakespeare's acting company. G.B.
Harrison explains: "Pistol was created to be a
walking parody of the great actor Edward Alleyn,
chief of the rival company, the Lord Admiral's
Men. Alleyn was the chief exponent of the older
style of heavy, robustious rant" (G.B. Harrison,
ed. Shakespeare: The Complete Works. New
York: Harcourt, 1952, Page 939).
Satire in the Play
In Shakespeare's time, aristocrats
considered it fashionable to place their health
care in the hands of a physician from another
country. To have a doctor from the European
continent was rather like having a BMW or a
Mercedes-Benz in the driveway in the modern
world. Shakespeare mocks these foreign
physicians through his characterization of
Doctor Caius. Caius is proud and overbearing,
fancies himself an outstanding fencer, and
believes Anne Page is in love with him. He
speaks in broken English that sometimes goes
very far awry, as in the following unintentional
pun he utters after Mr. Page invites Mr. Ford,
Sir Hugh Evans, and Caius to breakfast. After
Ford and Evans accept the invitation, Caius
says: "If dere [there] be one or two, I shall
make-a the turd" (3.3.100).
Shakespeare wrote most of the The
Merry Wives in the prose of everyday
speech. Pistol is the only character who speaks
all his lines—except very short ones—in verse.
Consequently, the play contains fewer elegant
figures of speech than his other plays, written
mostly in verse. Nevertheless, the play does
feature memorable tropes, including the
following. For definitions of figures of speech,
see Literary Terms.
Annotations for the Opening Lines
Sometimes the beam of her view
gilded my foot, sometimes my portly belly.
of the gaze of Mistress Page to a golden
ray of light
Hang no more about me; I am no
himself to a gallows
Why, then the
world’s mine oyster.
Which I with sword
will open. (2.2.4-5)
of the world to an oyster
He shall not knit
a knot in his fortunes
with the finger of my substance.
of the accumulation of money to knitting;
comparison of money to a knot; comparison
of finger to wealth
Well, if I be served such another
trick, I’ll have my brains ta’en out, and
buttered, and give them to a dog for a new
year’s gift. (3.5.5)
Have I lived to be carried in a
basket, and to be thrown in the Thames like a
barrow of butcher’s offal? (3.5.5)
himself to a barrow of offal (waste of a
The opening lines of the play
contain legal jargon, dialectical words, and
other verbal peculiarities which the modern
reader or playgoer may not understand. Following
is a reproduction of the first eighteen lines
from the 1914
Oxford Edition of Shakespeare, followed by
notes provided by the author of this web page.
Before PAGES' House.
Enter JUSTICE SHALLOW, SLENDER,
and SIR HUGH EVANS.
SHALLOW: Sir Hugh, persuade
me not; I will make a Star-chamber
matter1 of it; if he were twenty Sir
John Falstaffs he shall not abuse Robert
SLENDER: In the county of Gloster,3 justice of peace, and coram.4
SHALLOW: Ay, cousin
Slender, and cust-alorum.5
SLENDER: Ay, and rato-lorum6 too; and a gentleman born,
Master Parson; who writes himself armigero,7 in any bill, warrant, quittance,
SHALLOW: Ay, that I do; and
have done any time these three hundred
SLENDER: All his successors
gone before him hath done’t; and all his
ancestors that come after him may: they may
give the dozen white luces8 in their coat.
SHALLOW: It is an old
Eva. The dozen white louses9 do become an old coat well; it
agrees well, Passant;10 it is a familiar beast to man,
and signifies love.
SHALLOW: The luce is the
fresh fish; the salt fish is an old
SLENDER: I may quarter,11coz?12
SHALLOW: You may, by
EVANS: It is marring
indeed, if he quarter it.
SHALLOW: Not a whit.
EVANS: Yes, py’r lady;13 if he has a quarter of your
coat, there is but three skirts for yourself,
in my simple conjectures: but that is all one.
If Sir John Falstaff have committed
disparagements unto you, I am of the Church,
and will be glad to do my benevolence to make
atonements and compremises14 between you.
SHALLOW: The Council shall
hear it; it is a riot.
EVANS: It is not meet the
Council hear a riot; there is no fear of Got15 in a riot. The Council, look
you, shall desire to hear the fear of Got, and
not to hear a riot; take
your vizaments in
matter: Matter for the Privy Council, the
governing body of England and advisor to the king
or queen. The Privy Council acted as the supreme
court of England. G.B. Harrison says the council
met in what came to be known as the Star Chamber
"—so called because the ceiling was decorated with
stars—where it tried cases which did not come
within the ordinary procedure of the civil or
criminal courts" (Shakespeare: The Complete
Works. New York: Harcourt, 1952, page 25).
esquire: Member of the
coram: Slender mistakenly
uses the legal term coram for another
legal term, quorum. Quorum
occurs at the beginning of a clause in a
commission that appointed justices; the word
sometimes became part of a justice's title.
Corruption of the Latin term custos
rotulorum, meaning keeper of the rolls. In
the England of Shakespeare's time, the custos
rotulorum kept the official records of a
corruption of rotulorum. (See 5.)
armigero: Armiger. At one
time, an armiger was a squire who carried the
arms of a knight. Later, the term referred to
anyone with the right to display armorial
luces: Pikes, freshwater
fish. This might also be an allusion to Sir
Thomas Lucy, who was said to have accused
Shakespeare of poaching game on his land. His
armorial bearings pictured three luces.
louses: Sir Hugh Evans tends
to mispronounce words.
Passant: In heraldry,
an adjective used to describe an animal walking
while a forepaw is raised.
quarter: In heraldry, a verb
meaning to combine the coat of arms of a wife's
family with the coat of arms of the husband's
family. This combination is placed on one of the
four quarters of a shield.
py'r lady: By our lady.
. . in that: Take that under advisement.
Study Questions and Essay
- In an argumentative essay, take a
stand on whether Shakespeare intended The
Merry Wives of Windsor as a statement in
favor of women’s rights. In your essay, you
may wish to take into account the treatment of
women in other Shakespeare plays.
- Thee Merry Wives of Windsor
is entirely different from other Shakespeare
plays in that it focuses on the everyday life
of middle-class people. (Other plays center on
kings, queens, emperors, nobles, wealthy
aristocrats, etc.) Does this difference
manifest itself in the dialogue of the play—or
in any other aspect of the play?
- What was life like for
middle-class Englishmen in Shakespeare’s time?
- In an essay, compare and contrast
the Falstaff of Henry IV Part I with the
Falstaff of The Merry Wives.
- To what extent does The Merry
Wives poke fun at the love of money? In
researching your answer, you may wish to start
with these lines:
SHALLOW: Did her grandsire leave her
seven hundred pound?
SIR HUGH EVANS: Ay, and
her father is make her a petter [better] penny.
SHALLOW: I know the young gentlewoman; she
has good gifts.
SIR HUGH EVANS: Seven hundred
pounds and possibilities is goot [good] gifts.