.


The Merry Wives of Windsor
A Study Guide
Home: Shakespeare Index

See Shakespeare Study Guides in Kindle Format
With Complete Annotated Texts


Table of Contents

Type of Work      Composition and First Performance      Publication      Sources      Setting      Characters      Plot Summary      Climax      Themes
Tone      Conflicts      More Prose Than Verse      Satire on Physicians      Figures of Speech      Study Questions and Essay Topics      Complete Tex
t

Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings
...© 2003, 2008, 2016

Type of Work

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.

Composition and First Performance

According to conjecture, Shakespeare completed The Merry Wives of Windsor between 1597 and 1599. Two English Shakespeare scholarsJohn 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). 

Publication

A quarto 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.

Sources

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 Treasures in Full: Shakespeare in Quarto.

Setting
 

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 1087. 

Characters

Protagonist: Sir John Falstaff
Antagonists: The Wives
.
Sir John Falstaff: A fat knight with a robust appetite for food, drink, women and their money, and mischief. Falstaff is also a character in Henry IV Part I and Henry IV Part II and an offstage presence in Henry V.
Mistress Ford, Mistress Page: Merry wives wooed by Falstaff.
Shallow: A country justice whom Falstaff and his comrades victimize by killing his deer, beating his men, and breaking into his lodge. Shallow may have been a caricature of Sir Thomas Lucy (1532-1600), a Stratford-born justice of the peace, member of Parliament, and tracker of English Catholics who refused to recognize the Church of England. According to an undocumented account, Lucy prosecuted Shakespeare for stealing a deer from his land. 
Slender: Cousin of Shallow who accuses Falstaff's friend, Pistol, of picking his pocket.
Ford: Husband of Mistress Ford.
Page: Husband of Mistress Page.
William Page: Son of Mr. Page.
Anne Page: Daughter of Mistress Page.
Fenton: A gentleman who loves Anne Page.
Sir Hugh Evans: A Welsh parson.
Doctor Caius: A French physician.
Host of the Garter Inn
Bardolph, Pistol, Nym: Troublemaking friends of Falstaff 
Robin: Page of Falstaff.
Simple: Servant of Slender.
Rugby: Servant of Doctor Caius.
Mistress Quickly: Servant of Doctor Caius.
Minor Characters: Other servants.

Plot Summary
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 venison pasty. 

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. Ford. 


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 note. 


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 Datchet-mead" (3.3.53).


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” (3.3.73). 


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” (5.5.8).


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 fantasy! 
Fie on lust and luxury! 
Lust is but a bloody fire, 
Kindled with unchaste desire, 
Fed in heart, whose flames aspire 
As thoughts do blow them, higher and higher. 
Pinch him, fairies, mutually; 
Pinch him for his villainy; 
Pinch him, and burn him, and turn him about, 
Till candles and starlight and moonshine be out. (5.5.71) 
Mistress Page then reveals the hoax to Falstaff. Ford gloats, saying “Now, sir, who’s a cuckold now?” (5.5.80). Falstaff says, “I do begin to perceive that I am made an ass” (5.5.82). And who gets Anne Page? Slender and Doctor Caius think they do when they each steal away with one of the disguised night creatures. But it is Fenton who winds up with comely Anne. They have run off and married. All ends happily, with no hard feelings, as Mistress Page invites everyone to her home to sit by the fireplace and have a good laugh.


Climax
 

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).

Tone

The tone of the play is lighthearted and mischievous, especially when Falstaff becomes the victim of practical jokes.

Conflict

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.
 

Themes

 

Women can hold their own against menand 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 speculate.


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 deceives himself.


Insincerity breeds trouble
.

Falstaff gets into trouble because he is insincere, pretending to be lovestruck when he is really money-struck.


Turnabout is fair play
.

The wives turn the tables on Falstaff, and he gets his just desert.


Great Buys on the Following Items at Amazon.com

Cameras     Cell Phones and Accessories      Computers      Digital Music      Game Downloads       Jewelry
Kindle E-Readers      Musical Instruments       Men's Clothes       Women's Clothes       Handbags and Shoes


More Prose Than Verse
 

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).

Figures of Speech

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

Metaphor

Sometimes the beam of her view gilded my foot, sometimes my portly belly. (1.3.32)
Comparison of the gaze of Mistress Page to a golden ray of light

Hang no more about me; I am no gibbet. (2.2.9)
Falstaff compares himself to a gallows

Alliteration, Metaphor

Why, then the world’s mine oyster. 
Which I with sword will open. (2.2.4-5)
Metaphor: Comparison of the world to an oyster

He shall not knit a knot in his fortunes with the finger of my substance. (2.2.29)
Metaphors: Comparison of the accumulation of money to knitting; comparison of money to a knot; comparison of finger to wealth

Hypberbole

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)

Simile

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)
Falstaff compares himself to a barrow of offal (waste of a butchered animal).

 

Annotations for the Opening Lines

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.

Windsor. 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 Shallow, esquire.2
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, or obligation,—armigero. 
SHALLOW:  Ay, that I do; and have done any time these three hundred years. 
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 coat. 
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 coat. 
SLENDER:  I may quarter,11coz?12   
SHALLOW:  You may, by marrying. 
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 that.16 

Notes

Star-Chamber 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 land-owning gentry.
Gloster: Gloucester.
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.
cust-alorum: 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 county.
rato-lorum: Slender's 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 bearings.
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. 
coz: Cousin.
py'r lady: By our lady.
compremises: Compromises.
Got: God.
take . . . in that: Take that under advisement. 
 
Study Questions and Essay Topics

  1. In an argumentative essay, take a stand on whether Shakespeare intended The Merry Wives of Windsor as a statement in favor of women’s rights. In your essay, you may wish to take into account the treatment of women in other Shakespeare plays.
  2. 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?
  3. What was life like for middle-class Englishmen in Shakespeare’s time?
  4. In an essay, compare and contrast the Falstaff of Henry IV Part I with the Falstaff of The Merry Wives.
  5. To what extent does The Merry Wives poke fun at the love of money? In researching your answer, you may wish to start with these lines:
JUSTICE SHALLOW:   Did her grandsire leave her seven hundred pound? 
SIR HUGH EVANS:   Ay, and her father is make her a petter [better] penny.
JUSTICE SHALLOW:  I know the young gentlewoman; she has good gifts. 
SIR HUGH EVANS:  Seven hundred pounds and possibilities is goot [good] gifts. (1.1.23-26) 
 
.