Introduction: The Merry Wives of Windsor
This is indeed a merry play, possibly the only one of Shakespeare’s comedies in which all’s more or less well that ends more or less well. Getting there is, except for poor Falstaff and the jealous Master Ford, a wildly funny romp.
The Sir John Falstaff we see here is not the same one we first met in Henry IV Part One. There he was humorous, rambunctious and profoundly wise. Here he is actually unlikeable and (even though one feels a little sorry for him at times) he gets what he deserves.
The story is this: Falstaff needs money and likes the company of ladies. Foolishly, he writes the same love letter to Mistress Ford and Mistress Page, proposing a tryst. These two resourceful ladies, upon discovering this silly double-booking, decide to teach him a lesson by pretending to agree to receive him. In a complicated farce of go-betweens, disguises, and subplots, during which Master Ford becomes insanely jealous, Falstaff is first stuffed unceremoniously into a laundry basket and carted off to be thrown into the filthy Thames, and then beaten and chased from the premises disguised as an undignified old woman. Not satisfied with this, the two ladies, together with their now informed husbands and the other townspeople, stage a midnight revel involving children, fairies, legends, dancing and, ultimately, the public embarrassment of poor Sir John.
One of the several subplots also culminates in the midnight revelries. Mistress Anne, daughter of the Pages, is being wooed by the dull young Slender (favored by her father as the best match), by the flighty French Dr. Caius (favored by her mother), and the impoverished nobleman Fenton (favored by Anne herself). Both parents connive to have their chosen son-in-law steal Mistress Anne away to clandestine weddings during the pageantry but Anne and Fenton fool them both by eloping and returning to the festivities as husband and wife. The parents bow gracefully to their daughter’s choice, Falstaff recovers quickly from his public embarrassment, and they all head to the Page residence for a celebratory and reconciliatory dinner.
The only Shakespearean comedy to be set in England, The Merry Wives of Windsor is one of Shakespeare’s more popular but at the same time obscure and least analyzed plays in spite of the rich potential for analysis of class, gender, language and more. A less than scientific but revealing investigation shows over 60 million Google hits in a search for Hamlet, 27 million for Romeo and Juliet and a mere 912 000 for The Merry Wives of Windsor. Interestingly, “Falstaff” gives over five million hits all by itself: admittedly, many of these are for the Verdi opera, the Henry plays and the various pubs and whatnot bearing the fat knight’s name; but Sir John nevertheless remains one of Shakespeare’s most appreciated characters, in spite of his misfortunes in this play.
Contributed by Ruby Jand