The Merry Wives of Windsor

Friends, I hate to break this to you but…it appears it’s nearly September. I’m still trying to figure out where March went. Also, apparently there’s not much media coverage of the flooding in the southern US; I don’t watch much (any) TV and get most of my news online so I have no clue exactly how much coverage the situation is getting. I figured I’d boost the signal.

And now back to Shakespeare and The Merry Wives of Windsor and the return of Falstaff. I wasn’t too fond of him the first time around (I guess I like high comedy and verbal sparring), so I was destined to not be in love with this play. I enjoyed it far more when I was done reading it, not so much in the reading though. The play fell flat for me, but it’s still much better than The Two Gentlemen of Verona. That’s apparently my gauge for Shakespeare plays now.

I’ll stop prattling on now and get into the play itself.

Summary

The play is set around the same time as both parts of Henry IV, but it could easily be contemporary to the time Shakespeare wrote it if it weren’t for the appearance of some well-known characters. Falstaff and his crew are in Windsor. To gain some money Falstaff has decided to woo both Mistress Ford and Mistress Page, who are married and wealthy. He sends them identical love letters, which Pistol and Nym refuse to deliver. Falstaff summarily fires them and they resolve to inform the husbands of Falstaff’s actions as revenge.

Mistress Page and Mistress Ford find out that they both received the same letters, identical except for their names. Neither is interested in Falstaff and they decide to pretend return his attraction to get revenge and have some sport. When Pistol and Nym tell their husbands about the letters Page couldn’t care less but Ford is a bit suspicious. He decides to meet Falstaff disguised as Master Brook to investigate the situation.

Falstaff receives messages from both Mistress Page and Mistress Ford through Mistress Quickly. Mistress Page laments that her husband is usually at home but hopes to find time alone to meet with Falstaff at some point. Mistress Page replies that her husband will be away for an hour and asks Falstaff to visit her then. After Falstaff receives these messages he’s introduced to Ford, posing at Master Brook. Ford states that he’s in love with Mistress Ford and has been wooing her for some time but cannot win her hand because she’s too virtuous and loyal to her husband. He wants to hire Falstaff to woo her in his place, hoping that once she’s lost her virtue to Falstaff she’ll return his own advances. Falstaff tells Ford that he has an assignation with the lady already set and will happily help the man out. When Falstaff leaves Ford states that his suspicions have been confirmed and that Page is stupid to be so trusting.

Meanwhile, three men are vying for the hand of Page’s daughter, Anne Page: Master Slender, Doctor Caius, and Master Fenton. Page wants his daughter to marry Master Slender, Mistress Page wants her daughter to marry Doctor Caius, and Anne wants to marry Master Fenton though Page rejected Fenton previously because he had squandered his wealth. Hugh Evans, a Welshman and a Parson, tried to get Mistress Quickly’s to aid Slender but Caius found out about the attempt and challenged Evans to a duel. For a lark the host of the Garter Inn tried to stop the duel by telling both Caius and Evans to meet at different places. When Caius and Evans found out about the trickery they resolved to work together to get revenge.

Falstaff arrives to court Mistress Ford, not knowing that she’s in cahoots with Mistress Page and that they’re playing a joke on him. While Falstaff is wooing Mistress Ford Mistress Page arrives. Falstaff hides and hears Mistress Page tell Mistress Ford that her husband is coming home quickly with a large band of people (namely, Evans and Caius and the bunch). Mistress Page berates Mistress Ford for her disloyalty to her husband and suggests the gentleman hide himself in the laundry basket. Falstaff, fearing for his hide, swiftly pops out of his hiding place and stuffs himself into the laundry, revealing himself to Mistress Page. Servants remove the basket (with Falstaff in tow) and are on their way to dump the contents into the river just as Page arrives with his retinue. They search the house but can find no trace of a man. After the men leave the women resolve to meet up with Falstaff again for further revenge.

When Falstaff emerges from the Thames and arrives back at his inn he’s visited by Mistress Quickly, who informs him that Mistress Ford wishes to see him between eight and nine that morning while her husband is birding. Directly after she leaves Ford arrives, disguised as Brook, and inquires after how Falstaff fared with Mistress Ford. Falstaff tells him the entire tale and (in true Falstaff form) embellishes, saying that he and Mistress Ford had been in a passionate embrace when Ford returned home. He also tells Ford of his second attempt to meet with Mistress Ford that morning. Ford once again vows to catch Falstaff and his wife in the act.

Falstaff once more arrives at Mistress Ford’s house, and once more Mistress Page bursts in to warn that Page is on his way with a group of men to find Falstaff out. They know they can’t put him in the laundry basket again (Ford is currently ranting about it, obviously wise to what happened the previous day) and there’s no way to get Falstaff out of the house without being seen. They decide to dress him in women’s clothes and secret him out under the men’s noses. Ford orders the laundry basket emptied before the group of men, believing Falstaff to be in there again; he’s not. When Ford asks the men to humor him once more and help him search the house Mistress Ford states that Mistress page and Mistress Ford’s maid’s aunt, an obese woman from Brentford whom Ford hates, are above and asks them to leave so the men can search. Ford beats Falstaff as he exits the house (thinking he’s the old woman), thus making his friends even more worried for his sanity.

The women decide to tell their husbands of their fun at Falstaff’s expense. Everyone thinks it’s hilarious and praises them for it. Ford also apologizes for ever doubting his wife. They decide to play one more trick on Falstaff: to have him meet Mistress Ford by an old oak tree dressed as Herne the Hunter. While he’s there, several children (including Anne Page) will emerge dressed as fairies and will pinch and burn Falstaff with candles. Page also plots to have Slender steal his daughter Anne away to marry her and Mistress Page has the same plan in mind for Caius.

Meanwhile, Evans and Caius seem to be getting their revenge on the host by stealing two of his horses disguised as Germans and then telling him, separately, that two such men have been conning hosts of inns in neighboring towns and that the duke they serve doesn’t exist.

Fenton comes to the host and asks for help: he wants to marry Anne Page, and Anne Page wants to marry him. Since she’ll be masked for the joke on Falstaff her father has asked her to wear white so Slender will know her; Slender will then take her hand and lead her away to marry her, to which Anne has agreed. Her mother wants her to wear green so Caius will know her, and likewise he will lead her away to marry her; Anne has agreed to this as well. The plot is for Fenton to steal Anne away before anyone else gets to her (which has been Anne’s plan all along) and asks the host to help secure a vicar to marry them. The host agrees to help and Fenton pays him for his troubles.

And so it happens: Falstaff arrives at the tree dressed in a costume with horns on his head. He’s greeted by both Mistress Page and Mistress Ford but they both run away after hearing voices. The children and Evans arrive dressed as fairies and Falstaff, fearing for his life, dives down on the ground and covers his head. The children proceed to pinch and burn him with their candles. During the racket, Caius leads a figure in green away from the scene and Slender a figure in white.

Page, Ford, Mistress Page, Mistress Ford, et al then reveal themselves to Falstaff and have a good laugh at his expense. Falstaff, for his part, seems to be in pretty good spirits about the whole affair. Ford also states that Falstaff must reimburse him for the 20 pounds Master Brook gave to him and takes Falstaff’s horse as payment.

Page then reveals that Anne and Slender have married but Slender arrives, crying foul because he ended up stealing away with a boy rather than Anne. Mistress Page pipes up and confesses that Caius has run off with Anne instead, but Caius arrives and rails that he’s married a boy instead of Anne. Fenton and Anne then arrive and reveal that they’re now married; the parents accept the union and everyone heads back to the Pages’ house to celebrate, including Falstaff.

Of Interest

Love, loyalty, and marriage are all central to the play. The loyalty to marriage of Mistresses Page and Ford and the questioning of this loyalty by Master Page leads to most of the action. In addition, the secondary tale of Anne Page and Fenton revolves around these three ideals; they are loyal to one another, love one another, and want to be married. Anne’s parents both want her to love men other than Fenton, but Anne is loyal.

Another central idea is that wives can be merry and loyal at the same time. Master Page understands this from the beginning and Master Ford learns this over the course of the play.

The play also highlights the “differences” (reads: makes fun of) the middle class with characters like Bardolph, Pistol, Mistress Quickly, and Nym. They misuse and mishear Latin and English, showing their ignorance. In addition, Shakespeare makes certain to emphasize Caius’ and Evans’ French and Welsh accents and speech patterns. This last point is because anyone from outside Windsor is mocked for their “otherness”, although in the end everyone is absorbed into the group.

I do want to draw attention to one aspect of the play; there are three suitors who are mocked: Slender, Caius, and Falstaff. Of the three, Falstaff ends up dressed as a woman and beaten by Ford and both Slender and Caius end up married to young boys. These three suitors, then, are all unmanned in some way.

Nota Bene

Did you notice that there’s a lot of prose rather than blank verse in this play? That’s because of the subject matter of the play. I want to say it’s because of the middle-class setting, but that might be taken the wrong way; it’s not that lower classes only spoke in prose in Shakespeare (we saw that that wasn’t true in Richard II); instead, it’s because of the actual subject matter of what’s being discussed. The characters speak of baser subjects and so the style of their speech reflects this.

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