The Play’s the Thing: Sir John Falstaff is in a tight situation financially and comes up with the brilliant plan of courting two women who gave him the eye in the local pub in an effort to get them to give him some of their husbands’ money. The two women in question, Mrs. Page and Mrs. Ford, are outraged when they receive Falstaff’s letters of elicitation as they did nothing on their part to indicate any kind of interest, and are even more upset when they compare their letters and find that other than their names, the letters are identical. In an effort to teach Falstaff a lesson, they cook up a plan that will punish Falstaff and also Mrs. Ford’s husband who has a ridiculous jealous streak. Convincing him that Mrs. Ford is interested in his advances, they bring him to the Ford house while Ford is out only to have Ford come back again and force Falstaff to escape in the most ridiculous ways possible, first in a basket of dirty laundry that gets dumped in the Thames and then disguising him as an old woman suspected of witchcraft who gets beaten by Ford on ‘her’ way out of the house. Meanwhile, with all of the antics going on with Falstaff, three gentlemen are all courting Anne Page (the daughter of the aforementioned Mrs. Page and her husband, Page). Slender is courting Anne mostly for her dowry at the behest of his uncle, Shallow, and the Welsh parson, Sir Hugh Evans. Dr. Caius, a French doctor, has been convinced by his maid, Mrs. Quickly that Anne actually is in love with him (Mrs. Quickly is not too bright and serves as a go-between for practically everyone in the play). And finally, Fenton who is in love with Anne and whom Anne also loves. Of the three suitors, Page wants Anne to marry Slender, Mrs. Page wants her to marry Dr. Caius, and neither of them want her to marry Fenton. In the final prank against, Falstaff, the wives reveal their plots to their husbands who join in the plan to have Falstaff dress up as a horned spirit believed to haunt an oak tree in the park near Windsor in order to finally have a rendez-vous with Mrs. Ford. Then a whole group of children and many of the other minor characters show up dressed as fairies to torment Falstaff with pinches and minor burns. Page tells Slender to use the confusion to steal away Anne and marry her. Mrs. Page tells Dr. Caius the same thing. Anne and Felton make their own plot to use the moment to run away and get married which they do successfully. In the end, Falstaff is forgiven for his exploits and given some cash by Ford, Ford and Page gain a greater appreciation for their wives, and the Pages ruefully accept the marriage of Anne to Fenton.
Heroes and Villains: My favourite character of the play has to be Falstaff (and I’m in good company because Queen Elizabeth I was also a big fan). His ridiculous self-confidence that two married women would find him attractive is thoroughly entertaining, especially as he’s described as an older man with a very large belly. His reactions to his plights are particularly funny and many of his speeches had me laughing out loud as I read them.
- upon familiarity will grow more contempt (I.i)
- burn daylight (II.i)
- the world’s mine oyster (II.ii)
- this is the short and the long of it (II.ii)
- all rhyme and reason (V.v)
Insults with Style:
- you Banbury cheese! (I.i)
- mechanical salt-butter rogue
Pick-up Lines with Style: Shakespeare definitely knew how to write a line that could charm the skirt off a lady. Fenton uses this line on Anne when admitting that he originally courted her for her dowry.
“Yet, wooing thee, I found thee of more value
Then stamps in gold, or sums in sealed bags;
And ’tis the very riches of thyself
That now I aim at.” (III.iv )
Speech to Know: There are no deep or insightful soliloquies in the play, but Falstaff’s speech after her returns to the inn after being dumped in the Thames is extremely funny.
“Have I lived to be carried in a basket, like a barrow of butcher’s offal; and to be thrown into the Thames? Well, if I be served such another trick, I’ll have my brains ta’en out and butter’d, and give them to a dog for a new year’s gift. The rogues slighted me into the river with as little remorse as they would have drowned a bitch’s blind puppies, fifteen i’ the litter: and you may know by my size that I have a kind of alacrity in sinking; if the bottom were as deep as hell I should down. I had been drowned but that the shore was shelvy and shallow: a death that I abhor; for the water swells a man; and what thing should I have been when I had been swelled! I should have been a mountain of mummy.” (III.v)
View from the Pit: Merry Wives of Windsor is definitely among the better class of Shakespeare’s comedies. Unusual in its focus on the lower classes rather than the ruling class that Shakespeare usually wrote about, the play is still full of sharp wit. Falstaff is his wonderful self and it’s good to know he’ll be the bright spot in some of the histories that I’ll be reading in the future. But even better are the strong female characters that are the true source of momentum in the play. Mrs. Page and Mrs. Ford are loyal women who have no issue taking their husbands down a peg and also plotting appropriate punishments for Falstaff whose pride is definitely in need of a bit of deflating. Even better, Anne takes an actual role in getting the husband that she wants rather than bowing to any of the familial or monetary pressures. Strong women and great physical comedy makes for a truly entertaining read.