I have to be honest and say that I was dreading reading The Merry Wives of Windsor. Why should I have looked forward to it? Every single critical text I’ve read has torn this particular play to shreds. I’ve seen it called Shakespeare’s absolute worst play.
Despite all of this, I’m here to tell you that The Merry Wives of Windsor is not as bad as people make it out to be. The wordplay is unsophisticated and simple at best, and the plot is basic. There is nothing special about this play, but there’s nothing terrible about it either. I feel like it is unfair to expect Shakespeare to deliver perfect poetry all the time – not every play is going to be a Hamlet or a King Lear. Sometimes, plays and words are (and should be) simple. And simple language suits the plot of The Merry Wives of Windsor best.
Harold Bloom claims that this play is the one that Shakespeare himself “seems to hold in contempt.” We’ll have to ignore for a moment that most of what Bloom says is stuffy nonsense, and think about this statement seriously for a minute. I don’t think Shakespeare held any of his own work in contempt. I think he was a businessman as well as a playwright, and was bringing Falstaff back to the masses that loved him. Stunning poetry is all well and good, but it doesn’t always put money in your pockets. All I’m saying is that it’s okay that Shakespeare wrote this, it’s okay that his poetic switch was turned off for a moment, and it’s okay that this play is about Falstaff.
I’ve mentioned before how people spend way, way too much time and energy on Falstaff when they read the Henriad. Bloom is obsessed with Falstaff – to the point where someone once told me it made them hate Falstaff before they picked up Henry IV, Part One. A lot of people hate The Merry Wives of Windsor because Falstaff doesn’t have the same sparkle and wit he has in the Henriad – they claim it isn’t Falstaff. But, you know what? I think it is Falstaff. This is Falstaff out of the spotlight – our sparkling masters of wits are the titular wives. I didn’t think Falstaff did much of anything that was out of character for him. His language has changed, but if Shakespeare was allowed to turn off his poetry for a minute, then Falstaff is allowed to do so as well. Maybe this vacationing-in-Windsor-Falstaff doesn’t feel the need to shine and drown us in complicated wordplay because he’s miles away from the person (Hal) that he’s spent his life trying to impress. But I digress.
I’m defending this play to death, I know, and maybe it doesn’t deserve it. But I love the Henriad, and seeing a few characters I know of made this play feel cozy. I felt like I was coming home, in a sense. So forgive a young woman her nonsense, and let’s get into this play.
We open in…Windsor, obviously. Justice Shallow, his nephew Slender, and Sir Hugh Evans the parson are on their way to the Page residence. As it happens, Mistress and Master Page have a daughter that everybody is dying to marry.
Mistress Anne Page? She has brown hair and speaks small like a woman?
It is that fery person for all the ‘orld, as just as you will desire. And seven hundred pounds of moneys, and gold, and silver, is her grandsire upon his death’s-bed (Got deliver to a joyful resurrection!) give, when she is able to overtake seventeen years old. It were a goot motion if we leave out pribbles and prabbles, and desire a marriage between Master Abraham and Mistress Anne Page.
I do love Sir Hugh’s exaggerated Welsh accent. Anyway, Anne is going to be loaded one day, so Slender had better get on that ASAP.
Falstaff is at the Page residence, and Shallow has a bone to pick with him. Apparently, Falstaff killed his deer.
Now, Master Shallow, you’ll complain of me to the King?
Knight, you have beaten my men, killed my deer, and broken open my lodge.
But not kissed your keeper’s daughter.
I spent a long time trying to figure out when this play is taking place. I now think that it is somewhere in the middle of Henry IV’s reign. My copy of this play suggests it could be during the reign of Henry V, but I don’t think so. There is just something about the mood of this play that makes it fit into the timeline of Henry IV, Part One more than anything else.
Slender, meanwhile, accuses Falstaff’s men of robbing him. Bardolph does have sticky fingers…! In any case, this is a regular Boar’s Head reunion. And, as I mentioned, that’s exactly what makes this play feel so homey.
Mistress Anne Page enters, and she’s a catch. Sir Hugh and Shallow struggle to figure out if Slender is up to the task of wooing her. This shouldn’t be a struggle but, well, Slender is an idiot.
But can you affection the ‘oman? Let us command to know that of your mouth, or of your lips; for divers philosophers hold that the lips is parcel of the mouth. Therefore, precisely, can you carry your good will to the maid?
Cousin Abraham Slender, can you love her?
I hope, sir, I will do as it shall become one that would do reason.
Sir Hugh is seconds from losing it, and who can blame him? Slender is incredibly dense, and certainly no match for this Windsor girl. Sir Hugh and Shallow eventually decide that Slender’s nonsensical ramblings indicate that he’s up to the marriage. Slender then tries to woo Anne, but it is incredibly clumsy. But I’m sure Anne is used to this. There’s no way she hasn’t dealt with her fair share of idiots, being as desirable as she is.
Mistress Quickly is apparently the best way to get to Anne, because she is asked to speak with Anne on Slender’s behalf. Oh, Mistress Quickly. She means well, but she agrees to do what everybody asks of her. This leads to a lot of mix-ups.
Falstaff, meanwhile, is on a firing spree. He’s going a bit broke. The Host of the Garter offers Bardolph a job.
Bardolph, follow him. A tapster is a good trade. An old cloak makes a new jerkin, a withered servingman a fresh tapster. Go. Adieu.
It is a life that I have desired. I will thrive.
You sure will, Bardolph. I have to say that Bardolph is my favorite of Falstaff’s men. He is incredibly loyal to Falstaff, and a bit dim, but good-natured. Sticky fingers and permanently drunk state aside, of course.
Pistol and Nym enter, and Falstaff reveals his master plan.
No quips now, Pistol. Indeed, I am in the waist two yards about, but I am now about no waste; I am about thrift. Briefly, I do mean to make love to Ford’s wife. I spy entertainment in her. She discourses; she carves; she gives the leer of invitation. I can construe the action of her familiar style; and the hardest voice of her behavior, to be Englished rightly, is “I am Sir John Falstaff’s.” […] Now, the report goes, she has all the rule of her husband’s purse. He hath a legion of angels.
Oh, Falstaff. No.
FALSTAFF, [showing two papers]
I have writ me here a letter to her; and here another to Page’s wife, who even now gave me good eyes too, examined my parts with most judicious oeillades. Sometimes the beam of her view gilded my foot, sometimes my portly belly. […] O, she did so course o’er my exteriors with such a greedy intention that the appetite of her eye did seem to scorch me up like a burning-glass. Here’s another letter to her. She bears the purse too; she is a region in Guiana, all gold and bounty. I will be cheaters to them both, and they shall be exchequers to me; they shall be my East and West Indies, and I will trade to them both. Go bear thou this letter to Mistress Page – and thou this to Mistress Ford. We will thrive, lads, we will thrive.
Shockingly, Pistol and Nym refuse. Falstaff dismisses them from his service immediately and gives the letters to his page, Robin. Pistol and Nym, of course, immediately decide they need to take revenge.
Falstaff’s plot is so silly. He means to sleep with both Mistress Page and Mistress Ford, in hopes that he’ll have access to their purses. Silly man. But not entirely out of character.
We are introduced to another of Anne’s suitors, the dramatic Dr. Caius. Mistress Quickly works for him, for whatever reason. He is French – yes, this play has two funny accents for us to enjoy. Shakespeare really went all out. Sarcasm aside, Dr. Caius loses his mind when he intercepts the letter that Sir Hugh wrote on Slender’s behalf. He decides to challenge…Sir Hugh to a duel? You’d think he’d challenge Slender, but alright. We’ll go with it.
We are also introduced to Fenton, another one of Anne’s gentleman callers. Good grief! This girl is like honeycomb to flies.
What news? How does pretty Mistress Anne?
In truth, sir, and she is pretty, and honest, and gentle; and one that is your friend, I can tell you that by the way, I praise heaven for it.
Shall I do any good, think’st thou? Shall I not lose my suit?
Troth, sir, all is in His hands above. But notwithstanding, Master Fenton, I’ll be sworn on a book that she loves you.
This is great and all, but Mistress Quickly more or less assures every one of Anne’s suitors that they’re still in the game at some point. But, I will say that Fenton is the least offensive of them. Funny how nobody thinks to ask Anne’s opinion, hmm?
We return to Falstaff’s plot again. He definitely didn’t think any of this through, because it turns out that Mistress Page and Mistress Ford are best friends. We’re treated to a dramatic reading of Falstaff’s letter.
What, have I ‘scaped love letters in the holiday time of my beauty, and am I now a subject for them? Let me see.
‘Ask me no reason why I love you, for though Love use Reason for his precisian, he admits him not for his counselor. You are not young; no more am I. Go to, then, there’s sympathy. You are merry; so am I. Ha, ha, then, there’s more sympathy. You love sack, and so do I. Would you desire better sympathy? Let it suffice thee, Mistress Page – at the least, if the love of soldier can suffice – that I love thee. I will not say pity me – ’tis not a soldier-like phrase – but I say love me. By me,
Thine own true knight,
By day or night,
Or any kind of light,
With all his might
For thee to fight,
You have got to be kidding me. This is the letter that Falstaff believes will woo a married woman?! Even Doll Tearsheet would mock him for this. But forget my reaction to this – Mistress Page has an even better one:
What a herod of Jewry is this! O wicked, wicked world! One that is well-nigh worn to pieces with age, to show himself a young gallant! What an unweighted behavior hath this Flemish drunkard picked – with the devil’s name! – out of my conversation, that he dares in this manner assay me? Why, he hath not been thrice in my company! What should I say to him! Why, I’ll exhibit a bill in the Parliament for the putting down of men. How shall I be revenged on him? For revenged I will be, as sure as his guts are made of puddings.
I realized a few sentences into this that Falstaff has no idea who he’s dealing with. There is something to be said about how ‘merry’ women were seen when compared to their more silent, conservative companions. Falstaff genuinely thought this would work, which is just crazy. Apparently, he’s been in her company only three times. What can I say, Mistress Page? That’s men for you. I do love the line about the bill in the Parliament, though. Very Beatrice-esque!
Mistress Ford comes in and – lo and behold! – she has a letter too. The same letter. The same letter.
Letter for letter, but that the name of Page and Ford differs! To thy great comfort in this mystery of ill opinions, here’s the twin brother of thy letter. [She gives a paper to Mistress Ford, who reads it.] But let thine inherit first, for I protest mine never shall. I warrant he hath a thousand of these letters writ with blank space for different names – sure, more – and these are of the second edition. He will print them, out of doubt; for he cares not what he puts into the press, when he would put us two. I had rather be a giantess and lie under Mount Pelion. Well, I will find you twenty lascivious turtles ere one chaste man.
God, I love Mistress Page. The modern equivalent of this situation would be a man sending a group text to multiple women, thinking that they wouldn’t know he was addressing six of them at once. For shame, for shame. Falstaff’s laziness is really going to bite him in the ass. As it should.
Pistol and Nym go spill the beans to Ford and Page. Ford is incredibly jealous, and is in a constant state of losing his mind during this play. I really do not like him – his jealousy isn’t charming in the slightest. His wife is far too good for him, really. But he’ll get what he deserves in time.
[…] Does [Falstaff] lie at the Garter?
Ay, marry, does he. If he should intend this voyage toward 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.
I do not misdoubt my wife, but I would be loath to turn them together. A man may be too confident. I would have nothing lie on my head. I cannot be thus satisfied.
Master Page is where it’s at, really. He knows that all Falstaff would get from Mistress Page is a sound verbal beating. Page comes off as being very secure in his relationship. Meanwhile, Master ‘I-do-not-misdoubt-my-wife-but’ Ford leaves much to be desired.
The Host of the Garter, meanwhile, has been going to great lengths to keep Sir Hugh and Dr. Caius apart. You’ll recall that Dr. Caius wants to kick Sir Hugh’s ass for trying to win Anne on Slender’s behalf. Page sets off with the Host and Shallow to enjoy this meaningless subplot. Ford, meanwhile, is left to stew in his jealousy. He decides to appear to Falstaff under the guise of Brook.
Ford/Brook goes to Falstaff (who has just been invited to the Ford residence by its Mistress!), and gives him a big old bag of money. Falstaff is delighted, naturally.
FALSTAFF, [taking the bag]
Master Brook, I will first make bold with your money; next, give me your hand; and last, as I am a gentleman, you shall, if you will, enjoy Ford’s wife.
Oh, Falstaff, you fool. Ford is playing him like a fiddle. Acting as Brook, he asks Falstaff to help him get to Mistress Ford. Falstaff, who must be high to still call himself a gentleman, agrees.
Want no Mistress Ford, Master Brook; you shall want none. I shall be with her, I may tell you, by her own appointment. Even as you came in to me, her assistant or go-between parted from me. I say I shall be with her between ten and eleven, for at that time the jealous, rascally knave her husband will be forth. Come you to me at night. You shall know how I speed.
With every word, Falstaff digs a deeper grave for himself. Ford is sure he’ll catch his wife and Falstaff in the act. His mood is quite explosive right now – but when isn’t it?
Dr. Caius and Sir Hugh, meanwhile, are wandering all over Windsor in search of one another. The Host purposely misdirected them, and when they finally come together he tells them just that. Instead of laughing this entire thing off, they decide to take revenge on the host. They end up deciding to steal his horses. The men in this play all need to calm down, really. But I guess there’s not much to do in a small town like Windsor.
Ford gathers men and goes to his house in order to catch his wife with Falstaff. He runs into Mistress Page.
Well met, Mistress Page. Whither go you?
Truly, sir, to see your wife. Is she at home?
Ay, and as idle as she may hang together, for want of company. I think if your husbands were dead, you two would marry.
That would be a blessing to Mistress Ford, that’s for sure. Mistress Page leaves, and Ford goes on another one of his tirades.
Has Page any brains? Hath he any eyes? Hath he any thinking? Sure they sleep; he hath no use of them. Why, this boy will carry a letter twenty mile as easy as a cannon will shoot point-blank twelve score. He pieces out his wife’s inclination. He gives her folly motion and advantage. And now she’s going to my wife, and Falstaff’s boy with her! Good plots they have laid, and our revolted wives share damnation together. Well, I will take him, then torture my wife, pluck the borrowed veil of modesty from the so-seeming Mistress Page, divulge Page himself for a secure and willful Acteon, and to these violent proceedings all my neighbors shall cry aim. [A click strikes.] The clock gives me my cue, and my assurance bids me search. There I shall find Falstaff. I shall be rather praised for this than mocked, for it is as positive as the earth is firm that Falstaff is there. I will go.
I understand why Shakespeare felt the need to make Ford such a jealous lunatic, but it doesn’t mean I have to like him for it. In addition to wanting to shame his wife, he decides he’s going to expose Mistress Page as well. Not that it’s any of his business what Mistress Page is up to. If anything, it’s between her and her husband. And Master Page trusts her. He probably expends the least amount of energy out of everybody in this play, which I appreciate. He’s just in a constant state of, ‘yeah, that’ll never happen,’ which contrasts sharply with Ford.
There is still the question of who is going to marry Anne Page. Will it be Slender? Dr. Caius? Fenton?
HOST, [to Page]
What say you to young Master Fenton? He capers, he dances, he has eyes of youth, he writes verses, he speaks holiday, he smells April and May. He will carry ‘t, he will carry ‘t. ‘Tis in his buttons he will carry ‘t.
Not by my consent, I promise you. The gentleman is of no having. He kept company with the wild Prince and Poins. He is of too high a region; and knows too much. No, he shall not knit a knot in his fortunes with the finger of my substance. If he take her, let him take her simply. The wealth I have waits on my consent, and my consent goes not that way.
Fenton is clearly the best out of all the suitors, but Page is having none of it. Go figure – hanging out with Hal and Poins (who, objectively, does suck) gave him a bit a reputation. But now I like him even more.
Over at the Ford residence, the plot thickens. Mistress Page interrupts Mistress Ford’s ‘tryst’ with news that Ford is on his way. Everybody begins to panic – what are they supposed to do with Falstaff?!
For shame! Never stand “you had rather” and “you had rather.” Your husband’s here at hand. Bethink you of some conveyance. In the house you cannot hide him. 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.
Falstaff gets tossed into the laundry basket, and is carried out of the house. Ford, meanwhile, arrives to see that his wife is alone with Mistress Page. No Falstaff or foul play in sight.
Is there not a double excellency in this?
I know not which pleases me better – that my husband is deceived, or Sir John.
I don’t know what pleases me better either, Mistress Ford. I truly adore these women – they’re delightful! This play is a simple as can be, but it made me laugh so many times. You don’t need sharp puns to get your point across – Mistresses Page and Ford certainly don’t.
Falstaff is dumped out with the rest of the laundry – right into the river. Serves him right.
All of this commotion, and Fenton is courting Anne.
I see I cannot get thy father’s love;
Therefore no more turn me to him, sweet Nan.
Alas, how then?
Why, thou must be thyself.
He doth object I am too great of birth,
And that, my state being galled with my expense,
I seek to heal it only by his wealth.
Besides these, other bars he lays before me –
My riots past, my wild societies –
And tells me ’tis a thing impossible
I should love thee but as a property.
Maybe he tells you true.
No, heaven so speed me in my time to come!
Albeit I will confess thy father’s wealth
Was the first motive that I wooed thee, Anne.
Yet, wooing thee, I found thee of more value
Than stamps in gold or sums in sealèd bags.
And ’tis the very riches of thyself
That now I aim at.
I really appreciate Fenton’s honesty here. Yes, Page’s wealth is what brought him to Anne, but now he genuinely loves her. Goodness knows that nobody is allowed to shake off a riotous past (see: Henry V) in these plays. How will Fenton win Master Page over?
Falstaff, despite having been tossed in the river, is invited back to the Ford residence. He tells Ford/Brook all about this, of course, and the plot repeats itself. He goes to Mistress Ford, is told of Master Ford’s coming, and a panic erupts. This time, however, our merry wives decide to dress him up as a woman, so that he may sneak out undetected.
I would my husband would meet him in this shape. He cannot abide the old woman of Brentford. He swears she’s a witch, forbade her my house, and hath threatened to beat her.
That’s right – Falstaff is now dressed as somebody that Ford absolutely despises.
Ford arrives and, having heard of last time’s laundry basket trick, has the men dump out all the laundry.
Here’s no man.
By my fidelity, this is not well, Master Ford. This wrongs you.
Master Ford, you must pray and not follow the imagination of your own heart. This is jealousies.
Well, he’s not here I seek for.
I really enjoyed Ford’s embarrassment here. Having the men around him telling him that he’s making a fool of himself is a wonderful touch. He decides to look through the house – and he does indeed come across Falstaff…except he thinks it’s the old woman of Brentford. He beats the stuffing out of Falstaff, who makes a narrow escape.
Mistress Page and Mistress Ford decide that it’s finally time to let their husbands in on this whole Falstaff nonsense.
Pardon me, wife. Henceforth do what thou wilt.
I rather will suspect the sun with cold
Than thee with wantonness. Now doth thy honor stand,
In him that was late an heretic,
As firm as faith.
That’s right, you jealous fool. He’s still being dramatic though, so Page tells him to calm down. A final prank is planned: Mistress Ford and Mistress Page will lure Falstaff to the woods at midnight with the promise of a tryst. They’ll have children and the others dress as fairies and goblins to fright Falstaff out of his wits. Anne is to be the Queen of the Fairies, dressed in white.
Speaking of Anne…Master Page decides that she should be married to Slender, and so tells her to dress in white so that Slender can steal her away during the fairy trick. Mistress Page, however, decides that Dr. Caius is the better choice, so she tells Anne to dress in green so that the good doctor can whisk her away. We still don’t know what Anne wants to do, however.
In the woods at midnight, the prank commences. Falstaff is absolutely disgraced, and tries to escape all of the fairies and goblins that are poking at him for being such a sinful disgrace.
PAGE, [to Falstaff]
Nay, do not fly. I think we have watched you now. Will none but Herne the Hunter serve your turn?
I pray you, come, hold up the jest no higher. –
Now, good sir John, how like you Windsor wives?
I don’t know about Falstaff, but I’m rather partial to Windsor wives at the moment.
I do begin to perceive that I am made an ass.
Ay, and an ox too. Both the proofs are extant.
And these are not fairies. I was three or four times in the thought they were not fairies; and yet the guiltiness of my mind, the sudden surprise of my powers, drove the grossness of the foppery into a received belief, in despite of the teeth of all thyme and reason, that they were fairies. See now how wit may be made a Jack-a-Lent when ’tis upon ill employment.
Sir John Falstaff, serve Got and leave your desires, and fairies will not pinse you.
Well said, Fairy Hugh.
And leave you your jealousies too, I pray you.
Way to call Ford out, Sir Hugh. But where is Anne?
Dr. Caius and Slender apparently took boys to the church! Anne, meanwhile, took matters into her own hands and married Fenton. Phew! She and I were of the same mind when it came to her suitors, clearly.
All is well: Falstaff has been thoroughly punished, Anne is happy, and Ford knows now to trust his wife.
Well, I will muse no further. – Master Fenton,
Heaven give you many, many merry days. –
Good husband, let us every one go home
And laugh this sport o’er by a country fire –
Sir John and all.
Let it be so, Sir John.
To Master Brook you yet shall hold your word,
For tonight he shall lie with Mistress Ford.
Very suggestive of you, Master Ford. Hooray for happy endings! I’m glad they invited Falstaff back to the Page house – it’s a good-natured ending for a good-natured play.
And that’s The Merry Wives of Windsor. It’s a fine play, and one that I’d just love to see on stage. I laughed despite myself. I think we all so often fall into the trap of regarding Shakespeare as a sophisticated hobby. A hobby for clever folk, for those of us that like to spend time thinking about humans and souls and whatnot. But it doesn’t have to be so high brow. Sometimes you just need a cup of tea and a silly play like The Merry Wives of Windsor to make you smile.