A disgraceful, booze-loving aristocrat runs out of cash and tries to get his swerve on with a couple of bored housewives. Said housewives are faithful to their husbands and they're seriously offended. But, our girls also have a sense of humor. (Hey. Shakespeare doesn't call them "merry" for nothing.) So they lead this guy on in order to play a series of humiliating practical jokes designed to teach him a lesson he'll never forget.
No, it's not an episode of Punk'd, Cheaters, or even the Real Housewives of Peoria. (Although, one of the wives does have an insanely jealous husband who wastes all his time trying to catch his wife cheating on him.)
And, no, it's not your dad's favorite old-school TV sitcom, I Love Lucy. (Although, our zany leading ladies cause as much mischief as Lucy Ricardo and Ethel Mertz.)
It's William Shakespeare's comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor and it was written between 1597 and 1601.
So, how did our favorite poet come up with the idea for this play about 450 years before the invention of reality TV? Word on the street is that, after seeing Henry IV Part 1, Queen Elizabeth I ordered Shakespeare to give one of the characters (that would be Falstaff) his own spin-off. According to a popular theater tradition dating all the way back to the early 1700s, Elizabeth I gave Shakespeare only 14 days to whip up a little something for the stage that showed Falstaff "in love."
So, Falstaff: he's the "fat," larger than life knight who eats, drinks, lies, steals, and trash-talks his way through Henry IV Part 1 and Henry IV Part 2. Our theory? If Shakespeare hadn't finally killed the guy off in Henry V, Falstaff would probably be sitting on a barstool at the Boars Head Tavern to this very day.
We don't know if it's actually true that Shakespeare wrote the play because his monarch ordered him to do it. But we do know this: Merry Wives has always been recognized as Shakespeare's most "realistic" portrait of English life. In fact, it's the only Shakespearean comedy set entirely in England. (Windsor, to be exact.) This is kind of a big deal since Shakespeare's other comedies are always set in a foreign city (like The Merchant of Venice) or some royal court (like the imaginary dukedom of "Illyria" in Twelfth Night).
But this isn't just a play about English life—it's about middle-class life. Sure, there are aristocratic characters and also servants in the play but, The Merry Wives of Windsor is interested in the day-to-lives of ordinary citizens. At the time Shakespeare was writing, England's social and economic structures were changing pretty quickly and Europe saw the rise of what we now call the "middle class." (In Shakespeare's day, they were mostly merchants and businessmen who were making big bucks in commerce and maritime trade.)
Some critics think Shakespeare probably drew on his own experiences growing up as a middle-class kid in Stratford-Upon-Avon. There's even a hilarious scene where a young boy named "William" gets grilled by his Latin language teacher. (Did we mention that Shakespeare loves cracking jokes about his old school days?)
Why should you care about this play? Let's see.
Did we already mention that Merry Wives is the great, great grandfather of the modern TV sitcom? Oh, we did?
Did we also mention that long before anyone ever thought it was a good idea to put a camera in Bethenny Frankel's face, Shakespeare took it upon himself to show the world what it was like to be a "real housewife"? Oh, we did?
Well, did we mention that when you combine The Merry Wives of Windsor and dairy cows, you get a boatload of milk? Seriously. We couldn't make this up. A group of English farmers say their dairy cows produced 4% more milk after listening to actors perform scenes from The Merry Wives of Windsor. (Source)
What? You're still not impressed? Fine. Let's talk about why Shakespeare thinks you should care about this play. Here's the deal: in late 16th and early 17th century Europe, a lot of men (like the character "Master Ford") thought that all women were "frail" (a.k.a. were born with some kind of character flaw or moral weakness). They also thought that all of these "frail" women who got married would eventually cheat on their husbands. That's why so much literature of the period (especially Shakespeare's) is obsessed with sexual infidelity. (Ever read Othello?)
The Merry Wives of Windsor is basically Shakespeare's answer to all those sexist guys who don't trust women. When Mistress Page and Mistress Ford are propositioned by a lusty knight, they don't hop in the sack with this guy. They remain faithful to their husbands and even come up with a series of pranks to teach the lusty knight a lesson. The whole point of the play is to show that "wives may be merry, and yet honest, too" (4.2.89).
In other words, just because our housewives are fun-loving and mischievous, that doesn't automatically mean they're promiscuous.