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On a street in Windsor, England, we meet three guys: (1) Justice Robert Shallow (a man who thinks he's awesome and likes to remind everyone about his social rank, hence earning his name; (2) Shallow's nephew Abraham Slender, who has a habit of strutting around with his nose up in the air; and (3) Sir Hugh Evans, a Welsh clergyman with a seriously thick accent.
The guys are all standing around talking smack about everyone's favorite disgraced knight, Sir John Falstaff.
Justice Shallow is all bent out of shape because Falstaff has somehow insulted him. Don't worry. We'll find out what happened in a minute.
Evans tries to change the subject to something better: girls. Specifically, the local teenage hottie, Anne Page.
Instead of wasting time worrying about Falstaff, Evans says, Slender should try to marry Anne, who is the poster girl for "pretty virginity." (Read: She's the ultimate Elizabethan good girl.)
Evans is all, "Oh, did I mention that she's rich? Her grandfather left her a boatload of money and when her dad dies, she'll inherit even more. Cha-ching!"
Slender's response goes something like this: "Oh, yeah. That girl with the brown hair and squeaky voice? She seems alright." (Hmm. That's not exactly the passionate response we'd get from a guy like Romeo but, okay, whatever, this is a different kind of play.)
Since Slender seems sort of interested, the guys head over to Anne's house to chat up … her dad.
See, in Shakespeare's day, marriages were arranged like business contracts between men, which is why nobody says anything about chatting up Anne. Ah, the good old days.
They arrive at the Page house and proceed to talk to Master Page about his favorite greyhound, who just lost a big race. That's Shakespeare's way of painting a picture of what life is like for folks who live in rural towns like Windsor. Apparently, these people like dog racing. LOL country folk.
As it turns out, Falstaff and his low-life pals are also at Master Page's house. You know what that means. Time for a Shakespearean, trash-talking, smack-down!
Shallow gets all up in Falstaff's face and accuses him of the following crimes: (1) slapping Shallow's men around, (2) poaching deer from his land, and (3) breaking into a building on his property.
Brain Snack: Some scholars (like Nicholas Rowe) think that Shakespeare based Justice Shallow's character on a real guy named Sir Thomas Lucy who supposedly busted Shakespeare for poaching deer when he was a young man (source).
Falstaff is all, "Hey—you forgot to mention that I also made out with the daughter of one of your employees. What are you going to do about it? Tattle to the King?" Oh, snap!
More smack talk ensues. There's a lot of name-calling like "Banbury cheese!" and "Mephistopheles!" and "cony-catching rascals!" (You get the idea.)
Before things can calm down, Slender says that Falstaff's posse of hoodlums stole from him.
By the way, Falstaff's posse is made up of Bardolph, Pistol, and Nim, all old favorites from the Henry plays.
Evans is the local clergyman so he steps in and tries to break up the fight. He wants the guys settle the dispute quietly and locally without involving any outsiders.
Of course, Falstaff's buddies deny everything and accuse Slender of drinking too much, blacking out, and not being able to remember what happened to his money. (By the way, if you've read Henry IV Part 1, you already know that it's highly likely that one of Falstaff's pals stole from Slender.)
All this bickering is interrupted when teen dream Anne Page walks in with a tray of wine.
Slender says something pretty lame and uninspiring : "O heaven, this is Mistress Anne Page!" By the way, "mistress" doesn't mean she's some married guy's girlfriend. It's a term that was applied to all adult women of Anne's social class. Even though Anne is still a teenager, Slender calls her "Mistress" because she's old enough to marry.
Then Mistress Page (Anne's mom) and her BFF Mistress Ford show up. Finally! We've been wondering when we'd get to meet the "merry wives" of Windsor.
Falstaff, who thinks he's a ladies man, runs over to say hello.
Then he slobbers all over Mistress Ford's hand while Master Ford watches in silence. (Get your highlighters out, kids, because this will be important later.)
Meanwhile, Slender seems to know that he blew it when Anne walked into the room. He tries to make up lost ground by saying that he wishes he could find his book of love poetry so he could use it to put the moves on her.
Master Page invites everyone inside for a some tasty "venison pasty," aka Bambi pot-pie. (What? At least Page isn't serving up human pot-pie like our good friend Titus Andronicus.
Just about everyone goes inside. Slender and Anne linger outside for a while and have a really, really awkward conversation, during which Anne tries to be polite and Slender bores us to tears and tries to act like a macho man.
We don't want to bore you to tears with the details but, we will say this:
Slender is absolutely clueless about how to talk to girls, which is why he brings up the subject of bear-baiting.
Brain Snack: Bear-baiting is an Elizabethan blood sport that involves chaining a bear to a pole and setting a pack of dogs upon it.
Bear-baiting arenas were in the same neighborhoods as Elizabethan playhouses, which basically explains why Shakespeare's plays contain so many shout-outs to the delightful pastime.
Anyway, acting like a tough guy, Slender brags that he's seen a bear named "Sackerson" get loose "twenty times."
Then he claims that he once grabbed the loose bear by his chain. Note to self: Add this to list of worst pick-up lines in Western literature.
Before Slender can tell us that he once wrestled with a great white shark, Anne's dad comes outside and is all "you two kids should come inside and eat your deer meat before it gets cold."