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When authors refer to other great works, people, and events, it’s usually not accidental. Put on your super-sleuth hat and figure out why.
Main Literary Sources for the Play
Ser Giovanni Fiorentino, Il Pecorone (1378). In the second story of Il Pecorone, a young student asks his professor for advice about how to seduce a lady he's fallen in love with. Turns out that lady is the professor's wife (although the student doesn't know it). At one point, the wife hides her lover under a pile of wet laundry. Plus, this is probably where Shakespeare got the idea for the subplot where Master Ford disguises himself as "Brooke" and asks Falstaff to help him seduce Mistress Ford.
John Lyly, Endymion: The Man in the Moon (c.1588). Remember when Falstaff gets pinched at tormented by a bunch of little kids dressed as fairies (5.5)? Well, Shakespeare probably got the idea from Lyly's play, where a bunch of real fairies do the same thing to a lusty nobleman.
Shakespeare, Henry IV Part 1 (c. 1597) and Henry IV Part 2 (c. 1597-1599). Merry Wives is basically a spin-off of the Henry plays, although we're not sure if Shakespeare wrote Merry Wives before, during, or after Henry IV Part 2. Also, the Henry plays are set in the 1400's but Merry Wives is set in Elizabethan England, around 1600.
Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales (c. 1380s-1390s). Some people think Shakespeare's "Host of the Garter Inn" is a lot like Chaucer's "Host." Read our analysis of each character and decide for yourself.
Pop Culture References
Sackerson: A famous bear used for bear-baiting, an Elizabethan blood sport that involved setting a pack of dogs upon a bear chained to a pole (1.1.247).
Printing Press: at the time, a relatively new invention that changed the world. This reference is equivalent to a modern day shout-out to, say, the Internet (2.1.68).
The Order of the Garter: A special club for the coolest knights in England (5.5.66). FYI—lots of folks think Shakespeare wrote this entire play as an entertainment piece for the Garter Feast of 1597. (source: Royal Shakespeare Company edition of The Merry Wives of Windsor, 2007)
"Honi soit qui mal y pense" ("shame to him who thinks evil of it"). This is the motto of the Order of the Garter (5.5.66).
"Brooke" (aka Lord Cobham): Some scholars think that "Brooke" is based on the guy who whined when Shakespeare made fun of his ancestor (Oldcastle) in his portrayal of Falstaff in Henry IV Part 1. FYI. In some editions of Merry Wives, "Brooke" is changed to "Broome" (2.1.188).
Hippocrates: ancient Greek physician (3.1.56).
Niccòlo Machiavelli: the 14th-century Italian dude who wrote The Prince, a famous how-to guide for ruthless rulers (3.1.85).
Little Willy Shakespeare: "William" the schoolboy's grammar lesson may be Shakespeare's shout-out to his own schoolboy days (4.1.11ff).
Fairy Queen: a reference to Queen Elizabeth I and also a figure from Edmund Spenser's famous poem The Faerie Queene (4.4.68).
Literary, Folk Lore, and Mythological Shout-Outs:
Mephistopheles (aka the devil): a character in 16th-century playwright Christopher Marlowe's Dr. Faustus (1.1.109).
Robin Hood's pals, Will Scarlet and Little John: popular English folk heroes (1.1.144).
Richard Tottel's Miscellany (1557): the first ever anthology of English poetry (1.1.165).
Hercules: Hero from classic mythology (1.3.5).
Hector: Trojan soldier who kicked butt and took names during Trojan War (1.3.10).
Pandarus: a famous go-between in Trojan War stories and also in literary works like Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida (1.3.65).
Actaeon: in Greek myth, the guy who gets turned into a deer and then is hunted and killed by his own dogs (2.1.105).
Gillian of Brentford (aka "the old woman of Brentford"): a popular English folk figure, she shows up in a lot of comedies (4.2.61).
Dr. Faustus: protagonist in Christopher Marlowe's play (4.5.56).
Jove and Europa: in classical mythology, Jove (aka Jupiter) turns himself into a bull and kidnaps Europa (5.1.3).
Jove and Leda: in classical mythology, Jove turns himself into a swan and rapes Leda (5.1.6).
Fairy Queen: a reference to Queen Elizabeth I and also a character from Edmund Spenser's famous poem The Faerie Queene (4.4.68).
Biblical Shout-Outs: (Will Shakes knew the Bible like the back of his hand)
1 Samuel 17:7: reference to Goliath and his spear handle (5.1.20).
Job 7:6: "My days are swifter than a weaver's shuttle" (5.1.21).
Job 1:9-11, 2:4-5: Satan badmouths Job (5.5.145).
Job 2:9: Job's wife tempts her hubby to curse God (5.5.147).