If this comedy were a ride at the county fair, it would totally be a Tilt-a-Whirl. Shakespeare loves to turn the world on its head and revel in the chaos. And we're not going to lie to you. We love to go along for the ride. Who doesn't like sassy wives, trash-talking servants, cross-dressing characters, disobedient children, wacky disguises, characters who party like rock stars, and bizarre love triangles?
Judging from the latest TV Guide listings, no one.
But here's the thing, Shmoopers: no matter what kind of zaniness these comedies throw our way, Shakespeare will always restore social order at the end of the play, even if it's kind of a bummer. We guess Shakespeare just wants his audiences to be able to able to go home and get a good night's sleep but, sometimes, we wish he'd just leave a few more loose ends.
So, how does Shakespeare restore order in The Merry Wives of Windsor? That's easy. He 1) tricks Falstaff and 2) lets Anne Page elope with Fenton. Let's discuss:
When the play opens, a bunch of guys are standing around complaining that Falstaff is running amok, per usual. He's been poaching deer on private property, slapping around another guy's servants, insulting the locals, and so on. Plus, Falstaff thinks he can just stroll into town and seduce a couple of local housewives.
In short, Falstaff disrupts the town's moral code and sense of social order. That's why it's so fitting that, by the end of the play, the entire community of Windsor comes together in the woods to teach the guy a lesson.
Let's recap in case you missed it. The "merry wives" trick Falstaff into wearing a pair of horns on his head like "Herne the hunter" and meeting them by an old, haunted oak tree in the woods so they can scare him. As we know, horns are a classic sign of cuckoldry (check out "Symbols: Horns" for more on this). Falstaff thinks he's going to get lucky with the wives, turning the husbands into a couple of horn-wearing cuckolds.
But, the joke is on Falstaff because the husbands know all about their wives' prank and are there to watch Falstaff's public humiliation. Even the town's children get in on the action when they dress up as fairies and torment Falstaff by pinching him, burning him with candles, and chanting like a bunch of crazy little hobgoblins (5.5). Finally, Falstaff admits he's been had: "I do begin to perceive that I am made an ass" (5.5.115). And everyone learns a valuable lesson—just like an episode of Full House.
Like we've said before, Shakespearean comedies always, always, always end in marriage or the promise of one. So, it's no big surprise when Anne Page elopes with the love of her life, Fenton. Still, it's is no easy feat because Anne's parents have been hell-bent on marrying her off to someone else.
On the one hand, this gives us something to cheer about. What's not to like about young love prevailing in the end? Plus, Anne's parents accept her choice and welcome Fenton into the family. On the other hand, Anne's the daughter of a rich citizen, so she never really has a choice about whether or not she's going to get hitched. Everyone just automatically assumes she's going to grow up to be "Mrs. Somebody or Other."
We just can't help thinking: you know what would be really crazy and really turn the world upside-down? If Anne pulled a Murphy Brown and ran off to London to build her own life.