Study Guide

The Merry Wives of Windsor

The Merry Wives of Windsor Introduction

Read the full text of The Merry Wives of Windsor with a side-by-side translation HERE.


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?)

What is The Merry Wives of Windsor About and Why Should I Care?

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" (4.2.105).

In other words, just because our housewives are fun-loving and mischievous, that doesn't automatically mean they're promiscuous.

The Merry Wives of Windsor Resources

Websites

Shmoop-SPEAR
Hey, don't forget to check out our very own Shakespeare page. We've got Big Willy's biography, resume, timeline, and more.

Which Shakespeare Character Are You?
We couldn't resist taking this online quiz, compliments of the Teen Nick network. (We're "Falstaff," of course.)

Read Merry Wives Online
This is a great e-version of the text because you can do a search by act, scene, word, or character lines.

The Best Part of Waking Up …
… Is the Folger Shakespeare Library. Hands down one of the best online Shakespeare resources.

BBC and the Bard
The BBC has a good Shakespeare page with plenty of cool resources for students and teachers.

Merry Artifacts
A great website with links to boatloads of artifacts like pictures, press releases, theater productions, etc.

Movie or TV Productions

Chimes at Midnight (1965)
In this cult classic, George Orwell condenses all the Falstaff material from Merry Wives, Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2, and Henry V. You can watch the whole film in parts on YouTube.

Trust the Brits to Do Shakespeare Right
We're not going to lie—when it comes to DVD recordings of The Merry Wives of Windsor, it's pretty slim pickins. This 1982 BBC production is the one your English teacher will probably show in class.

Falstaff Goes to the Opera
Giuseppe Verdi's opera, Falstaff, is based on the antics of the iconic character and follows the plot of The Merry Wives of Windsor. If you're looking for a good DVD recording, the 2009 Glyndebourne Festival edition is your best bet. 

Historical Documents

Put Down the Cosmo
Check out some excerpts from the popular 16th/17th-century advice book A Godly Form of Household Government that informs the play's ideas about marriage and household stuff.

We Bet It Smells Great
Cool facsimile of the First Folio edition of the play (1623).

First Quarto Edition of the Play (1602)
What the play-text looked like when it was first published.

Video

Wisteria-Lane Style
The Heath players have adapted the play to modern-day suburban England. Mistresses Ford and Page wear awesome 80's spandex mini-dresses in this one.

Falstaff at the Opera
Check out the finale of Verdi's Falstaff.

Do You Have Three Minutes?
Check out the RSC's condensed version of Shakespeare's comedies, including Merry Wives.

It's a Tease
Trailer for a Shakespeare's Globe Theater production of Merry Wives of Windsor.

Images

Queen Elizabeth I Scores Front Throne Tickets to the Play
Famous 1840 painting called "Queen Elizabeth Viewing the Performance of The Merry Wives of Windsor at the Globe Theatre," by artist David Scott.

Old Postcard of Falstaff and Mistress Ford
We love us some old postcards.

Desperate Housewives of Windsor
Poster for a modern adaptation of the play.

Falstaff with Horns
Image from Shakespeare's Globe Theater production of the play.