Study Guide

The Merry Wives of Windsor Analysis

  • Tone


    Shakespeare didn't name his play "The Bitter Wives of Windsor" or "The Vengeful Wives of Windsor." And there's a good reason for that. Even though Shakespeare explores some potentially weighty themes like "Jealousy" and "Love," the play is light-hearted and has a sense of humor (much like the title characters).

    Sure, Falstaff is trying to tarnish the good names of two "honest" housewives and an insanely jealous husband runs around saying he wants to catch his wife cheating so he can "torture" her, but that stuff never actually happens. Hello, this play is a comedy, not a tragedy. At the end of the day, our "merry" wives teach both guys a lesson and all is forgiven. Nobody gets stabbed or strangled. Period.

    Of course, you'll be needing an example of how Shakespeare turns male jealousy into something we can all laugh at. Try Act 4, scene 2, where Master Ford comes home and thinks he's going to find Falstaff hiding in a laundry basket. The guy goes absolutely berserk riffling through dirty laundry and beating the basket with a stick. But, instead of catching his wife with another man, Ford ends up looking like a "lunatic" in front of his wife and all his friends, and everyone has a big laugh. Check out this clip from a student production and you'll see what we're talking about.

    What's that? You really want to read a play that takes a dark, twisted look at male jealousy? Fine, go read Othello or The Winter's Tale and then get back to us.

    Or, check out this film clip from Othello, where Iago tells a suspicious husband to strangle his wife "in her bed" (Othello, Act 4, scene 1). Unlike the male jealousy we find in Merry Wives, Othello's distrust of his wife is no laughing matter.

  • Genre


    Look. We're not going to argue with you if you want to say that The Merry Wives of Windsor is just like your favorite TV sitcom or a classic "farce." We won't even argue with you if you say it's like a trashy "fabliau," aka a short story with boatloads of dirty jokes. (Think Chaucer's "The Miller's Tale.") 

    But, when it comes down to it, we think you should know why Merry Wives is like Shakespeare's other "comedies." To help get our point across, we've whipped up this snazzy checklist of rules and conventions for the genre of Shakespearean Comedy. Check it out:

    Light, Humorous Tone

    Check. This is probably Shakespeare's "lightest" play. Sure, it explores the theme of jealousy but Shakespeare handles it with comedic flare and a laid-back attitude.

    Clever Dialogue and Witty Banter

    Check. From start to finish, Merry Wives is chock full of clever word play like punning and innuendo. Falstaff, the Pages, and the Fords are especially good at witty banter. (FYI—in Shakespeare's day, people said they were going to "hear" a play, not just see it. Shakespeare's language and dialogue is that good.) Go to "Writing Style" and we'll tell you more about this.

    Deception and Disguise

    Check. We triple-dog dare you to count the number of times characters get tricked in this play. We also dare you to count the number of times characters wear disguises. Go on. Get busy.

    Mistaken Identity

    Check. When you've got Falstaff running around disguised as "the old woman of Brentford," Mistress Quickly dressed up as the "Fairy Queen," and Master Ford parading around as some guy named "Brooke," cases of mistaken identity are bound to happen. And don't forget that Caius and Slender think they're eloping with Anne Page but wind up running off with two little kids disguised as fairies. (Yeah, that's creepy all right.)

    Multiple Plots with Twists and Turns

    Check. This play's got one main plot and two subplots so there are lots of twists and turns. Here's what you need to know:

    Main plot: Falstaff tries to get busy with the housewives but gets punk'd... repeatedly.

    Subplot 1: Three suitors try to get with Anne Page and two of them get punk'd. Also, Anne's parents get punk'd when she elopes with Fenton.

    Subplot 2: The Host of the Garter Inn punks Caius and Evans, who turn around and try to punk him back.

    Family Drama

    Shakespeare's parents are always butting their noses into their kids' love lives. Here? Anne Page's mom wants her to marry Caius and her dad wants her to marry Slender. Did we mention that Anne's in love with Fenton (a guy her parents hate)? At one point, Anne even throws a tantrum and says she'd rather be buried alive than get hitched to a guy of her parents' choosing. So, yeah, there's definitely some family drama up in here. Check.

    Love Overcomes Obstacles

    Check. You know how Anne's parents want her to marry someone with money? Well, Shakespeare's a sucker for happy endings so he lets Anne elope with Fenton—a guy who's completely broke but whom she actually loves.


    Check. Shakespeare's comedies always, always, always end in one or more marriages (or the promise of marriage). Like we just said, Anne runs off and gets hitched to Fenton. 

    (Re)unification of Families

    Check. Okay. So, Anne's parents aren't crazy about their daughter running off with Fenton but they're not about to disown her for it. Instead, they welcome Fenton into the family, hire a DJ, and throw a big wedding celebration that unites their family and the entire community of Windsor. (Hey. Even Falstaff gets invited over for wedding cake.)

    P.S. Some literary critics like to classify this play as a "city comedy" (or "citizen comedy"). We can see their point, even though "city comedies" are set in cities (like London) and Merry Wives is set in the rural town of Windsor. 

    Come to think of it, Merry Wives does share some important things in common with the genre of "city comedy." (It features a jealous husband, a young woman that everyone wants to hook up with, and a bunch of characters who are always talking about money). But, here's the thing. "City comedy" was mostly written by a bunch of guys who were a little bit younger than our favorite playwright, so Shakespeare was kind of old-school and this the genre wasn't really his thing.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    If you want to see two ladies running around some royal court or an expensive foreign city, go read Twelfth Night. The Merry Wives of Windsor is more Gilmore Girls than Gossip Girl: our wives are domestic, good-hearted, and pretty ordinary.

    Here's something else the title tells us. These female characters are going to be large and in charge. When the first Folio edition of Shakespeare's plays was published in 1623, The Merry Wives of Windsor was the only play in which women didn't have to share the title with male characters. (Unless you want to count The Taming of the Shrew. But, unlike The Taming of the Shrew, this play's title suggests that our "merry wives" are going to be in full control throughout the play. If anyone gets "tamed" in Merry Wives, it's the men, not the women.)

    But, before we get ahead of ourselves, we should tell you that when the play was first published in the 1619 quarto edition, the title was a lot different:

    Most pleasant and ex-
    cellent conceited Comedy,
    of Sir John Falstaffe, and the
    merry Wives of Windsor.
    With the swaggering vaine of An
    cient Pistoll, and corporall Nym

    You can check out the original here.

    What does this version of the title tell us? Well, it seems the publisher thought the play was less about the "merry wives" than Falstaff—the larger-than-life character who dominates the stage whenever he's on it. Since then, plenty of people have agreed. Verdi wrote a famous opera based on The Merry Wives of Windsor and he called it simply Falstaff (1893). In 1702, a playwright named John Dennis rewrote Shakespeare's play and called it The Comical Gallant, or the Amours of Sir John Falstaff.

    So, what do you think? Is this a play all about Falstaff or is it about the "merry wives"? Get back to us on that.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    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:

    Falstaff Gets Punk'd

    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" (5.5.126). And everyone learns a valuable lesson—just like an episode of Full House.

    Anne Gets Hitched

    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.

  • Setting

    Windsor, England, in the Late 16th Century

    If you've been paying attention then you already know that this play is set in Windsor, England—a rural town southwest of London. It turns out this is a pretty big deal because The Merry Wives of Windsor is the only Shakespearean comedy with an all-English setting. (Ever notice how Shakespeare's other comedies always seem to be set in foreign cities like Venice or imaginary dukedoms like Illyria? What's up with that?)

    We're not sure why Shakespeare finally decided to set one of his comedies in England but we sure are glad he did because this play gives us a little snapshot of what day-to-day life might have been like for English folks who live outside the royal court and outside the big city of London.

    We're pretty sure Shakespeare's original audience thought the local setting was awesome, too, because the play is full of shout-outs to local places (like Windsor Park, the great oak, Windsor Castle, and Frogmore Fields) that people would have recognized.

    Here's something else we think you should know about the setting. Even though there are a few noblemen, servants, and two foreigners featured in Merry Wives, the world of the play is what we might think of as middle class. (Nope. No aristocratic ladies here. A couple of regular old housewives are the stars of this show.)

    Why is Shakespeare so interested in middle-class lives? Well, it seems to us that this play goes out of its way to try to define what it means to be a member of this new socio-economic group. Big Willy Shakes lived in a time when England's social and economic structures were changing pretty quickly and when Europe saw the rise of what we now call the "middle class."

    Unlike aristocrats who inherited all their wealth and land, members of the middle-class worked for a living and were mostly merchants and businessmen in commerce and maritime trade—but they were making pretty good money at it. More money, sometimes, than the aristocrats.

    And, guess what? Shakespeare himself grew up in a middle-class family but eventually applied for a coat-of-arms so he could call himself a "gentleman." It seems like our favorite playwright was in a perfect position to write about all this class stuff—and, who knows? Maybe Shakespeare even drew on his own experiences growing up in a small English town, Stratford-Upon-Avon, when he wrote this play.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (6) Tree Line

    Listen, Shmooperinos. Merry Wives is a crowd favorite for a reason. It's fun, light-hearted, and pretty easy to follow… once you get used to the fact that Shakespeare's got a thing for multiple plots with twists and turns. Here's what you should remember in order to prevent yourself from going crazy:

    Main plot: Falstaff tries to get busy with the housewives but gets punk'd. Repeatedly.

    Subplot 1: Three suitors try to get with Anne Page and two of them get punk'd. Also, Anne's parents get punk'd when she elopes with Fenton.

    Subplot 2: The Host of the Garter Inn punks Caius and Evans, who turn around and try to punk him back.

    Are you noticing a pattern here? Go to "Themes: Lies and Deceit" and we'll tell you all about it. And don't worry. Our detailed "Summary" is here to help.

  • Writing Style

    About 90% Prose with Lots of Clever Wordplay

    Usually, Shakespeare gives his plays a healthy dose of verse (mostly iambic pentameter). But, The Merry Wives of Windsor is different because it has more prose than any other Shakespeare play. (Prose, by the way, is how ordinary people like us talk every day—it's just regular old speech that doesn't have any metrical pattern or rhyme scheme.) That makes a lot of sense given that the play is set in a rural town full of a lot of middle-class folks. In his other plays, the nobility tend to speak in verse while the everyday Joes speak prose.

    But, just because the play is mostly prose doesn't mean it's boring. Shakespeare is the king of snappy banter and clever word play so his dialogue is loaded with puns and innuendo. We talk more about this in "Themes: Language and Communication" and also in "Character Clues: Language and Dialogue." See you there.

  • The Buck-Basket

    In Act 3, scene 3, the "merry wives" trick Falstaff into hiding in a "buck-basket" (aka laundry basket) with a bunch of dirty, stinky laundry. Then they have their servants take the basket down to the river and dump it into the water where laundry is usually washed.

    Okay, kind of gross, but not too bad, right? Well. The Elizabethans didn't shower every day and they didn't wash their clothes and bed sheets all that often so, think of those gym socks that have been under your bed for the past 6 months and multiply that stench by 10 million. Basically, squeezing himself into a small buck-basket is like getting into a mini-dumpster, but Falstaff does it anyway because he's afraid of being caught by a jealous husband.

    This is, of course, is hilarious.

    Oh, did we mention that Falstaff probably peed his pants while hiding in the basket and needs a literal washing as well (3.3)? This brings us to our next point. Shakespeare makes it pretty clear that Falstaff has a very filthy mind so, when this "unclean knight" (4.4.61) gets dumped in the river with a bunch of soiled laundry, the wives teach him a lesson that's designed to make this dirty old man clean up his act. (Metaphorically speaking.)

    Why are we making a big deal about the buck-basket? Because Shakespeare makes it a big deal. After this initial episode, the buck-basket comes up over and over again in the play. There's even a hilarious scene where jealous Master Ford makes himself look like a buffoon when he rifles through the same basket looking for proof that his wife is cheating on him (4.2). She's not, of course, and Ford has to learn the hard (and stinky) way to trust his wife.

    So, did Shakespeare just love doing laundry? Probably not. In the play, the buck-basket represents the domestic world that's ruled by our merry wives and it shows us that these women are powerful and not to be messed with. By using such a common household item to punish Falstaff, the housewives prove that they're witty, inventive, and can use what's on hand to take care of business.

    We also get the impression that punking Falstaff (along with Master Ford) is no big whoop for these women—it's as easy as taking care of a household chore.

  • Horns

    So, you probably noticed that Ford goes berserk when his wife tells him he's got no business worrying about "buck-washing" (aka laundry that needs to be bleached). Check it out:

    You were best meddle with buck-washing!
    Buck? I would I could wash myself of the buck.
    Buck, buck, buck! Ay, buck! I warrant you, buck,
    and of the season too, it shall appear.

    Okay. We already know that Ford's a smidge unstable but this seems like a serious overreaction. Well, when Ford hears the word "buck," he immediately thinks of an animal with horns. What's the big deal about horns? In Shakespeare's day, horns were a common symbol for a cuckold, aka a husband whose wife cheats on him.

    Ford thinks wifey is getting busy with Falstaff, so he's feeling a little sensitive about the subject of horns right about now. That's why he flips out and repeats the word "buck" no less than seven times. Great. Now we know why Ford says he'll be "horn-mad" if his wife is cheating on him (3.5.154) and why Pistol warns Ford that "the horn" is an "odious" thing (2.1.122, 120).

    The best thing about this buck-washing scene is that Falstaff is actually hiding in the buck-basket (laundry basket) this very moment but Ford doesn't know it. So, Ford's right to be suspicious of his wife but not for the reason he thinks—mistress Ford has invited Falstaff to her house so she can teach him a lesson about preying on married women.

    Cue dramatic irony. What's the effect? It helps us to identify with the "merry wives," because we feel like we're in on the joke with them—and we know that, sometimes, a buck basket is just a buck basket.

  • Booty

    As we know, Falstaff is interested in getting two things from our "merry wives": 1) money and 2) sex. It turns out that Shakespeare uses some pretty colorful metaphors to show us that Falstaff is a serious gold-digger.

    You probably noticed how Mistress Page and Mistress Ford are often compared to ships. Mistress Page says that if Falstaff knew how faithful she was, "he would never have boarded [her] in this fury" (2.1.88-89) and Mistress Ford promises that she'll make sure she keeps Falstaff "above deck" (2.1.91). Later, when Page finds out that Falstaff wants to seduce the Mrs., he refers to it as "this voyage / toward my wife" (2.1.180-181).

    Gee. All this talk makes it sound like Falstaff is a pirate trying to loot a ship full of treasure and precious cargo, right? Right.

    At other times, Falstaff portrays himself as a merchant or an explorer in search of wealth. Check out how he describes his efforts to seduce the housewives in order to get at their husband's money:

    She  bears the purse
    too; she is a region in Guiana, all gold and bounty.
    I will be cheater to them both, and they shall be
    exchequers to me; they shall be my East and West
    Indies, and I will trade to them both.

    Wow. That Falstaff has quite an imagination. Here, he compares the merry wives to "Guiana" and the "East and West Indies." Crazy, right? Sounds like Falstaff has been reading his fair share of 16th-century travel literature. After all, the play takes place during the "Age of Exploration" and the 16th century was all about England's global expansion and maritime trade. In fact, Shakespeare's monarch (that would be Queen Elizabeth I) encouraged privateers (aka professional pirates) to loot Spanish treasure ships full of "new world" treasure.

    Obviously, Falstaff likes to think of his scheming ways as an exciting sea adventure but, the truth is that this guy is just a down-and-out knight who's trying to exploit a couple of local housewives. (Go to "Themes: Marriage and Wealth" for more on this.)

  • Food

    When Falstaff isn't eating and drinking in this play, he's talking about eating and drinking. Seriously. It seems like he's always on a barstool ordering someone to "Go fetch [him] a quart of sack" with a piece of "toast in 't" (3.5.3). The first time we see him in this play he's over at the Page's house getting ready to grub down on some tasty "venison pasty," aka Bambi pot-pie (1.1.191). At one point, he even says he's afraid a fairy might turn him into a piece of "cheese" (5.5.87).

    Wait. That's not all. Even when Falstaff (thinks) he's about to get lucky in the forest with Mistress Ford, he's thinking about food. Check out what he says:

    Let the sky rain
    potatoes, let it thunder to the tune of 'Greensleeves,'
    hail kissing-comfits, and snow eryngoes; let there
    come a tempest of provocation, I will shelter me


    Well, the first thing to know is that "kissing-comfits" and "snow eryngoes" are types of candy that are considered aphrodisiacs. (Read: food that puts people in the mood for love.)

    More importantly, we think this passage says a whole lot about Falstaff's personality. Falstaff talks about food when he's feeling romantic because he's got a huge appetite for everything the world has to offer. In other words, his love of food and drink and sex is emblematic of his zest for life.

    At least that's how we see things. The middle-class citizens of Windsor would probably tell you that he's just plain excessive and has no self-control when it comes to food and women. Notice how the housewives are always calling him food related names like "greasy / knight" (2.1.107-108) and "gross-wat’ry pumpion" (3.3.40)? That's not just because the guy is big and likes to eat, drink, and sleep around.

    For the middle-class citizens of Windsor, Sir John Falstaff embodies everything they think is wrong with the aristocracy—a class of people that's depicted in this play as being lazy, immoral, greedy, over-indulgent, self-centered, and predatory. (Because they kind of were.) Go to "Themes: Society and Class" if you want to know more about this.

  • Love Letters

    Before iPhones and Facebook, a lot of people communicated through hand-written letters. You know, back when dinosaurs still roamed the earth.

    And back then, not too many people could read and write. But our clever housewives can—and that's important. So, Falstaff writes the "merry wives" a couple of steamy love notes instead of sending them a dirty text-message or posting something racy on their timelines.

    Check out what Mistress Page has to say when she finds out that Falstaff has written duplicate letters. (That's right. Falstaff had the nerve to send these two best friends the same letter.)

    I warrant he hath a thousand of
    these letters writ with blank space for different
    names—sure, more—and these are of the second
    edition. He will print them, out of doubt; for he
    cares not what he puts into the press, when he
    would put us two. I had rather be a giantess and lie
    under Mount Pelion.

    Here, Mistress Page compares Falstaff's writing to the kind of literature that's mass-produced by the printing press (a fairly recent invention when Shakespeare wrote the play). In other words, Mistress Page thinks the love letters are unoriginal and therefore can't possibly be sincere. What's interesting is that she goes on to compare the letters to Falstaff's promiscuous ways. She says that Falstaff doesn't care what he "puts into the [printing] press" just like he doesn't care who he "presses" to his body. In other words, Falstaff's sexual partners are just as interchangeable as the duplicate love letters.

    This isn't the first time Shakespeare bags on mass-produced literature in the play. Remember when Slender says he wishes he had his fancy "book of Songs and Sonnets" (1.1.194) to help him romance Anne? That's a reference to a famous book of love poems called Tottel's Miscellany (1557), an anthology that was full of outdated and cheesy clichés. 

    What's our point? Well, we think Shakespeare the poet is trying to tell us something about his own craft. Here's what his message boils down to: unoriginal and uninspired writing is like casual sex. Guys like Falstaff might think it's fun for a while but, in the end, it's empty and meaningless. And smart ladies know better.

  • The Order of the Garter

    Remember when Mistress Quickly (disguised as the "Fairy Queen") sings a song designed to scare the you-know-what out of Falstaff in Act 5, scene 5? Well, during that freaky song she orders her little "fairies" to go over to Windsor Castle and get it ready for the Order of the Garter (5.5.70). She tells them to spruce up the joint and even asks them to spell out the order's motto with a bunch of flower petals (5.5).

    The motto? "Honi soit qui mal y pense" or, "shame to him who thinks evil of it." Modern translation: "shame on anyone with a dirty mind." (More on this in a minute, kids.)

    Okay. What is this Order of the Garter and, more importantly, why do we even care? 

    Basically, the Knights of the Garter is the oldest order of knighthood in England and it's reserved for the cream of the crop. You can only become a member if the monarch invites you to join.

    In Shakespeare's day, that was Queen Elizabeth I, whose nickname, we'd like to point out, was the "Fairy Queen." Every year there was a big ceremony called the Garter Feast, where new members were inducted. Of course, this all went down in a chapel inside, you guessed it, Windsor Castle. (You know, that castle that's sort of looming in the background during the entire play?)

    Obviously, a disgraceful knight like Falstaff would never, ever be allowed to join this club. That's why the shout-out to the exclusive order is so fitting, right? Also, the order's motto seems like a pretty great way to summarize the moral of this play: shame on Falstaff for having such a dirty mind. What's more, all of this has led some scholars think that Shakespeare wrote Merry Wives as an entertainment piece for the Garter Feast of 1597 (source).

    • Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis

      Shadow of Confusion

      Falstaff Thinks He's a Player and Master Ford Is Certain His Wife's a Cheater

      According to Booker, "in the first stage we see a little world in which people have passed under a shadow of confusion, uncertainty and frustration, and are shut off from one another."

      Okay. This can definitely apply to Falstaff (who thinks he can take advantage of two housewives) and Master Ford (who thinks that all women cheat on their spouses).

      Pressure of Darkness

      The Merry Wives Punk Falstaff and Ford... Repeatedly

      Booker says that in the second stage of a comedy "the confusion gets worse until the pressure of darkness is at its most acute and everyone is in a nightmarish tangle."

      Sounds about right to us. When the wives decide to humiliate Ford and Falstaff in public, we can definitely say that both men find themselves in "nightmarish" situations. 

      (Oh, and poor little Anne Page is caught between three guys—if anyone's keeping track of her.)

      Everything Comes to Light

      Falstaff and Ford Wise Up

      "Finally," says Booker, "with the coming to light of things not previously recognized, perceptions are dramatically changed. The shadows are dispelled, the situation is miraculously transformed and the little world is brought together in a state of joyful union." 

      Sure. That works for this play. By the end of the final act, both Falstaff and Master Ford have learned their lessons, so there's room for forgiveness. The Page family decides to invite Falstaff to their daughter's wedding celebration, making him a part of their community—and maybe even redeeming him. (Although we're not holding our breath.)

    • Plot Analysis

      Initial Situation

      Hey Ladies

      Sure, Falstaff's a knight but the guy doesn't have any money—a major problem, since Falstaff's love of food, booze, and women requires lots of cash. He sends identical love letters to the wives of two rich citizens in hopes that he can hit the jackpot.



      Not so fast, Falstaff. The "merry wives" of Windsor aren't about to cheat on their husbands with some scumbag who thinks he can get them into the sack. Mistress Page invites Falstaff to her house, pretend-flirts with him, gets him to hide in a basket of dirty laundry, and then arranges for him to be dumped in a river.

      Humiliating Falstaff is so much fun that the wives decide to do it again. This time, they invite him to the house and trick him into dressing up as an old woman, who Master Ford beats to a pulp.


      U Jelly?

      Oh, did we mention that Master Ford has some serious control issues? The guy suspects his wife is cheating on him so he tries to catch her in the act with Falstaff, which just makes him look silly. Twice.


      Play It Again, Falstaff

      It's not enough for the "merry wives" to humiliate Falstaff by getting him beat up and dumped in a river. During the play's climax, the wives arrange for Falstaff to go into the woods, where a pack of children dressed up as fairies attack him. Did we mention that the entire community of Windsor shows up to see it happen?


      Got Me!

      After the wives jump out of the bushes and yell "Ah ha!," Falstaff admits the wives got the better of him.



      The fun's not over yet. Master and Mistress Page have a daughter named Anne. She strolls in and is all, "Guess what, mom and dad. I just married that boy you both hate!"


      Here Comes the Bride

      All is forgiven, and the Pages decide to go with the flow after learning their daughter got hitched to a guy they can't stand. They throw a wedding feast and even invite Falstaff.

    • Three-Act Plot Analysis

      Act I

      Falstaff is low on cash, so he hatches a plot to seduce the wives of two rich citizens in Windsor, England. After all, says Falstaff, both women have been giving him "good eyes" and checking out his sexy "portly belly." What could possibly go wrong?

      Act II

      Falstaff has underestimated the wives, who are offended that he thinks he can get them to cheat on their husbands. They teach him a lesson by playing two practical jokes on him that result in the following: 1) Falstaff hides in a basket of dirty laundry that gets dumped in the river and 2) Falstaff dresses up as the "old woman of Brentford" and gets beaten up by Master Ford. LOL!

      Act III

      The "merry wives" finally decide to let their husbands in on the fun, and the two couples pull off one final prank where Falstaff arrives in the woods dressed as "Herne the hunter" and gets pinched and burned by a group of little kids dressed up as fairies. When the wives finally reveal the joke, Falstaff confesses that he's been had. The Fords and the Pages are a forgiving bunch so, Falstaff gets invited to a local wedding feast to prove there are no hard feelings.

    • Allusions

      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).
      • 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).
      • The Order of the Garter: A special club for the coolest knights in England (5.5). 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).

      Famous People

      • "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).
      • Hippocrates: ancient Greek physician (3.1).
      • Niccòlo Machiavelli: the 14th-century Italian dude who wrote The Prince, a famous how-to guide for ruthless rulers (3.1).
      • Little Willy Shakespeare: "William" the schoolboy's grammar lesson may be Shakespeare's shout-out to his own schoolboy days (4.1).
      • Fairy Queen: a reference to Queen Elizabeth I and also a figure from Edmund Spenser's famous poem The Faerie Queene (4.4).

      Literary, Folk Lore, and Mythological Shout-Outs:

      • Mephistopheles (aka the devil): a character in 16th-century playwright Christopher Marlowe's Dr. Faustus (1.1).
      • Robin Hood's pals, Will Scarlet and Little John: popular English folk heroes (1.1).
      • Richard Tottel's Miscellany (1557): the first ever anthology of English poetry (1.1).
      • Hercules: Hero from classic mythology (1.3).
      • Hector: Trojan soldier who kicked butt and took names during Trojan War (1.3).
      • Pandarus: a famous go-between in Trojan War stories and also in literary works like Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida (1.3).
      • Actaeon: in Greek myth, the guy who gets turned into a deer and then is hunted and killed by his own dogs (2.1).
      • Gillian of Brentford (aka "the old woman of Brentford"): a popular English folk figure, she shows up in a lot of comedies (4.2).
      • Dr. Faustus: protagonist in Christopher Marlowe's play (4.5).
      • Jove and Europa: in classical mythology, Jove (aka Jupiter) turns himself into a bull and kidnaps Europa (5.1).
      • Jove and Leda: in classical mythology, Jove turns himself into a swan and rapes Leda (5.1).
      • Fairy Queen: a reference to Queen Elizabeth I and also a character from Edmund Spenser's famous poem The Faerie Queene (4.4).

      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).
      • Job 7:6: "My days are swifter than a weaver's shuttle" (5.1).
      • Job 1:9-11, 2:4-5: Satan badmouths Job (5.5).
      • Job 2:9: Job's wife tempts her hubby to curse God (5.5).