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.