Falstaff is the outrageous, dirty rotten scoundrel who ate, drank, and trash-talked his way into our hearts in Henry IV Part 1 and Henry IV Part 2. And people cannot get enough of this guy. Audiences adore him, literary critics can't stop writing about him, Verdi wrote an opera about him, and there was even a brewing company named after him.
No wonder theater tradition tells us that Shakespeare's monarch, Queen Elizabeth I, loved the larger-than-life figure so much in these plays that she demanded a spinoff about Falstaff in love. Hey, we like him too—and we're definitely thrilled to see that Falstaff's up to his old tricks in The Merry Wives of Windsor, especially since we know for a fact that (spoiler alert) Shakespeare kills him off in Henry V.
When we catch up with Falstaff in the town of Windsor, he's still a portly, disgraceful knight who loves food, booze, chasing women, and dazzling us with his wit and his verbal chops. He's also still the same irreverent guy with a brilliant sense of humor and healthy dose of self-mockery.
Oh. Did we mention that he's also still a thief, a liar, and a "cony-catching rascal" who will try to con anyone, anywhere, anytime? When he rolls into town with hardly a penny in his pocket, he decides he'll try to seduce a couple of rich housewives in order to solve his cash flow problems. Check out how he brags to his buddies about his scheme:
Well, sirs, I am almost out at heels.
There is no remedy. I must cony-catch, I
Briefly, I do mean to make
love to Ford's wife.
...she has all the rule of
her husband's purse. He hath a legion of angels. (1.3.29; 31-32; 41-42; 51-52)
Feeling a little out of your depth? Shmoop to the rescue. Our specialized team of Elizabethan-English experts has provided this translation:
Hey, dudes, I'm totally broke. It's time to get my con-artist on, because I'm not about to get a job. I'm going to get my swerve on with Ford's wife; he's rich, and his wife's got her own AmEx card. Cha-ching!
Hey, why not? After all, Falstaff's pretty sure he saw Mistress Ford and Mistress Page undressing him with their "eyes" and checking out his, um, "parts" (1.3.59, 60). Hmm. Is Falstaff's theme song "Sexy and I Know It" or what? He thinks he's quite the ladies' man, so he takes a run at the wives and sets the entire plot in motion.
We know what you're probably thinking. If Falstaff is a knight, why doesn't he have any money?
Good question. Our best guess is that he blew it all on his party-like-a-rock-star lifestyle. (He doesn't exactly strike us as the kind of guy who puts himself on a strict budget.) According to literary critic Anne Barton, guys like Falstaff were a dime a dozen in Shakespeare's England. Barton tells us that poor members of the aristocracy often set their sights on women from rich, non-aristocratic families as a way to generate income (source).
In other words, Falstaff is a predator. Or at least a wanna-be predator. He doesn't just go around poaching deer off other men's property (1.1). He runs around trying to "poach" other men's wives, too. But, like we said, the "merry wives" get the last laugh. In fact, Falstaff's the one who winds up wearing a pair of deer antlers when the entire town gets together to teach him a lesson (5.5).
Who's the prey now, Falstaff?
Why does this matter? Well, let's think about it for a minute. This play is all about dramatizing the lives of middle-class folks (like the Pages and Fords) who work for a living, right? (By the way, when we say "middle class," we mean non-aristocrats who were starting to make big bucks in business ventures and mercantile trade during the 16th century.)
Basically, the citizens of Windsor see Sir John Falstaff as a guy who represents everything they think is wrong with the aristocracy—a class of people that's depicted in this play as being lazy, immoral, greedy, and over-indulgent. You know, the way all those people waving signs in Zuccotti Park felt about the 1%. Only drunker.
So, Falstaff isn't just another dirty old man trying to seduce a couple of married women. He's portrayed as a threat to the middle-class way of life. Okay. Now we know why our "merry wives" spend so much time making fun of his social status. Like the time when they read his cheesy love note and Mistress Ford cracks a couple of sarcastic jokes about how she might "be knighted" by Falstaff if she ever slept with him (2.1.48). Go to "Themes: Society and Class" for more about this.
Falstaff's biggest problem in this play is that he seriously underestimates our clever "merry wives" and ends up getting punk'd—three times. Let's quickly recap what happens to him when he's tricked into thinking Mistress Ford and Mistress Page want to sleep with him: 1) He's dumped in a river along with a bunch of dirty, stinky laundry, 2) he's talked into cross-dressing as an old woman and then gets beat up, and 3) he's lured into the woods (while wearing a giant pair of antlers) to be terrorized by a gang of little kids disguised as fairies.
Why so harsh, Shakespeare? Well, for one thing, theater audiences always love this kind of slapstick stage humor. (Ever seen a live performance of this play? Crowds go nuts every time Falstaff gets knocked around.) Plus, the Elizabethans had a thing for violent entertainment (ever heard of bear-baiting?) and they loved watching people get publicly humiliated and punished for their bad behavior.
Gee, it's a good thing our standards have evolved so much.
In fact, literary critic Leah Marcus points out that Falstaff's punishments seem to mirror popular 16th- and 17th-century public shaming rituals that were called "Skimmington or "rough music" (source).
These rituals often involved dunking adulterers in a pond or river in front of a crowd of locals. Hmm. That sounds a lot like what happens when the would-be-adulterer Falstaff gets tossed in the river.
And sometimes the rituals involved dressing up male victims as women and then parading them through the streets where they could be beaten by spectators. Gee. Sounds like what goes down when Falstaff gets beat up in his "old woman of Brentford" disguise.
But Falstaff isn't the only character that's made into a chump in this play. Any time a character tries to dupe or prank someone else, they always end up getting punk'd themselves. That's what makes this the kind of zany comedy that has influenced everything from slapstick and screwball comedy to modern day TV sitcoms. (Go to "Themes: Lies and Deceit" and we'll tell you more about this.)
Some literary critics don't find any of this amusing. Shakespeare scholar Harold Bloom loves Falstaff in Henry IV Part 1 and Henry IV Part 2, but he's pretty disgusted by what happens to the character in The Merry Wives of Windsor. He hates the fact that Falstaff is repeatedly humiliated and says that by "the time that Falstaff, disguised as a plump old woman, has absorbed a particularly nasty beating, one begins to conclude that Shakespeare loathes" the play as well as "himself" (source).
To tell you the truth, we're not sure how this is much different than what happens to Falstaff in the Henry plays, where he gets tricked by his so-called friends during the infamous Gads Hill robbery (Henry IV Part 1, 2.1) and is eventually "banished" by his former BFF King Henry (Henry IV Part 2, 5.5).
But we have an idea. Maybe Harold Bloom just has a problem with the fact that in The Merry Wives of Windsor, it's two middle-class women that get the better of his beloved character? That may be why he refers to the play as one big "castration pageant" (aka a play that celebrates the spectacle of women attacking Falstaff's manhood).
That's not the only reason why some critics have beef with Merry Wives, and, sure, it's true that Falstaff isn't quite as shrewd in Merry Wives as he is in the Henry plays. After all, he gets duped three times and doesn't even see through Master Ford's ridiculous "Brooke" disguise. But is he really truly all that different from the character we see in the Henry plays? Never mind what the literary critics think. You decide.
What? You want to know more about Falstaff? Head on over to "Symbols, Imagery, & Allegory" because he's all over the place in that section.