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If you've read Henry IV Part 1, you know that Mistress Quickly was the mistress of the Boar's Head Tavern, a seedy bar where all the local hoodlums hung out. In The Merry Wives of Windsor, Mistress Quickly is back as one of Dr. Caius's household servants. While she may not be running a dive bar that's associated with prostitution and crime, she's as shady as ever and helps inject the play with a rowdy, rebellious spirit.
Mistress Quickly always manages to place herself in the middle of the action. She acts as a go-between for hire for three different men who want to marry Anne Page and also helps the "merry wives" trick Falstaff on numerous occasions. She has no scruples and she's motivated by money. Obviously, this doesn't win her any popularity contests.
The first thing we hear about her in this play is a bit of gossip. Check it out:
And there dwells one Mistress
Quickly, which is in the manner of his nurse,
or his dry nurse, or his cook, or his laundry—his
washer and his wringer. (1.2.2-5).
When Evans tells us that Mistress Quickly is Doctor Caius's "nurse", Shakespeare is basically telling us that she's sleeping with her boss. We're not judging but the other characters definitely do. Pistol calls her a "punk" (slang for "whore") and, even though she act like she's friends with Quickly, Mistress Ford calls her "that foolish carrion" behind her back (3.3.189).
Our impression of Mistress Quickly doesn't just come from what other characters say about her. It also comes straight from Mistress's own mouth. She's famous for her habit of accidentally talking dirty, which makes her look silly and shady—like when says that Mistress Ford's servants "mistook their erection" when she means to say they misunderstood their directions (3.5.41).
At one point, she even announces that she's not a virgin when she's actually trying to say the exact opposite:
Good morrow, goodwife.
Not so, an 't please your Worship.
Good maid, then.
I'll be sworn—as my mother was,
the first hour I was born.
I do believe the swearer. What with me? (2.2.34-39)
Shakespeare has a lot of fun at Mistress Quickly's expense. When Falstaff calls her a "good maid" (maid being an unmarried virgin), Mistress Quickly tries to swear that, yep, she's a virgin all right. But that's not actually what she ends up saying. When she declares that she's a "maid" just like her mom was at the "hour" her mom gave birth to her, Mistress Quickly ends up saying that she's not a virgin. (Obviously, her mom couldn't have been a virgin if she was pregnant and giving birth, right?)
Whoops. What went wrong? Literary critic Walter Cohen says that Mistress Quickly is confusing two very different proverbs: "as innocent as a newborn babe" and "as good a maid as her mother" (source). Okay. Mistress Quickly obviously has no formal education. How could she? Most women and lower-class servants didn't get to go to school. Because of all this, she's an outsider in the middle-class world of the play. Go to "Themes: Society and Class" and we'll tell you more.