Okay, so this is really two characters—but, let's be honest: is there really any difference between them?
About 400 years before reality TV set out to show us what it's like to be a "real housewife," Shakespeare whipped up a couple of characters designed to give a major shout-out to all the clever wives of Elizabethan England.
We're talking, of course, about Mistress Margaret Page and Mistress Alice Ford—the "merry wives" of Windsor. These two BFFs are hitched to a couple of rich citizens (that would be Master Page and Master Ford, respectively) but they're fiercely independent and refuse to take a backseat to men in their lives.
Like a lot of literary besties, these women are practically inseparable, so much so that Alice Ford's jealous husband complains to Margaret Page: "I think if your husbands were / dead you two would marry" (3.2.12-14). Mistress Page's snappy comeback? "Be sure of that—two other husbands" (3.2.15). Oh, snap! Consider yourself on notice, Master Ford.
The wives don't just get the better of husbands in this play. The main plot revolves around how they band together to teach Falstaff a lesson for trying to seduce them (with identical love letters, no less).
How do they do this? They let Falstaff believe they're interested in cheating on their husbands so they can lure him into a series of humiliating and painful situations that are designed to punish the "filthy knight." They also let Master Ford think that his faithful wife is fooling around behind his back to teach him a lesson about being a jealous husband.
We learn a lot about these ladies from this initial situation: they're smart, they're sassy, and they're loyal—to each other, but also to their husbands.
Before we go any further, the most important thing Shakespeare wants you to know about these women can be summed up in this statement: "Wives may be merry and yet honest too:" (4.2.105). What does that mean? Well, it means that just because the wives are "merry" (fun-loving and willing to play a few practical jokes, and maybe even a teeny bit flirtatious), that doesn't mean they're not "honest" (faithful) spouses.
Okay, fine. Why does Shakespeare go out of his way to tell us this? Well, 16th- and 17th-century English literature is chock full of characters who obsess over the idea that wives inevitably cheat on their spouses. (Master Ford, we're talking about you here.) In fact, we can't think of a single Shakespeare play that doesn't crack a few jokes about cuckolds (aka guys who get cheated on by their wives). Go to "Themes: Jealousy" if you want to know more about this or, check out "Symbols: Horns."
Look. We're not saying our housewives are a couple of naive prudes or anything. They speak pretty candidly to each other about sex and they're not afraid to crack a mildly dirty joke now and then. Did you notice how they joke about Falstaff trying to (ahem) "knight" them (2.1)? Or the way they use a hilarious nautical metaphor to describe sex? Check out how they banter back and forth when Mistress Page refers to Falstaff's seduction as an effort to "board" her like a cargo or treasure ship:
[..] unless he know some strain in
me that I know not myself, he would never have
boarded me in this fury.
'Boarding' call you it? I'll be sure to
keep him above deck.
So will I. If he come under my hatches,
I'll never to sea again. Let's be revenged on him. (2.1.87-93)
The wives are right to imply that Falstaff is like a pirate trying to "board" a ship to get below "deck" and under her "hatches." That's because the guy is trying to get access to their husbands' money by sleeping with them. Check out what Falstaff says about Mistress Ford:
Now, the report goes, she has all the rule of
her husband's purse. He hath a legion of angels. (1.3.51-52)
All right. Got it. Falstaff wants to seduce Mistress Ford because she's not only got access to her husband's money but she's also in charge of the family budget. The same goes for Mistress Page because "she bears the purse / too" (1.3.69-70).
What does this tell us? Despite the fact that women had no legal rights of their own under common law, housewives were pretty powerful figures in Shakespeare's world. Check out this passage from a popular 16th-century manual on managing the household (basically like the Martha Stewart Living of the day):
Commonly goods and substance do come into the house by the labour and pain of the man but the woman for the most part is she that keepeth and bestoweth it where need is. (source)
Sound familiar? No? Well, let's try a quick modernization: "Men bring money into the house, but women do the budgeting and shopping." And that pretty much sums up our housewives' economic responsibilities.
Want to know what else is involved in being an Elizabethan housewife? Let's check out a passage from another popular 16th-century manual:
The duty of the husband is to get goods; and of the wife, to gather them together and save them. The duty of the husband is to travel abroad to seek living; and the wife's duty is to keep the house. The duty of the husband is to get money and provision; and of the wife's, not vainly to spend it. The duty of the husband is to deal with many men; and of the wife's to talk with few. (source)
Notice the emphasis on the wife guarding her husband's property and not getting friendly with other men while hubby's out bringing home the bacon? The guys who wrote this handbook and the many like it were worried about two things: 1) women being unfaithful to their husbands and 2) women being lousy at protecting their husbands' money and household property.
Calling Master Ford, who is super worried about just that:
See the hell of
having a false woman: my bed shall be abused, my
coffers ransacked (2.2.298-300)
Ford's always using the language of theft when he talks about the possibility of his wife cheating on him. At one point, he even says that if she sleeps with another guy, it's the same thing as her stealing his "butter," his "cheese," or his "gelding" (2.2.310, 311, 312).
What's our point? Even though Elizabethan housewives like Mistress Ford and Mistress Page had a lot of responsibilities and power, their power and responsibilities made a lot of men suspicious of them.
But, like we've said, Shakespeare's "merry wives" aren't exactly victims—they know just how to handle jealous men like Ford and predatory creepers like Falstaff. Shakespeare's portrait of the "merry wives of Windsor" offers up a pretty interesting look at gender relations in Elizabethan England. Go to "Themes: Gender" if you want to think about this some more.