Okay. When merry Wives was published in the first folio (1623) edition of Shakespeare's works, it was the only play in which the female characters didn't share the title with their male counterparts. Unless you count The Taming of the Shrew, which sort of implies that it's about a "shrewish" woman and her "shrew taming" husband. In any case, here's the point we want to make: The Merry Wives of Windsor is unique among Shakespeare's plays because it celebrates a couple of clever housewives who manage to turn the tables on men (a jealous husband and a predatory knight). Check out "What's Up With the Title" for more about this.
SIR HUGH There is Anne Page which is daughter
to Master Thomas Page, which is pretty virginity.
And seven hundred pounds of moneys, and gold, and
silver, is her grandsire upon his death's-bed (1.1.45-46; 50-52)
So, Shakespeare celebrates a couple of strong women who end up on top in this play, right? Well, one of those women has a daughter (Anne Page) who is sought after by three different suitors. As we can see here, a lot of men see Anne as an object—a pretty girl who's about to inherit a bunch of money, which makes her an attractive candidate for marriage. Not too promising here—but just wait until the end. Little Anne is going to turn out to have a mind of her own, just like her mom.
SHALLOW Well, let us see honest Master Page. (1.1.65)
After it's decided that Slender should go after Anne Page for her money, Slender and his pals set off to talk to… Master Page, Anne's father. So, why doesn't Slender talk to Anne about a possible marriage? Because in Shakespeare's day, marriages where business deals between men, that's why. Ah, the good old days.
SLENDER You are afraid, if you see the bear loose, are you not? ANNE Ay, indeed, sir. SLENDER That's meat and drink to me, now. I have seen Sackerson loose twenty times, and have taken him by the chain. But, I warrant you, the women have so cried and shrieked at it that it passed. But women, indeed, cannot abide 'em; they are very ill-favored rough things. (1.1.285-293)
Here, Slender tries to impress Anne by acting like a macho man when he brags that he's not afraid of the bears used in local bear-baiting tournaments, popular Elizabethan sport where they chained a bear to a pole and set a pack of dogs on it. Good times. Like a lot of dudes, Slender associates masculinity with bravery and a high tolerance for violence. But is he right?
FALSTAFF Now, the report goes she has all the rule of her
husband's purse. He hath a legion of angels. (1.3.51-52)
Anne's not the only female character that's viewed as a meal ticket in this play. Here, we see that Falstaff wants to seduce Mistress Ford because she's in charge of managing her husband's household property and money. (The same goes for Mistress Page.)
What does this tell us? That housewives are powerful figures in Shakespeare's world. Check out "Themes: Marriage and Wealth" for more on this.
MISTRESS FORD Nay, I will consent to act any villainy against
him that may not sully the chariness of our honesty. (2.1.98-100)
Here's where Mistress Ford and Mistress Page both decide they want revenge against Falstaff for (1) trying to seduce them and (2) assuming that they're easy. But there's a problem: Mistress Ford is concerned that someone might think she's not an "honest" woman (aka a woman who's faithful to her husband) if she "consent[s] to an act of villainy" against Falstaff. In other words, the "merry wives" want the world to know that they're just a couple of pranksters who use deception to teach Falstaff a lesson. So? Well, it seems to us that Shakespeare is talking to the people who think all wives are untrustworthy. Guess what? They're not.
FORD Page is an ass, a secure ass. He
will trust his wife, he will not be jealous. I will
rather trust a Fleming with my butter, Parson Hugh
the Welshman with my cheese, an Irishman with my
aquavitae bottle, or a thief to walk my ambling
gelding, than my wife with herself. (2.2.307-313)
Here's our evidence for saying that guys like Ford think that all wives are untrustworthy. Ford says he doesn't trust his "wife with herself" and also says that Page is an "ass" for trusting Mrs. Page. What's really odd about this passage is how Ford compares his wife to both a thief and his own personal property (like his "butter," his "cheese," and his "gelding," or horse).
FALSTAFF Come, I cannot cog
and say thou art this and that like a many of these lisping
hawthorn buds that come like women in men's apparel and
smell like Bucklersbury in simple time. I cannot. But I love
thee, none but thee; and thou deserv'st it. (3.3.70-74)
Falstaff's approach to seducing the "merry wives" reveals his ideas about masculinity. According to Falstaff, guys who speak pretty words, wear cologne, and get dressed up for dates are big dummies. But the joke's on him, because Falstaff does actually end up being emasculated when he tries to romance the wives—especially when they humiliate him by tricking him into dressing up as the "old woman of Brentford."
ANNE Good mother, do not marry me to yond fool.
Alas, I had rather be set quick i' th' earth
And bowled to death with turnips! (3.4.86; 89-90)
When Anne's parents try to force her into a loveless marriage, we get the impression that Anne doesn't have a lot of power. But then Shakespeare gives us a glimpse into our girl's character. Turns out that Anne is kind of feisty and has a mind of her own. Here, she says she'd rather be buried alive than marry Slender or Caius (her parents' two choices). Eventually, she flat out refuses to let her parents dictate her future when she runs off and elopes with the man she loves—or at least the best option of the three (5.5). That's pretty gutsy, don't you think?
FORD A witch, a quean, an old cozening quean! Have I not
forbid her my house? She comes of errands, does
she? We are simple men; we do not know what's
brought to pass under the profession of
fortune-telling. She works by charms, by spells,
by th' figure, and such daubery as this is, beyond
our element. We know nothing.—Come down, you witch,
you hag, you! Come down, I say! (4.2.171-178)
Yikes! By now, it's pretty clear that Ford hates women. When he hears that the "old woman of Brentford" is visiting his house, he flips out, calls her a bunch of insulting names, and then proceeds to beat her. Of course, "the old woman" isn't actually a woman at all. It's Falstaff, who's been tricked into dressing up as an old lady. When this scene is staged right, the effect is supposed to be comedic. (Kind of like watching Mrs. Doubtfire's bosom catch on fire.) But, Ford doesn't know he's not actually beating a woman and neither do his friends, who stand around and watch.
ANNE Pardon, good father! Good my mother, pardon. (5.5.223)
We have a confession, Shmoopers. When Anne returns from eloping with Fenton, we were sort of hoping she'd speak up for herself and defend her actions to her parents. But this is all she says before Fenton steps in and starts explaining why Anne shouldn't get in trouble for being a disobedient daughter. Sigh. Oh, well. At least Anne didn't let her parents bully her into marrying Slender or Caius, right?