FALSTAFF There is no remedy. I must cony-catch, I must shift. (1.3.31-32)
Falstaff's solution to being broke is to seduce and swindle (aka cony-catch) a couple of rich housewives. But, as we know, things don't exactly work out as Falstaff plans. In the end, Falstaff the swindler is the one who gets duped when the housewives pull off a series of embarrassing pranks. Luckily for Falstaff, he's not alone. The same pattern happens to everyone who engages in shady behavior.
MISTRESS FORD ...take
this basket on your shoulders. [...] and there empty it in the muddy ditch close by the Thames side. (3.3.11-12; 14-15)
Need ideas for your next April Fools? Here, Mistress Ford orders her servants to empty the family laundry basket in the local river when she gives the signal. In the following moments, Mistress Ford tricks Falstaff into climbing into said laundry basket by telling him that her jealous husband will go nuts if he catches her with another man. Of course, Mistress Ford timed the whole thing so her husband would show up when Falstaff was in the house. A few moments later and right on cue, the servants carry Falstaff and the basket outside and dump him in the water. Good times.
MISTRESS PAGE Is there not a double excellency in this? MISTRESS FORD I know not which pleases me better— that my husband is deceived, or Sir John. (3.3.173-175)
Mistress Ford can't decide which is more fun—teaching Falstaff a lesson or making her jealous husband look like a chump. This is one of Shakespeare's most important points, so pay attention: both Falstaff and Master Ford need to learn a thing or two about how to behave toward women.
MISTRESS FORD I am half afraid he will have need of washing,
so throwing him into the water will do him a benefit. (3.3.178-180)
Uh-oh. According to Mistress Ford, Falstaff was afraid of being caught by her husband and probably peed his pants (or worse) in the laundry basket. So, he'll probably "have need of washing." She means that literally but, we've also noticed how there's a lot of talk in this play about Falstaff needing a moral cleansing. Every time we turn around someone is calling this lusty guy a "greasy" knight and Mrs. Page even refers to him as an "unclean knight" (4.5.56). So, dunking Falstaff in the river with a bunch of dirty laundry has a symbolic function. By teaching him a lesson, the wives cleanse him of his immoral ways.
SIR HUGH This is well! He has made us his vloutingstog. I desire
you that we may be friends, and let us knog our prains together
to be revenge on this same scall, scurvy, cogging companion,
the Host of the Garter. (3.1.117-121)
Making fun of someone is a lot more fun with an audience. That's why reality TV exists. Here, Evans eventually figures it out and says the Host "has made us his "vlouting-stog" (aka "flouting stock" or laughing stock). In other words, the Host has made them objects of ridicule in a very public setting. By the way, the term laughing stock comes from the practice of putting people in the "stocks." (That's when a victim's ankles and/or wrists were put between two boards in the middle of town so everyone could walk by and ridicule them.) Hey, the threat of public humiliation would keep us on the straight-and-narrow.
FORD Well, I will take him, the torture my wife,
pluck the borrowed veil of modesty from the so-seeming Mistress Page, divulge Page himself for a secure and willful
Acteon, and to these violent proceedings all my neighbors
shall cry aim.
[...] I shall be rather praised for this than
mocked (3.2.38-42; 44-45)
Master Ford doesn't just fantasize about catching his wife having sex with another guy. He imagines catching her in front of an audience so she will be humiliated in public. Not only that, but Ford imagines all of his "neighbors" congratulating him. Crazy, right? No wonder he's always inviting his friends over when he thinks his wife is at home hooking up with Falstaff—Master Page wants an audience. We're a little disturbed by all this, guys.
MISTRESS FORD I would my husband would meet him in this shape. He
cannot abide the old woman of Brentford. He swears
she's a witch, forbade her my house and hath
threatened to beat her. (4.2.84-87)
Before you start getting too excited about how Shakespeare is just like us, let us share this quote: the merry wives plot to dress Falstaff up like an old woman so Master Ford can beat her. Hilarious! Except not. Don't beat up old ladies, Shmoopers. It's really not cool, even if it's for a good cause.
MISTRESS FORD Sir John? Art thou there, my deer, my male
Here, Falstaff is duped into wearing horns and dressing up like "Herne the Hunter" so the women can embarrass him in front of the whole community of Windsor. Funny thing is, some towns actually punished men whose wives cheated on them by putting a set of horns in the guy's front yard—you know, for not keeping their wives under control. So, we might say that Shakespeare gives the popular form of punishment an ironic twist here.
SLENDER I came yonder at Eton to marry Mistress Anne Page,
and she's a great lubberly boy. If it had not been i' th' church,
I would have swinged him, or he should have swinged me. (5.5.191-194)
Slender thinks he's going to pull a fast one by sneaking off with Anne during the confusion of the fairy dance in the woods but he's the one who ends up getting duped. (Along with Caius, who also winds up eloping with a "boy.")
ANNE Pardon, good father! Good my mother, pardon. PAGE Now, mistress, how chance you went not with Master Slender? MISTRESS PAGE Why went you not with Master Doctor, maid? (5.5.223-226)
Both Mr. and Mrs. Page have been conspiring behind each others' backs in hopes that Anne would marry a man of their own choosing. But Anne manages to slip away with Fenton and get hitched, in spite of her parents' scheming. At the end of the day, young love wins out and we learn that Anne Page is a clever girl. Hey, no wonder: her mom is a pretty smart lady, herself.