Study Guide

The Merry Wives of Windsor Society and Class

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Society and Class

Sir Hugh, persuade me not. I will make a
Star-Chamber matter of it. If he were twenty Sir
John Falstaffs, he shall not abuse Robert Shallow,
Esquire. (1.1.1-4)

When the play opens, Shakespeare tells us right away there's going to be some major social tension in this play. The tiff between Falstaff and Shallow comes down to one thing: class differences. Falstaff is a knight. Shallow is a step below a knight, which is why he's always referring to himself as "Robert Shallow, Esquire" (1.1.89). Doesn't seem like a big deal? Well, to Elizabethans, distinctions of rank were like designer tennis shoes: they may not look different to the untrained eye, but there was a major difference between "sir" and "esquire."

Now, Master Shallow, you'll complain of me
to the King?
Knight, you have beaten my men, killed my
deer, and broke open my lodge. (1.1.108-111)

Shallow is irate because Falstaff has strolled into town and thinks he can do whatever he wants, like poach deer and slap other peoples' servants around. But Shallow's not the only character who sees Falstaff as an outsider and a threat. The citizens of Windsor aren't about to let some "fat" aristocrat come in and trample all over them—they're going to teach him a lesson.

I will answer it straight: I have done all this.
That is now answered.
The Council shall know this.
'Twere better for you if it were known in
counsel. You'll be laughed at. (1.1.114-118)

Falstaff basically dares Shallow to tattle on him to the "king," who would do absolutely nothing to punish Falstaff for disrespecting Shallow. You know what's weird? Even though the town of Windsor is right next to Windsor Castle, this play goes out of its way to avoid showing us life at the royal court. Here, Falstaff mentions "the king" and later on in 5.5 there's a reference to Shakespeare's monarch, Queen Elizabeth I, but the play sticks to portraying the everyday lives of ordinary people.

Ay, and Ratolorum too; and a gentleman born,
Master Parson; who writes himself 'Armigero'
in any bill, warrant, quittance, or obligation—
Ay, that I do, and have done any time these three
hundred years. (1.1.8-13)

Slow down there, Shallow. Here, he makes a big deal out of the fact that he was born a "gentleman" and that his family has had the right to bear a coat of arms for over three generations. (That's what the term "armigero" refers to.) It seems like Shakespeare's having a big laugh at people who think they're awesome just because they were born into high-ranking families.

Now, the report goes, she has all the rule of
her husband's purse. (1.3.51-52)

Guess what? These merry wives ladies don't spend their time eating bon-bons and getting mani-pedis. They oversee the servants and do a lot of the housework themselves. And we're not talking pressing some buttons on a washing machine. We're talking lugging around heavy baskets of dirty, dripping laundry. Plus, they oversee large household budgets and keep a watchful eye on their husbands' property—we're thinking more CEOs than ladies of leisure.

She bears the purse
too; she is a region in Guiana, all gold and bounty.
I will be cheater to them both, and they shall be
exchequers to me; they shall be my East and West
Indies, and I will trade to them both. (1.4.69-73)

Once again, Falstaff tells us that he wants to seduce the housewives in order to get at their husbands' money. Here, he compares the merry wives to "Guiana" and the "East and West Indies." Crazy, right? Falstaff sees himself as some kind of merchant or an explorer in search of wealth. In reality, he's just a down-and-out knight who's trying to prey on a couple of middle-class women. See what we mean when we say the play is distrustful of aristocrats and portrays them as immoral outsiders?

Why then, the world's mine oyster, which I
shall with sword open. (2.2.2-3)

Aristocrats like Falstaff aren't the only threat to middle-class values and everyday life in Windsor. Here, lower-class Pistol declares that he'll use his sword to make his fortune in the world.

He doth object I am too great of birth,
And that, my state being galled with my expense,
I seek to heal it only by his wealth.
And tells me 'tis a thing impossible
I should love thee but as a property. (3.4.5-7; 10-11)

Just because a character is an aristocrat, that doesn't mean he's got money. Here, we learn that Fenton is from a noble family and has been looking for a rich wife. Poor members of the aristocracy often set their sights on women from rich, non-aristocratic families as a way to generate income, but people were wise to this: Anne's father does everything he can to prevent an outsider from swooping in and using his daughter to gain access to his money.

Sir Hugh, my husband says my son
profits nothing in the world at his book. I pray you,
ask him some questions in his accidence. (4.1.14-16)

Act 4, scene 1 is made up entirely of little William's hilarious Latin lesson. This scene says something about middle-class values in the play. It's important to Mistress Page that her son get a good education, and middle-class families like the Pages demonstrate that they have enough money and resources to send their sons to school. And check out how Mistress Quickly reacts during William's lesson. As an uneducated servant, Quickly doesn't understand Latin so she misinterprets the entire language lesson and thinks that Evans is teaching little William a bunch of dirty words.

Good husband, let us every one go home
And laugh this sport o'er by a country fire—
Sir John and all. (5.5.249-251)

Despite Falstaff's disregard for their values and way of life, the middle class characters decide to invite him to Anne Page's wedding feast at the play's end. Is it Shakespeare's way of portraying the middle class as a warm and welcoming group that's willing to forgive, forget, and embrace outsiders into their communities? Maybe. After all, the Page's end up welcoming Fenton into their family even though he's an aristocrat. But notice that Anne Page ends up marrying a nobleman so, Fenton the aristocrat basically wins out in the end. What do you think?

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