Study Guide

The Merry Wives of Windsor Themes

  • Marriage and Wealth

    It turns out that you can't talk about marriage in this play without talking about wealth, too. That's not so surprising because 16th and 17th century nuptials were mostly business transactions. (Go read about "Marriage" in The Taming of the Shrew if you don't believe us.) And The Merry Wives of Windsor is no different: in the subplot, the daughter of a rich citizen is pursued by three suitors primarily motivated by her family's bank account. In the play's main plot, a down-and-out nobleman tries to seduce two housewives in order to gain access to their husbands' cash. That gives the Kardashian/Humphries marriage a run for its money. (So to speak.) But don't worry: in the end, a young, crazy-in-love couple manages to run off and elope. Why does that matter? Well, in its final moments, the play supports the idea that holy matrimony should be motivated by one thing: love. Oh, that Shakespeare. He sure is a softy.

    Questions About Marriage and Wealth

    1. What motivates each of Anne Page's suitors? Why do they want to marry her?
    2. What does Falstaff hope to gain from seducing the housewives?
    3. What does Anne's marriage to Fenton suggest about the play's attitude toward marriage and love?
    4. Think about the relationships between the older married couples in this play (Mr. and Mrs. Ford and Mr. and Mrs. Page). How would you characterize these couples? Are they happy? In love? Do you think Fenton and Anne will end up like this older generation?

    Chew on This

    Even though Shakespeare goes out of his way to show us that money talks, the play isn't all that cynical. When Anne and Fenton run off and elope like a couple of crazy kids, the play suggests that it's better to marry for love than for money.

    The Merry Wives of Windsor suggests that, in Shakespeare's time, men were the gold-diggers rather than women.

  • Jealousy

    Shakespeare has obviously got a thing for writing about the dangers of male sexual jealousy. In The Merry Wives of Windsor, a mistrustful husband learns that another man plans to seduce his wife. The wife is faithful, of course, but the husband believes that all women are dishonest and, therefore, all wives cheat on their husbands. Basically, 16th and 17th century literature reads like a Men's Rights pamphlet, full of anxiety about cheating and lying women. If this were another play, we'd be in for a blood bath. But here, we're just in for a good time. In the play, a jealous husband becomes a figure of comedy when his wife exploits his suspicions in order to make him look foolish in front of the entire community. LOL!

    Questions About Jealousy

    1. Why does Ford mistrust his wife sexually? Does he have any reason to mistrust her? Does she seem to be a good manager of the household?
    2. How do the "merry wives" exploit Ford's jealousy in order to teach him a lesson?
    3. How does Master Page function as a foil to Master Ford when it comes to trusting his wife?
    4. Why does the subject of "horns" come up so much in this play? Who seems more untrustworthy—men or women? Is there any equivalent symbol for unfaithful men?

    Chew on This

    Master Ford's insane jealousy is pretty typical of 16th and 17th century attitudes. When Shakespeare wrote The Merry Wives of Windsor, the Elizabethans were obsessed with the threat of female promiscuity.

    Even though the play is full of male anxieties about promiscuous women, it ultimately tells us that male jealousy is sexist and also unfair to women.

  • Lies and Deceit

    Watching The Merry Wives of Windsor is like channel surfing between back-to-back episodes of Punk'd! and Cheaters. In other words, when people get duped in this play, they often end up looking like chumps in front of a very large audience of people. When a lusty knight tries to seduce two "honest" housewives, they stage a series of elaborate pranks designed to teach him a lesson in front of the entire community. The tricks are also designed to punish a pathologically jealous husband, who thinks his wife is messing around behind his back. Meanwhile, just about every other minor character in the play engages in some sort of scheme or deception that's designed to make a victim look foolish in front of an audience. Shakespeare doesn't stop there. When it comes to pranks and intrigue, another pattern emerges in this play—the would-be trickster is usually the one who winds up getting duped in the end. All in all, pranking seems to be a way to work out social tensions and power struggles between various groups: husbands and wives, parents and children, middle-class citizens and aristocrats, Englishmen and foreigners, and so on. Hey, it's better than domestic violence.

    Questions About Lies and Deceit

    1. Why do the "merry wives" want to punish Falstaff? Why does their method of punishment seem particularly fitting?
    2. How do the wives teach jealous Master Ford a lesson? Do you think he's really going to change his ways?
    3. Why does the Host of the Garter Inn want to embarrass Caius and Evans at the duel in Windsor Park? How does he do it?
    4. What happens when Caius and Slender try to elope with Anne Page? What kind of lesson does this teach them?

    Chew on This

    In The Merry Wives of Windsor, deception and deceit always, always, always lead to public humiliation.

    In the play, humiliation is an Olympic sport. Every character is always trying to outdo someone else.

  • Society and Class

    Ever read this play and thought, "Gee, Windsor seems like an Elizabethan version of Wisteria Lane"? You're not alone, because plenty of scholars agree that this is Shakespeare's take on middle-class domesticity. In other words, the play portrays the day-to-day lives, activities, interests, and moral values of England's middle class. In fact, Shakespeare goes out of his way to try to define what it means to be a member of this new socio-economic group—neither members of the aristocracy nor the peasantry (source). They were mostly merchants and businessmen who were making big bucks in commerce and maritime trade. All those aristocrats and servants running around Windsor? Outsiders who threaten the middle-class way of life.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. How would you compare the values of middle-class characters (like the Pages and the Fords) to the values of upper-class characters (like Falstaff) or lower-class characters (like Pistol and Mistress Quickly)?
    2. How are the lives of middle-class women different from their male counterparts? Do we learn anything about the day-to-day lives of the men?
    3. Read the play's ending where Falstaff and Fenton are welcomed into the middle-class community of Windsor. What is the overall significance of this? What does it say about the play's middle-class characters?
    4. Literary critics are always saying that Merry Wives is Shakespeare's most middle-class play. Do you agree? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Even though the middle-class characters in this play know they're not as powerful as the aristocracy, they definitely know that money equals power. That's why they try to guard their wealth from gold-diggers like Fenton and Falstaff.

    When the middle-class citizens of Windsor welcome two aristocrats into the community at the play's end, Shakespeare suggests that the middle class is a good-natured and welcoming group.

  • Gender

    Let's face it. Reading just about any one of Shakespeare's plays can offer a depressing glimpse into the kinds of gender inequalities faced by 16th- and 17th-century women. (Just ask Katherine Minola if you don't believe us.) That said, The Merry Wives of Windsor is a little different. Sure, its leading ladies are up against guys who think all women are either untrustworthy, promiscuous, or simply a means of securing s financial future. (Falstaff and Ford, we're talking to you.) But, the coolest thing about Merry Wives is that its women always end up on top. No wives were harmed or "tamed" during the production of this play. In fact, it's the men who are taught a thing or two about how to behave.

    Questions About Gender

    1. Which spouse has more power in the Fords' relationship? Explain why.
    2. How does Anne Page overcome her status as a girl whom most men just value for her money? Does she do anything to change Fenton's mind?
    3. How would you characterize the friendship between Mistress Page and Mistress Ford? Which relationship seems more important to them—their friendship, or their marriages?
    4. Why do you think Falstaff underestimates the "merry wives"?

    Chew on This

    In this play, Shakespeare goes out of his way to show us that middle-class housewives are forces to be reckoned with.

    Even though Anne Page doesn't have a lot of speaking lines and only shows up in three scenes, we can see that she's a strong character, just like her mother.

  • Language and Communication

    In this play, mastery of the English language is a matter of national pride. No big surprise there, right? After all, Shakespeare is the guy responsible for putting English on the map. (No offense, Chaucer.) That's why Merry Wives of Windsor is full of the kind of clever word-play, innuendo, and snazzy banter that celebrates the potential of the English language. At the same time, the play also goes out of its way to mock characters (especially foreigners and members of the lower class) for butchering the queen's English. At the end of the day, Shakespeare wants to show us that English defines England.

    Questions About Language and Communication

    1. Why does Slender say he wishes he had his book of poetry with him at Anne's house (1.1)?
    2. Discuss how Evans' and Caius' foreign accents mark them as outsiders in the play.
    3. Why does Mistress Quickly think little William is reciting dirty words during the Latin lesson in Act 4, scene 1? And what's the point of this scene, anyway?
    4. How does Shakespeare uses a language to develop various character in this play?

    Chew on This

    Merry Wives is written mostly in prose (as opposed to verse) because it's a play about ordinary middle-class English life—not the lives of some poetry-spouting members of the royal court.

    Shakespeare's Britain was a nation made up of English, Scottish, Welsh, and Irish speakers all from a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds. So, when our favorite playwright shows us a wide range of dialects, accents, and speech styles in this play, he's giving us a glimpse of the diversity of the English language.

  • Love

    By the end of Merry Wives, romantic love triumphs over all when young Fenton and Anne run off and elope behind everyone's backs. But, in case you hadn't noticed, that's not necessarily the theme running through the first nine-tenths of Merry Wives. Seriously, until the final act, there's less romance in this play than the graffitied walls of a public school bathroom. But that doesn't stop characters from trying to get their groove on. Plenty of folks run around claiming to be in "love" but Shakespeare shows us that these characters (like a lot of real life people) are simply misguided. Bottom line? Here's what Uncle Shakespeare wants you to take away from this play: Love isn't a desire to be rich. Love isn't a desire to have adulterous sex. Love isn't jealousy. According to our favorite playwright, Love is a desire to be with a person you value for their inner qualities rather than their trust fund. No wonder Shakespeare is still popular.

    Questions About Love

    1. Do any of the suitors really love Anne Page? What kind of evidence can you point to back up your answer?
    2. According to the Host, who's the best romantic match for Anne Page? Do you agree?
    3. Why are the housewives offended when they receive letters from Falstaff? What role does love play in their reaction?
    4. At the play's end, Master Ford says "In love the heavens themselves do guide the state; / Money buys lands, and wives are sold by fate" (5.5.209-210). What does this mean? Is it true?

    Chew on This

    Even though there's a lot of talk about "love" in this play, most of the characters aren't really interested in romantic companionship.

    In Falstaff's mind, "love" is the same as the desire for sex and money.