edited by Giorgio Melchiori
The Merry Wives of Windsor is Shakespeare’s only English comedy (though it has arguably Italianate roots), following the trend for comedies of ‘humours’ that were popular on the late Elizabethan stage. It continues the story of Sir John Falstaff, who the audience had last seen being taken away to the Fleet prison at the end of Henry IV Part 2. Now a poor knight of Windsor (a retired soldier given accommodation and a small allowance), Falstaff once again plays the lovable rogue in this merry conceit of cozening, linguistic delight and social cross-sectioning.
As the play begins, Falstaff has been poaching deer from his old nemesis Justice Shallow. He soon starts on his next scheme: to seduce both Mistress Ford and Mistress Page in order to get at their husbands’ money. He writes identical love letters to each of them, but his companions Pistol and Nim reveal his plans to the wives. Mistress Ford and Mistress Page plan to accept his overtures in order to trick him in return. Meanwhile, Mistress Ford’s jealous husband disguises himself to test her fidelity; as ‘Brook’, he pays Falstaff to woo his wife.
Ford arrives as Falstaff begins to woo Mistress Ford, so the wives hide Falstaff in a laundry basket, and throw him in the Thames, as they’d planned all along. After his dunking, Falstaff once again pursues Mistress Ford; once again Ford arrives, and the wives disguise Falstaff as the ‘fat woman of Brentford’. His final humiliation comes as the wives tell Falstaff to disguise himself as ‘Herne the Hunter’ and wait in Windsor Park that night. There he is confronted by children dressed as fairies, and the two laughing couples.
A secondary plot concerns Anne Page and her several suitors. Her mother wants her to marry the French Doctor Caius; her father wants her to marry the foolish Slender; she loves Fenton, a gentleman. While her suitors squabble and her mother and father both separately plot her elopement, Anne takes matters into her own hands and marries Fenton.
The play’s first performance is uncertain. Some critics argue that it was first conceived as a court entertainment to celebrate the election of five new knights to the Order of the Garter on St. George’s Day in 1597; while it is unlikely that the full-length comedy was acted here, it is possible that the fairy masque was presented for the Queen, with the lecherous Falstaff and his motley crew acting as anti-masque. Most likely written in full after 1599, perhaps ‘compensating’ for Falstaff’s recorded death in Henry , the play first appears in quarto in 1602 (a much abridged ‘acting version’ of that which appears in the 1623 Folio). Its first recorded performance was at the Banqueting Hall at Whitehall in 1604, in front of the new king. Perenially popular onstage, The Merry Wives of Windsor has been operatized several times since the eighteenth century, most famously in English in Vaughan Williams’ Sir John in Love (1933). Hailing from a medieval English background, the figure of Falstaff has come to be seen, since the twentieth century, as a universally recognizable figure of folklore across cultures.