The Merry Wives of Windsor is a comedy usually played out on stage, the principal role belonging to the bigger-than-life Sir John Falstaff—remembered mostly for donning antlers in portraits and sketches in advertisements and playbills. Flanked by his cronies Bardolph, Nym, and Pistol, Falstaff hatches a plan to woo the wives of Master Ford and Master Page, Mistress Ford and Mistress Page, respectively. Falstaff’s objective in wooing two wives at once is to gain access to their husbands’ purse strings. Here is what Falstaff says to Pistol, Nym, and Robin as they drink in The Garter Inn, showing just how delusional, egotistical, and opportunistic he can be:
“FALSTAFF. Briefly, I do mean to make love to Ford’s wife; I spy entertainment in her; she discourses, she carves, she gives the leer of invitation; I can construe the action of her familiar style; and the hardest voice of her behaviour, to be English’d rightly, is ‘I am Sir John Falstaff’s.’ […] I have writ me here a letter to her; and here another to Page’s wife, who even now gave me good eyes too, examin’d my parts with most judicious oeillades; sometimes the beam of her view gilded my foot, sometimes my portly belly. […] O, she did so course o’er my exteriors with such a greedy intention that the appetite of her eye did seem to scorch me up like a burning-glass! Here’s another letter to her. She bears the purse too; she is a region in Guiana, all gold and bounty. I will be cheaters 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. Go, bear thou this letter to Mistress Page; and thou this to Mistress Ford. We will thrive, lads, we will thrive” (Wiv. 1.3, emphasis mine).
Pistol and Nym mock Falstaff’s attitude with asides to each other. Pistol yells to Falstaff as he and Robin leave the inn, “Let vultures gripe thy guts!” (Wiv. 1.3).
Other characters, like Sir Hugh Evans, Dr. Caius, Slender, Fenton, and Shallow, vie for, or help suitors try to win, the hand of Mistress Anne Page, the daughter of Master Page and Mistress Page. In the case of Slender, he oddly tries not to pursue Mistress Anne Page despite his cousin’s encouragement to the contrary. As Slender hesitates to make a commitment to chase the young maiden, one wonders if his behavior comes from observations of other couples, or from some other … ahem … orientation. In any case, Slender has a talent of inverting propositions and ideas in a tongue-in-cheek way that make him come off as a passive aggressive coward, as in the following:
“SHALLOW. Nay, conceive me, conceive me, sweet coz; what I do is to pleasure you, coz. Can you love the maid?
“SLENDER. I will marry her, sir, at your request; but if there be no great love from the beginning, yet heaven may decrease it upon better acquaintance, when we are married and have more occasion to know one another. I hope upon familiarity will grow more contempt. But if you say ‘marry her,’ I will marry her; that I am freely dissolved, and dissolutely” (Wiv. 1.1).
Falstaff’s advances begin to bother the wives of Windsor. In the opening of the second act, we hear Mistress Page’s soliloquy after receiving Falstaff’s first letter:
“MRS. PAGE. […] What a Herod of Jewry is this! O wicked, wicked world! One that is well- nigh worn to pieces with age to show himself a young gallant! What an unweighed behaviour hath this Flemish drunkard pick’d—with the devil’s name!—out of my conversation, that he dares in this manner assay me? Why, he hath not been thrice in my company! What should I say to him? I was then frugal of my mirth. Heaven forgive me! Why, I’ll exhibit a bill in the parliament for the putting down of men. How shall I be reveng’d on him? for reveng’d I will be, as sure as his guts are made of puddings” (Wiv. 2.1).
Later, Mistress Ford comes to Mistress Page and shows her the same letter she has received from Falstaff. Both Mistress Ford and Mistress Page become disgusted by the idea of a rascal hitting on them, wondering why any man would desire women of their age and wrinkling features, the wooer risking their public reputations as honorable housewives to two middle class gentlemen. Instead of simply rejecting Falstaff’s advances or telling their husbands to defend their virtue, the wives contrive revenge “against this greasy knight” (Wiv. 2.1).
The story gets moving here as we read about pranks and silly confrontations among the members of the main story and the side stories. While reading about Master Ford’s attempts to catch Mistress Ford and Falstaff in flagrante delicto, I could not help but refer back to Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s El médico de su honra (The Surgeon of his Honour). This play reveals the opposite of what happens when a wife’s supposed reputation or honor comes under scrutiny, even if suspicions of an affair are false. Shakespeare uses comedy to criticize those who try to dishonor marital relationships; Calderón de la Barca uses tragedy to criticize husbands who kill their wives in order to protect an honor, or its public image, that has not been transgressed.
However, Shakespeare’s play resolves the conflict in a light-hearted way, a form that may exhibit some Puritan ideal for the preservation of spousal relationships. Falstaff gets a beating, but the punishment stops short by a merciful verbal contract that Falstaff, in fact, has made and satisfied with Master Brook (aka Master Ford). So, as I think about the appropriateness of this script for future readers, I can say this script satisfies the requirements of decency despite treating the theme of cheating or other men’s attempts to cheat with married women. Younger children may become bored by the story or misunderstand the Shakespearean dialogue inherent in this script. Students in middle school should be able to grasp the story if properly prepared and taught by the teacher.