The Merry Wives of Windsor: Summary & Characters

Instructor: Edward Zipperer

Eddie has an MFA in English from Georgia College where he has taught scriptwriting, English 101, English 102, and World Literature since 2007.

This lesson provides a summary of Shakespeare's comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor and a list of major characters followed by an explanation of their role in the plot.

Summary of The Merry Wives of Windsor

The Merry Wives of Windsor contains two important plotlines. The play's funniest plotline is the conflict between Sir John Falstaff and the two merry wives (Mistress Ford and Mistress Page). The story's other major plotline deals with three suitors (Slender, Doctor Caius and Fenton), all of whom wish to win Anne Page's hand in marriage.

Sir John Falstaff and the Two Merry Wives

Of all Shakespeare's comedies, The Merry Wives of Windsor is the one that most resembles a modern sitcom. The play focuses on mostly middle-class characters, none of the characters are ever in mortal danger, it is written almost entirely in prose and it employs a great deal of low comedy. Low comedy is the stuff of slapstick, pratfalls, outrageous accents, sight gags and Three Stooges-style physicality. The Merry Wives of Windsor has lots of this. In fact, most of the action that drives the plot of this play is based on Mistress Ford and Mistress Page (a.k.a. The Merry Wives) concocting various schemes toward the purpose of embarrassing Sir John Falstaff.

It all begins with Falstaff's plan to woo Mistress Page and Mistress Ford. He doesn't actually have affection toward them, but he believes that they were making eyes at him and that - if he plays his cards right - he can milk them of their husbands' money.

So Falstaff asks two of his men, Pistol and Nym, to deliver love letters to the two women. In true Falstaff fashion, he writes them the exact same letter, the only difference being the name in the salutation. He commands Nym and Pistol to deliver the letters for him. Nym and Pistol refuse to deliver the letters, so instead Falstaff gives them to his boy, Robin, to deliver.

It doesn't take Mistress Ford and Mistress Page long to grow disgusted with Falstaff. First of all, they are honorable wives. Secondly, Falstaff is unattractive in every way that a man can be. He is old and fat. He is a drunk, a glutton, a thief and a lecher. So, Mistress Page and Mistress Ford decide to get even with Falstaff by using his own plan against him.

Meanwhile, Pistol and Nym tell the women's husbands, Ford and Page, what Falstaff is up to. Page brushes it off believing that his wife is a good, incorruptible woman. Ford has the opposite reaction. He is a jealous man, and he flies into a rage upon hearing the news.

Deciding to test his wife's faithfulness, Ford disguises himself as a man named Brook. He takes a bag of money to Falstaff and asks him to help him woo Mistress Ford. Falstaff agrees and tells Brook that he already has a secret meeting set up with Mistress Ford.

When Falstaff shows up for the meeting, the first prank is played on him. Mistress Page shows up, and Mistress Ford hides Falstaff. Mistress Page informs Mistress Ford that her husband is on his way. So, Mistress Ford goads Falstaff into getting in a buck-basket (a laundry basket). Once he is in the laundry basket, two servants carry him away and toss him in the River Thames.

Ford looks everywhere (except the laundry basket that the servants carry right by him) for the man he believes that his wife is hiding but can find no sign of Falstaff.

Not finished making a buffoon of Falstaff, the merry wives concoct another meeting. Thanks to Brook's bag of money, being thrown in the River Thames is not enough to deter Falstaff. For the second prank, the merry wives dress Falstaff in clothing belonging to a fat woman (the old lady of Brentford), whom Ford hates. He has banished her from the house believing she is a witch. The disguise fools Ford, and believing that Falstaff is the old woman of Brentford, Ford gives him a beating for being in his house.

At this point, the women decide to tell their husbands what they've been up to, and they all devise one final humiliation for Falstaff. There is an old wives' tale about a ghost called Herne the Hunter who haunts an oak tree in Windsor Forest. They decide to lure Falstaff to that tree, dress up a bunch of children as fairies, and - until Falstaff admits his scheme - they will have the fairies 'pinch him sound and burn him with their tapers.'

The Three Suitors of Anne Page

There is also a love story in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Anne Page, the daughter of Page and Mistress Page, has three suitors who all wish to marry her: Slender, Doctor Caius and Fenton. Fenton is the only one who Anne loves, and it is clear why. Doctor Caius is presented as an absurd Frenchman who can hardly speak English and Slender's attempts to make conversation with Anne are as awkward and uncomfortable as they get. However, Anne's father prefers Slender, and Anne's mother prefers Doctor Caius. Page believes that Anne will be dressed in a white gown while she plays a fairy in the trick on Falstaff. He tells Slender to sneak her away at that time and marry her in secret. Mistress Page, believing that Anne will be dressed in green, tells Doctor Caius to sneak her away and marry her.

After the trick is successfully played on Falstaff, Doctor Caius and Slender both enter complaining that they were duped. And the 'Anne' that each of them snuck away turned out to be a boy! The real Anne used this time to sneak away with Fenton and marry him. But the family conflict over this hasty marriage is quickly resolved. Fenton tells Anne's parents:

You would have married her most shamefully,

Where there was no proportion held in love.

The truth is, she and I, long since contracted,

Are now so sure that nothing can dissolve us.

The offence is holy that she hath committed;

And this deceit loses the name of craft,

Of disobedience, or unduteous title,

Since therein she doth evitate and shun

A thousand irreligious cursed hours,

Which forced marriage would have brought upon her.

Page and Mistress Page agree with Fenton's long dialogue and wish the two lovebirds happiness.

Who's Who in The Merry Wives of Windsor

The Main Players

Sir John Falstaff - Falstaff is one of Shakespeare's finest characters. He appears in both of Shakespeare's Henry IV plays. He is the only character in the play of noble title, but he is put through the wringer by the play's middle-class ensemble. A majority of the play follows the story of the two merry wives carrying out their revenge on him. He is nearly drowned in the River Thames, beaten by Ford and humiliated in Windsor Forest. Most characters would have learned their lesson after the first humiliation, but Sir John is driven by his greed for money. One of the major reasons Shakespeare wrote this play is that Queen Elizabeth watched his Henry plays and demanded more Falstaff.

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