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Merry Wives of Windsor, Robert Smirke, 1796

Merry Wives of Windsor

Synopsis and plot overview of Shakespeare's Merry Wives of Windsor

TL;DR (may contain spoilers): Falstaff tries to pursue two married women; the women are smart; they put him in a river, dress him as a woman, and bring him to a haunted forest; everyone is happy.

Merry Wives of Windsor Summary

Falstaff decides to fix his financial woe by seducing the wives of two wealthy merchants. The wives find he sent them identical letters and take revenge by playing tricks on Falstaff when he comes calling. With the help of their husbands and friends, the wives play one last trick in the woods to put Falstaff's mischief to an end.

More detail: 3 minute read

Act I

Justice Shallow arrives at Windsor with his young cousin Slender. Shallow proclaims that he is angry at Sir John Falstaff over a personal dispute. Hugh Evans, the local school-master and parson, attempts unsuccessfully to calm him down. He suggests that Slender pursue the young Mistress Anne Page. After travelling to the Page house, Shallow confronts Falstaff, who confesses to his wrongdoing. 

Merry Wives of Windsor, RSC, 1985 In modern dress, two ladies sit on a sofa while three men stand behind between bookshelves and a stair. All are looking disapprovingly at a man in a raincoat standing in front of the sofa, side-on to the ladies and looking downwards with a hurt expression.
Merry Wives of Windsor, RSC, 1985

Later, at the Garter Inn, Falstaff discloses his resolve to pursue the wives of two wealthy merchants, Page and Ford. When his companions, Nim and Pistol, refuse to help, he sends his page with a letter to each wife. Nim and Pistol, meanwhile, decide to tell the husbands of Falstaff's plot. 

Why, then the world's mine oyster, which I with sword will open.

— Merry Wives of Windsor, Act 2 Scene 2

Act II

The wives meet and compare their letters and find that they are identical. They decide to teach Falstaff a lesson. To begin, they invite him to come to Mistress Ford's house when her husband is out shooting birds with his friends. Pistol and Nim inform her husband, Ford, of Falstaff's intentions. The jealous Ford, distrustful of his wife, decides to catch her in her infidelity. He disguises himself as a man called Master Brook, seeks out Falstaff, and declares his love for Mistress Ford. He bribes Falstaff to pursue her on his behalf. Falstaff agrees before disclosing that a meeting is already arranged. This makes Ford even angrier at his wife.  

Merry Wives of Windsor, RSC, 1996  A bearded Falstaff, in Elizabethan clothes with an embroidered waistcoat and a ruff stands with his arms wide, smiling.
Merry Wives of Windsor, RSC, 1996


Parson Evans has befriended Slender, who now seeks the love of Page's daughter Anne. Anne, meanwhile, is already meeting with the gentleman Fenton in secret since her father disapproves of him. Anne's mother hopes that the French doctor Caius will become Anne's husband. When Caius learns of Slender's rival suit, he challenges Parson Evans to a duel. The host of the Garter Inn sets different meeting places to confuse the antagonists. Eventually, they are persuaded to make up their differences.

Better three hours too soon than a minute too late.

— Merry Wives of Windsor, Act 2 Scene 2

Act IV

When Falstaff reaches Mistress Ford's house, he begins his flirtation. But he is interrupted when Mistress Page announces that the menfolk are returning. They convince Falstaff to hide in a large laundry basket, and he is carried out to the river while Ford ransacks the house in search of him. The delighted wives decide to repeat the trick (especially after seeing the reaction of the jealous Ford) and invite Falstaff to call again.

Despite being tipped out on a muddy river bank during the previous trip, Falstaff is persuaded to accept by Brook, who is the disguised Ford. Like the first occurrence, he is interrupted by Ford's return. This time, however, the women convince Falstaff to disguise himself in the clothes of a servant's elderly aunt while Ford searches the contents of the linen basket. It turns out that Ford hates the elderly aunt that Falstaff is impersonating, and he begins to beat Falstaff out of the house, much to the delight of the wives. 

Successful in their attempt, the wives reveal the hoax to their husbands. Page suggests Falstaff should be publicly humiliated to stop his seduction attempts on honest women. They arrange one last prank for the entire community to put on. 

Act V

Merry Wives of Windsor, Robert Smirke, 1796 Falstaff, wearing antlers as Herne the Hunter, sits beneath a large tree while two ladies mock him.
Merry Wives of Windsor, Robert Smirke, 1796

Mistress Ford invites Falstaff to meet her at night in Windsor Park with him disguised as Herne the Hunter. They plan to scare him with children dressed up as fairies. Parson Evans organises Anne, her brother, and other children to carry out the plan. Anne uses the occasion to elope with Fenton, while her mother and father both plot for Anne to be stolen away by the respective suitors of their choice (Caius and Slender). 

All meet in the woods, and the fairies tease and pinch Falstaff as Anne escapes. Falstaff recognises the plot and realises that he has deserved his punishment. He makes up with Page and Ford, and their wives, while Ford is also reprimanded for mistrusting his wife. Anne returns married to Fenton, while Caius and Slender realise they eloped with boys, whom they mistook for Anne in the dark woods. Page and Mistress Page accept Fenton as their new son-in-law, and all return home laughing over the night's activities.

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