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Merry Wives of Windsor, Robert Smirke, 1796

Merry Wives of Windsor

Summary of William Shakespeare's Merry Wives of Windsor: 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.

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, suggesting that Slender pursue the young Mistress Anne Page. After travelling to the Page house, Shallow confronts Falstaff, where Falstaff confesses to his wrongdoing. 

Merry Wives of Windsor, RSC, 1985
Merry Wives of Windsor, RSC, 1985

Later, at the Garter Inn, Falstaff discloses his resolve to pursue the wives of two wealthy merchants, called 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, finding 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 seeks out Falstaff, disguised as a man called Master Brook, and declares his love for Mistress Ford. He bribes Falstaff to pursue her on his behalf, and Falstaff agrees before disclosing that a meeting is already arranged. This makes Ford even more angry at his wife. 

Merry Wives of Windsor, RSC, 1996
Merry Wives of Windsor, RSC, 1996

Act III

Parson Evans has befriended Slender, who now seeks the love of Page's daughter Anne. Anne, meanwhile, is already meeting with Fenton in secret with the help of Mistress Quickly, since Anne's father disapproves of him. Anne's mother hopes that the French doctor Caius will become Anne's husband, and 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, and they are eventually 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, only to be 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 having been tipped out on a muddy river bank during the previous trip, Brook persuades Falstaff once again to accept. Similar to 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, and Page suggests Falstaff should be publicly humiliated to stop his seduction attempts on honest women. They arrange one last prank to be put on by the entire community.

Merry Wives of Windsor, Robert Smirke, 1796
Merry Wives of Windsor, Robert Smirke, 1796

Act V

Mistress Ford invites Falstaff to meet her at night in Windsor Park, disguising himself as Herne the Hunter. There, they plan to scare him with children dressed up as fairies. Accordingly, Anne, her brother, and other children are organised by Parson Evans 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 Falstaff is pinched and teased by the fairies 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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