Shakespeare takes his puns very seriously. His play on “dear” and “deer” in The Merry Wives of Windsor is no exception. In fact, this semantic echo reveals an entire framework through which to view this delightful comedy. The Merry Wives of Windsor is so well stocked with deer/dear puns, in fact, that we can see the author working within an already well-established cultural metaphor. It is no accident that a play about wooing and male/female relationships in the Renaissance contains so many references to harts and hinds.
Setting up his disgrace later in the play, Falstaff boasts to his fellows that he is sure Mistress Ford will receive his attentions enthusiastically. He swears he has seen “the leer of invitation” in her eye, which signals her availability for an affair. Sir John goes so far as to say that her “familiar style” with him is like a sign around her neck declaring, “I am Sir John Falstaff’s” (William Shakespeare, “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” The Arden Shakespeare Complete Works, Eds. Richard Proudfoot, et al., [London: Cengage Learning, 2001], 1.3.42–46). This line is a clear allusion to an earlier work by Sir Thomas Wyatt, renowned poet at the court of King Henry VIII. In an allegorical sonnet about the poet’s impossible love for Anne Boleyn, Wyatt paints himself as a hunter who has given up the chase. He dares his fellow foresters to go after the female deer if they like, but the futility of chasing her has stifled his desire. Wyatt claims that the deer only pretends to be tame in order to taunt her pursuers, who can never possess her because she is the beloved of the king. “Noli me tangere”—do not touch me—says a collar around the deer’s neck, “for Caesar’s I am” (Thomas Wyatt, “Sonnet 11,” The Broadview Anthology of British Literature: The Renaissance and the Early Seventeenth Century, Eds. Joseph Black, et al., [Toronto: Broadview Press, 2006], 12–14).
More than just a narrative of the frustrations of the sport, Wyatt’s poem reveals how the hunt correlates with sexual politics during the time period. Shakespeare borrows from this tradition, envisioning women as deer to be pursued in order to set up the way in which Mistress Ford and Mistress Page turn these anti-feminist tropes upside down, bringing balance and harmony to the sexual politics of the play.
From the earliest scenes, the men of The Merry Wives of Windsor equate women with deer and the hunt. The initial reference comes from Falstaff, who, when accused of wronging Shallow by assaulting his servants and hunting his deer, retorts, “But not kissed your keeper’s daughter” (1.1.104–106). He equates slaying a deer with kissing a woman, both of which celebrate the victories of a hunter over his prey. Deer and women are considered commodities in this linguistic game preserve, which reveals Falstaff’s gender prejudice. A similar comparison appears in a discussion of Anne Page, who is deemed “pretty virginity” by Sir Hugh Evans (1.1.41–42). Almost immediately afterwards, Evans and his chums turn to a discussion of deer meat, which they evaluate in much the same way they did Anne as a tender marriage prospect for Slender. The parade of food imagery continues when Pistol reports how Falstaff “woos both high and low, both rich and poor . . . he loves the gallimaufry” (2.1.102–104), in which Falstaff’s prospective harem is likened to a stew made of mixed meats. Women are clearly the quarry, and the hunters must be dogged in their pursuit if they hope to "eat well." This explains Dr. Caius’s outrage when he hears another man has his eye on Anne Page as a marriage prospect: “I will cut his throat in de park. . . . By gar, I will myself have Anne Page” (1.4.101–111). It’s a violent enterprise, getting a wife. The competition is fierce, and Dr. Caius must outfox his fellows in order to claim his eventual prize.
Shakespeare further embellishes his deer and hunting imagery with repeated references to the legendary hunter Actaeon, who is transformed into a stag and set upon and killed by his own hounds after he sees the goddess Diana bathing. Diana’s rage at being viewed naked cools only when the hunter becomes the hunted. By comparing one another to Actaeon, the men reveal the anxiety the myth provokes in them, and Falstaff’s fears are realized by the end of the play. In the tradition of Diana, Shakespeare's "merry wives" humiliate and destroy Falstaff as a sexual predator who has offended them.
Mistress Ford and Mistress Page invert this amorous license by promising to "entertain" the lascivious Falstaff “’til the wicked fire of lust have melted him in his own grease” (2.1.58–61). In painting Falstaff as a fatty piece of roasting meat, Mistress Ford flips the dynamic which prevails earlier in the play. Falstaff, and not the women of Windsor, will be the quarry now.
The crowning point of this reversal comes when they make an Actaeon out of Falstaff. Together with their husbands, the women scheme to lure Sir John into the forest, demanding that he come dressed as Herne the Hunter, the figure of a local legend. The story goes that Herne, horned like one of the many stags he killed, haunts Windsor Forest because guilt over his crimes led him to commit suicide. Sir John duly meets them at Herne’s Oak with horns on his head. Thus, in accord with the myth of Diana and Actaeon, the wives turn Falstaff into a stag (if only for the night) and make him their hapless prey.
As he awaits Mistress Ford’s arrival at Herne’s Oak, Falstaff contemplates his newly-acquired cuckold's horns, claiming that “love” has brought them to him (5.5.4). “O powerful love!” he says, “that, in some respects, makes a beast a man; in some other, a man a beast. . . . I am here a Windsor stag; and the fattest, I think, i’ the forest” (5.5.11–13). What Falstaff, in his pride, fails to recognize is that the true magicians are not his feelings of love—or, more probably, lust—for the women (and their husbands’ money), but the women themselves, who have orchestrated his disgrace. It is exactly this tendency to devalue women that leads them to “mock him home to Windsor” (4.4.64). Just as Actaeon thought Diana’s naked form was ripe for gazing, Falstaff thinks wooing Ford and Page’s wives is his chivalric privilege. Moreover, he believes getting them into bed will be easy sport. The wives, of course, know better. By ridiculing their wooer on such a grand scale, they gain release from Falstaff’s desire and triumph over his distorted view of women as sustenance for men. In justifying the play’s title, Mistress Page announces, “Wives may be merry, and yet honest too” (4.2.100).
With the success of their scheme, the women assert their virtue and independence. Becoming Dianas instead of deer, they turn the game around on their hunters, the men who would treat them as lesser creatures and pursue them metaphorically for sport.