Unlike most of Shakespeare’s comedies that take place in distant, exotic, or even magical locales, The Merry Wives of Windsor is set just outside of London during Shakespeare’s own time and is a collection of all things familiar. Its established literary traditions, characters, plots, settings, and language would be well known to an Elizabethan audience, and the similarities of the play to Shakespeare’s other comedies make it a comfortable fit for present-day audiences as well.
In The Merry Wives of Windsor Shakespeare uses familiar stories and characters with a long literary history. The elements of many literary traditions familiar to an Elizabethan audience come together most strikingly in Falstaff. He is a mixture of many dramatic types. His characteristics can be found in the buffoon of Greek middle comedy (Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays, [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957], 175), the lecherous old man of Roman new comedy, the braggart soldier of the commedia dell’ arte, and the Vice of the medieval morality play. In addition, the play’s farcical elements are hilariously apparent in stage productions as Falstaff suffers repeated physical punishments. He is carried in a basket full of dirty laundry to be dumped into the river, then later disguised as the fat woman of Brainford only to be chased and beaten by Mistress Ford’s jealous husband, and finally he is pinched, burned, and made dizzy by masquerading fairies. Northrop Frye also sees Falstaff as an archetypal figure, “the victim . . . [of] an elaborate ritual of the defeat of winter . . . ‘carrying out of death’” (183). These literary traditions and folklore elements give the play a secure foundation for audiences from the Elizabethan period to our own.
The main plot of the play, the duping of a character who so richly deserves to be deceived, is also common and has a long dramatic history. The jealous husband and the potential cuckold are familiar comedic characters, and comedy—at least Shakespearean comedy—is hardly comedy without at least one set of young lovers. The romance of Anne Page and Fenton may seem a minor part of the play, but the virtue of their love contrasts nicely with Falstaff’s mercenary lust.
With these stock characters and situations already so well known to audiences, it is hardly unusual that the emphasis of the play is action rather than the development of complex personalities. Its suspense and humor come from the stratagems the characters perpetrate, or attempt to perpetrate, on each other.
Falstaff tries to seduce Mistress Ford to gain access to Ford’s money. The wives repeatedly trick Falstaff. Ford attempts to catch his virtuous wife in a liaison. Page plots to have his daughter Anne secretly married to Slender while his wife plans a similar fate for her with Doctor Caius. Anne and Fenton deceive both of her parents to prevent a marriage to either candidate. The humor comes in part from the number of the deceptions but more so from the fact that the audience knows the ploys of all the characters while almost all the characters are unaware of some important detail (JeanneAddison Roberts, Shakespeare’s English Comedies: The Merry Wives of Windsor in Context [Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1979], 69).
The familiar setting and topical references of the play would also have been entertaining for Shakespeare’s audience. John Wilders sees The Merry Wives of Windsor as a “document in the social history of England,” writing “[w]e can learn, and sense, from it how Shakespeare’s contemporaries lived” (New Prefaces to Shakespeare [Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd, 1988], 125). The play is full of English proverbs as well as references to domestic life, country entertainments, and local geography (Wilders 125). Everyday life includes the humor to be found in a schoolboy’s Latin lesson and Mistress Quickly’s misinterpretation of it and “several minor jests . . . [involving] quotations from the works of Sidney and Marlow” (Boyce, Shakespeare A to Z [New York: Facts on File, Inc., 1990], 424-425).
Perhaps it is the folksy charm of the play that has caused critics to dismiss it as “an essentially trivial work that does not warrant attention . . . [however its] success on the stage—historical and current—has affirmed its value, and modern commentators have increasingly found it to be a particularly interesting work” (Boyce 424). For today’s playgoer the play is a delight, a revisiting of the standard conventions so deftly used by Shakespeare in his other comedies. The Merry Wives of Windsor is almost a refrain, repeating what has come before and anticipating what lies ahead. Young love in the play, the standard fare of comedy, gives us glimpses of The Taming of the Shrew and The Merchant of Venice. All three plays have three different suitors. Like Gremio and Hortensio in The Taming of the Shrew or the Prince of Morocco and the Prince of Arragon in The Merchant of Venice, Caius and Slender are completely inappropriate. In both The Taming of the Shrew and The Merry Wives of Windsor, the young lovers must deceive the older generation to attain their ends. Like the heroines Bianca and Portia, part of Anne Page’s initial desirability is her father’s wealth. Love, marriage, and money are again inextricably woven together.
Like so many of Shakespeare’s comedies, The Merry Wives of Windsor has a play within a play. Whereas the plays within the play of A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream and The Tempest are part of a wedding celebration, the play within the play in The Merry Wives of Windsor provides the means for Anne and Fenton’s elopement. Its primary purpose, however, is the public censure of Falstaff. It is his journey to the green world, as Northrop Frye called that natural place where characters find themselves and lose a few of their flaws. There he wears the horns of the cuckold, is punished by fairies, and ridiculed by the people of Windsor. This is not an uncommon role for Falstaff. Prince Hal and his associates successfully deceive and ridicule Falstaff in the Gadshill robbery of Henry IV Part One, and again in Henry IV Part Two when, disguised as waiters, they catch him disparaging them.
Once Falstaff’s bad behavior has been exposed and ridiculed, the play can proceed to the natural conclusion of a Shakespearean comedy, the forgiveness and inclusion of all. The Pages accept Fenton as their new son-in-law, Ford has accepted the fact that his wife “may be merry, and yet honest too” (4.2.105), and Sir John, who is at least temporarily contrite, is invited to the Page home “to laugh this sport o’er by a country fire” (5.5.242). All is well that ends well.