Comedies are supposed to be about love as surely as tragedies are supposed to be about death. As Harold Bloom said, “The tradition is that Shakespeare wrote The Merry Wives . . . in response to Queen Elizabeth’s request to show Sir John in love” (Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human [New York: Riverhead Books, 1998], 315). But Shakespeare is never that simple, and he is far more likely to revise and reverse a pattern than he is to follow it. Park Honan traces the legend of The Merry Wives of Windsor to John Dennis in 1702 and to Rowe seven years after that. In Honan's words, “Falstaff is not in love, just broke, and hopes with identical love letters to seduce both Mistress Page and Mistress Ford and so live off both” (Shakespeare: A Life [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998], 223).
Indeed, with the possible exception of Anne Page, it is difficult to identify anyone at the beginning of the play who is unequivocally in love in the way one expects characters in a comedy to be in love. Ford seems to have no positive feelings for his wife but is profoundly and unreasonably jealous. Mrs. Ford is as displeased with her husband as he is jealous of her, and when Ford is caught in the trap the two wives set for Falstaff, Mrs. Ford says, “I know not which pleases me better, that my husband is deceived, or Sir John” (The Folger Library Shakespeare: The Merry Wives of Windsor, eds. Louis B. Wright and Virginia A. LaMar [New York: Washington Square Press, 1964], 3.3.168–9). The Pages, although in ordinary circumstances a loving and trusting couple, are fighting over which suitor their daughter should marry. Doctor Caius and Slender, who are the candidates of Mrs. Page and Mr. Page respectively, are as unattractive a pair of suitors as ever convinced a girl that marriage was a fate worse than death. Anne says of Slender, “Good mother, do not marry me to yond fool” (3.4.90). Her opinion of Caius is even lower. When her mother suggests that Anne marry him, she declares, “I had rather be set quick I’ the earth / And bowled to death with turnips” (3.4.94-5).
Fenton, according to the Host’s description, best fits the pattern of a young lover, “What say you to young Master Fenton? He capers, he dances, he has eyes of youth, he writes verses, he speaks holiday, he smells April and May. He will carry’t” (3.2.62-66). But Fenton has a host of drawbacks. In addition to keeping company with the wild prince and Poins, he has serious financial difficulties which he hopes to solve by marrying. He admits to Anne, “Thy father’s wealth was the first motive that I wooed thee” (3.4.14-15).
This, as Benedick says in Much Ado about Nothing, “Looks not like a nuptial.” However, the various actions in The Merry Wives of Windsor move inexorably toward the natural ending of a comedy—the marriage of two young lovers. Ironically, it is Falstaff who bears the burden of this transition. Falstaff destabilizes everyday life in the small town of Windsor. Because of him a husband runs nearly mad with jealousy, wives deceive their husbands, children and adults dress up as fairies, and Anne and Fenton have the freedom to elope successfully. Because of him the whole town gathers around Herne’s oak in Windsor forest. In the words of Jeanne Addison Roberts, “The forest, an assembly of trees, with their ambivalent connotations of both male and female, and their eerie approximation of the human form, is a suitable arena for the pursuit of the urgencies of the sexual drive. It serves equally well as the locale for defining sexual identities, for sorting out male and female characteristics in the selection of suitable mates, and for confronting the inevitable conflicts that arise between the young and the authority figures of family and society” (Shakespeare's English Comedy: The Merry Wives of Windsor in Context [Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1979], 121–2).
Falstaff may seem an odd and loveless bridge to a lover’s happy ending, but he brings more into Windsor than disorder and dry wit. Falstaff is the embodiment (and a very large body it is) of the hope and pleasure that make life worthwhile. It is hard to imagine anyone of Falstaff’s obvious intelligence and sophistication being deceived not once but three times. Harold Bloom, who can’t imagine it, calls the Falstaff of The Merry Wives of Windsor “a nameless imposter” (315). However, Falstaff is not taken in by the deceptions of the merry wives so much as he is lifted up by his own imaginations. He hopes and believes that some good, some great pleasure will come to him today, tomorrow, or the day after. He cannot be quenched by Thames water or beaten into pessimism by Ford’s cudgel. He will venture into the forest at night as readily as into a tavern by day if only because he has faith, Nature spirit that he is, in the spirit of life that guides and guards him. As Joseph Rosenblum puts it, “Falstaff devotes his whole life to play, the gratification of instincts, and the preservation of the self. His dalliance with the Mistresses Page and Ford may be a mockery of good burgher virtue, but he also pursues it with a good deal of pleasure, pleasure for its own sake. Everyone wins in the process. Anne is married to the man she loves, and the Pages, the Fords, and Sir John all have a thoroughly fine time in the romp” (A Reader’s Guide to Shakespeare [New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1998], 214).
In the end love triumphs. Fenton and Anne Page have found each other as true lovers. Fenton says, “I found thee of more value / Than stamps in gold or sums in sealed bags; / And ‘tis the very riches of thyself / That now I aim at” (3.4.16-19). Even Ford has come to see wives as something more than property to be owned and jealously guarded. He concludes, “In love the heavens themselves do guide the state. / Money buys lands, and wives are sold by fate” (5.5.240-1). And at the last Fenton restores order as he has discovered love. He condemns the Pages for attempting to force their daughter into a loveless marriage and maintains that the very disorder and deception that has swirled around Falstaff has led to virtue. In his defense of his new wife (and himself) he says, “The offense is holy that she hath committed; / And this deceit loses the name of craft, / Of disobedience, or unduteous title” (5.5.233-5). Love has not only conquered all, it has also justified it, and though Jack Falstaff may never have been in love, he has certainly been love’s inadvertent servant.