The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare.

The Merry Wives of Windsor is a comedy by William Shakespeare (first published in 1602 though written in the late 1590s) and is set in the reign of Henry IV who reigned from 1399 - 1413 and was the subject of Shakespeare's two plays Henry IV Part I and Henry IV Part II (both from 1597). John Falstaff, one of the main characters in the two Henry IV plays, is the central character of The Merry Wives of Windsor.

In this we see Falstaff rather short of cash. He arrives in Windsor (Berkshire) with his "cony-catching rascals, Bardolph, Nym, and Pistol" (a "cony-catcher" is Elizabethan slang for con-men) looking to somehow make some money, enough to keep him in the lavish lifestyle he has become accustomed to, and so he hatches a plan to bed 'the merry wives of Windsor' - Mistress Ford and Mistress Page, little appreciating the two women are very close friends. To Mistress Page he writes,
'Ask me no reason why I love you; for though
Love use Reason for his physician, he admits him
not for his counsellor. You are not young, no more
am I; go to then, there's sympathy: you are merry,
so am I; ha, ha! then there's more sympathy: you
love sack, and so do I; would you desire better
sympathy? Let it suffice thee, Mistress Page,--at
the least, if the love of soldier can suffice,--
that I love thee. I will not say, pity me; 'tis
not a soldier-like phrase: but I say, love me. By me,
Thine own true knight,
By day or night,
Or any kind of light,
With all his might
For thee to fight, JOHN FALSTAFF'
To Mistress Ford - the same letter! As Mistress Page observes, "Letter for letter, but that the name of Page and / Ford differs!", and Mistress Page replies,  "Why, this is the very same; the very hand, the very / words. What doth he think of us?". The two are angry to have received the same letter but with differing names and that Falstaff dares to assume he could even seduce the two. And so they hatch a plot for their revenge, first pretending to fall for Falstaff's letter.

Wesołe kumoszki z Windsoru
(The Merry Wives of Windsor)
by Wieslaw Grzegorczyk (1996).
Meanwhile out of devilment Nym and Pistol decide to tell the wives' husbands Ford and Page of Falstaff's plans of seducing their wives. Page trusts his wife but Ford does not and so he disguises himself as a man called Brooke and becomes friendly with Falstaff and tells him he wishes to court Mistress Ford himself however lacks confidence. He offers money to Falstaff to court her first, and if he's successful, Brooke will have more confidence himself at wooing her at a later date. Of course Falstaff accepts!

Meanwhile the wives hatch their plan and it comes into fruition when Falstaff arrives at Mistress Ford's. They trick him into hiding in a "buck-basket" (washing basket) and then, as Mistress Ford explains to her servants,
Marry, as I told you before, John and Robert, be
ready here hard by in the brew-house: and when I
suddenly call you, come forth, and without any pause
or staggering take this basket on your shoulders:
that done, trudge with it in all haste, and carry
it among the whitsters in Datchet-mead, and there
empty it in the muddy ditch close by the Thames side.
Off into the river goes Falstaff, but as we know from the Henry IV plays and this play so far, he isn't one to be put off! And so the wives next convince him to disguise himself as Mistress Ford's maid's aunt, "the fat woman of Brentford", who Ford hates. He beats 'her', shouting,
Out of my door, you witch, you hag, you baggage, you
polecat, you runyon! out, out! I'll conjure you,
I'll fortune-tell you.
Falstaff makes his hasty retreat and the wives tell their husbands of their plans (at which point Ford apologises to his wife). A third plan is hatched - they trick Falstaff into donning a costume to disguise himself as "Herne the Hunter" - a ghost said to inhabit Windsor Forest (Shakespeare is the first author to mention this legend). Mistress Page explains,
There is an old tale goes that Herne the hunter,
Sometime a keeper here in Windsor forest,
Doth all the winter-time, at still midnight,
Walk round about an oak, with great ragg'd horns;
And there he blasts the tree and takes the cattle
And makes milch-kine yield blood and shakes a chain
In a most hideous and dreadful manner:
You have heard of such a spirit, and well you know
The superstitious idle-headed eld
Received and did deliver to our age
This tale of Herne the hunter for a truth.
Falstaff falls for it and waits at the haunted oak tree whereupon the people and children of the town set upon him to terrorise him, all pretending to be fairies ("Let the supposed fairies pinch him sound / And burn him with their tapers" says Mistress Ford). Here Falstaff is forced to apologise.

At this point the side plot of The Merry Wives of Windsor is resolved - Mistress Page's daughter Anne has three suitors, Slender, Caius, and Fenton, who all battle to win her hand, but Anne truly loves Fenton and the two elope, revealing this in Windsor Forest: she told all three she would be wearing  a certain white costume (as all the 'fairies' were), and Slender and Caius get confused and accidentally marry boys.

And that is The Merry Wives of Windsor! It is great fun, very silly but very light-hearted. On a sad note, however, this is the last time we see John Falstaff alive - in Henry V (which I'll be writing about in a few weeks) Pistol announces his death, "Boy, bristle thy courage up; for Falstaff he is dead".

Until then, here's a selection of illustrations by Hugh Thomson for the 1910 edition of The Merry Wives of Windsor published by William Heinemann:

Comments

  1. Not the play I like most but definitely a beautiful starting point for the beautiful twilight opera "Falstaff" by Verdi. Both should be read and listened to almost simultaneously.

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    1. I knew there was a Falstaff opera, didn't realise it was by Verdi. Quite like Verdi :) Will keep that in mind!

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  2. Very nice posting. We ought to thank Shakespeare for "recycling" Falstaff through H4, but we must weep when Falstaff dies.

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    1. So do i - it's this play that did it for me, though - I liked him in the Henry IV plays, but this one was absolutely great! He's a brilliant character :D

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    2. I'll have to read this one! :)

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  4. Herne the Hunter was also featured in a novel by W. Harrison Ainsworth, a thriller writer of the early 19th c. it was pretty good...

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    1. I do like a 19th Century thriller, must look out for that one :)

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  5. I've been working my way through Shakespeare's plays, but haven't read this one yet. Hopefully soon. :)

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    1. I'm having an unintentional Shakespeare year this year, I'm enjoying it :) Certainly certainly won't finish them all this year though!

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