Many of the plays of William Shakespeare are comedies, and of those one comes closest to being a mainstream English farce, The Merry Wives of Windsor, most probably written in 1597 or 1598. Although not a momentous play like his tragedies, or as innovative as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it has still been painted extensively.
While the play may be unfamiliar, its lead character is widely known: Sir John Falstaff first appears in Shakespeare’s two parts of the history of Henry IV, but in this play stands alone. It has been claimed that this was written at the behest of Queen Elizabeth I, who so enjoyed the figure of Falstaff in those histories that she wanted Shakespeare to portray him in love, and this play may have received its Royal première before the Queen on its author’s thirty-third birthday, 23 April 1597.
In this brief summary, for simplicity I use modern English titles such as Mr and Mrs, instead of Shakespeare’s contemporary Master and Mistress.
Sir John Falstaff and Justice Shallow are dinner guests of Mr Page in Windsor. The judge hopes to persuade his host to accept his foolhardy nephew Slender as suitor to his daughter Anne, but is angry at Falstaff for poaching his deer. Meanwhile, Slender has already been made drunk by Falstaff’s followers and has been robbed by them, then proves just as hopeless with Anne Page.
Thomas Francis Dicksee painted this portrait of a comely Anne Page in 1862.
Back at the Garter Inn, where Falstaff is staying, he explains to his followers Nim and Pistol that he intends to raise money by seducing Mrs Ford and Mrs Page (Anne’s mother), but the two followers refuse to take his love letters to them. Instead, Nim and Pistol intend to warn the ladies’ husbands of Falstaff’s intentions.
Slender’s servant Simple has been sent to Mrs Quickly to convince her to recommend Slender to Anne Page. They are interrupted by the return of Dr Caius, a French physician whose house is kept by Mrs Quickly. The doctor fancies his own chances of marriage to Anne Page, but a third potential suitor also arrives.
Falstaff’s page Robin delivers his master’s love letters to Mrs Page and Mrs Ford, who meet and discover their contents are identical. They agree to pretend compliance in order to delay Falstaff at the Garter Inn until he runs out of money. Nim and Pistol warn their husbands of Falstaff’s intentions. Their wives go with Mrs Quickly, who will act as their go-between with Falstaff, and Mr Ford arranges to meet Falstaff in disguise.
Mrs Quickly visits Falstaff at the Garter Inn to inform him that both the wives are in love with him, and each is unaware of the other’s affairs. Quickly passes the message that Mr Ford will be out the following morning. He has sent Falstaff a bottle of fortified wine (sack) before he visits him in disguise. Ford tells Falstaff that he has long desired Mrs Ford, but thinks she needs to be seduced first by someone with greater experience, a service for which he pays Falstaff.
Dr Caius has challenged Sir Hugh Evans to a duel, but the innkeeper of the Garter has deliberately misled them to prevent them from meeting one another to fight. Caius and Evans settle their dispute and agree to get their revenge on the innkeeper.
The following morning, Mr Ford takes Dr Caius and Evans to his house, in the hope that they will surprise Falstaff trying to seduce his wife.
In the Fords’ house, the two wives are preparing for Falstaff’s arrival with a large laundry basket, before Mrs Page hides herself. Falstaff arrives and starts trying to seduce Mrs Ford, who tells him of her suspicion that he also intends to seduce Mrs Page, which he denies.
In John Massey Wright’s tondo of Mistress Ford and Falstaff from about 1815, Mrs Page is seen at the door behind the couple, and the face of Mr Ford looks on from his portrait behind them.
This watercolour of Falstaff Wooing Mistress Ford had also been claimed to have been painted by Wright, but that’s no longer accepted.
At that, Mrs Page enters and tells him that Mr Ford is on his way with armed men. The two wives hide Falstaff in the laundry basket, which is then carried away by servants. Just as they leave the house, the two husbands, Dr Caius and Evans arrive to search unsuccessfully for Falstaff.
Matthew William Peters’ painting from 1813 shows the two wives burying Falstaff in the dirty laundry, as one of the young servants behind them gasps at the approach of their husbands.
Henry Fuseli’s version of Falstaff in the Laundry Basket from 1792 makes the hiding of Falstaff appear even more rushed, as one of the armed men is already outside.
Slender and another of Anne Page’s suitors are trying to persuade her to marry them, although Slender proves as incompetent as ever. Mrs Quickly admits that she has accepted money from all three of the suitors in return for trying to settle their suits.
Charles Robert Leslie shows this scene well in his painting of Slender, with the Assistance of Shallow, Courting Anne Page from 1825. Behind the foppish Slender, the third suitor awaits.
John S Clifton’s Buck Washing on Datchet Mead from ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ Act III, scene v from 1849 shows the fate of Falstaff once the servants get the laundry basket to the riverbank, to empty its contents into the water for washing.
Falstaff returns to the Garter Inn to warm up after he had been tipped into the River Thames with the laundry. Mrs Quickly arrives to pass on Mrs Ford’s apology and an invitation back to her house when her husband will be out again. Once she has gone, Mr Ford, still in disguise, asks Falstaff how he got on that morning. Falstaff tells him of his narrow escape with the laundry, and the time of his next assignation with Mrs Ford.
Falstaff returns to woo Mrs Ford at the agreed time, but yet again Mrs Page interrupts the couple to warn of Mr Ford’s approach. When Falstaff refuses to get into the laundry basket this time, the two wives hurriedly dress him as a suspected witch, who is promptly driven out of the house by the husbands as soon as they arrive. The two wives then decide to tell their husbands the whole story.
The Fords and Pages laugh together over Falstaff’s misadventures, and agree to invite him to meet them at an old tree, Herne’s Oak, in Windsor Park at midnight. He is to come in disguise as Herne the Hunter, a legendary horned spirit, and they will arrange for children dressed as fairies to ambush him there and expose him to ridicule. Mr Page makes a secret plan for his daughter Anne to elope from there with Slender.
Mrs Quickly takes Falstaff the letter inviting him to the event at Herne’s Oak that night. Anne Page’s third suitor books a vicar to marry them after that event, as Anne herself desires. Slender is told to recognise Anne by her white clothing, but Dr Caius, who also hopes to elope with her, is told that she’ll be dressed in green.
As midnight approaches, Falstaff, wearing horns, is waiting for the two wives. Soon after they arrive and he is preparing to enjoy them both, they both flee when they hear a noise. The fairies then appear, among them Anne Page, with Mrs Quickly as their Queen. They find Falstaff and test his purity with flames before pinching him as punishment for his sins.
Dr Caius elopes with a fairy dressed in green, Slender with another dressed in white, and the third suitor leaves with Anne Page herself. The fairies disperse when the Fords and Pages arrive to read Falstaff’s fortune for him. Slender and Dr Caius return, indignant after each discovered that their fairy partners were boys, but Anne Page and the third suitor reappear as husband and wife. They all leave together, including Falstaff, to return to Windsor, laughing.
James Stephanoff’s Falstaff at Herne’s Oak, from “The Merry Wives of Windsor” Act V, scene v (1832) shows Falstaff wearing the antlers of a deer, with his arms around one of the wives. At the left are the battlements of Windsor Castle, and at the lower right are the fairies, ready with their burning tapers to punish Falstaff.
George Cruikshank’s painting of Herne’s Oak from about 1857 shows Falstaff being punished by a large cast of fairies, as the wives and their husbands look on.
Michael Dobson and Stanley Wells (eds) (2015) The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare, 2nd edn, Oxford UP. ISBN 978 0 19 870873 5.