"Merry Wives gives an impression of life in an English provincial town as it was lived at the time of the play's first performance¡K. Though the play does contain characters both above and below the middle class, as well as culturally stereotyped foreigners, ultimately everything functions to demonstrate the assimilating power of the middle class."
"Shakespeare's most middle-class play, and one of his most farcical ones, The Merry Wives of Windsor was heartily admired by Friedrich Engels, co-author of the Communist Manifesto. Perhaps Engels enjoyed the way Shakespeare dramatized the formation of the middle class out of disparate social tensions. The play's farcical, comic intrigues create a jovial tone, which suspends hierarchies, reconciles upper and lower class characters, and draws them together into the burgeoning middle class." quoted from SPARK NOTES
Study Questions for Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor
Who are these people?
This play is full of in-jokes for those who have read Shakespeare's Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 and Henry V. In these other plays, Sir John Falstaff is the boon companion in trouble-making of the heir to the throne of England, Prince Hal (eventually Henry V). Falstaff is something of a tutor in mischief to the young prince, and almost everyone in England except Jack and his cronies wish that the fat older man would leave the young heir alone. Hal himself operates in a rather ambivalent mental state towards Jack, knowing that he must eventually discard the older man's openly parasitic friendship yet also appreciating Falstaff for the elements of unpredictability and carnival which he introduces into the younger man's life. Shakespeare and most audiences operate in similar modes towards Jack. Falstaff's cronies are also in the other plays. Pistol is noteworthy for his melodramatic and often incomprehensible rantings. By the beginning of Henry V, he will have married Mistress Quickly, who appears as Falstaff's sometime-mistress in the two Henry IV plays, wherein she is also running a brothel. Nym will be outraged by this marriage, as he too has designs upon the lady; he and Pistol will squabble in the opening scenes of that play. Bardolph of the red face will appear in Henry V as the lousy thief which he is accused of being in Merry Wives; indeed, he will be caught stealing in a time of martial law and be executed by Hal, in spite of old acquaintance. In Henry IV, Part Two, Shallow will be just as much of a provincial idiot as he appears in this play, if not more stupid.
2. This play is full of models of gentlemanliness. Act one, scene one opens with Shallow demanding his rights as a gentleman. In his opinion, what makes him a gentleman? How does he think a gentleman behaves? Notice how in this scene Shallow's claim is played off against those of Sir Hugh Evans and Slender. What makes these two men "gentle"? All three characters are concerned with the behavior of Sir John Falstaff. How does Falstaff uphold the standards of gentlemanly behavior? Does he uphold these standards? What does his knighthood enable Jack to do in his own mind? How is this played off against the setting of the play in Windsor--i.e. what is Windsor known for in this play? 3. Why is Shallow angry at Falstaff in 1,1? What has Falstaff done to him? Think about what the wives do to Falstaff in act 5. How are the two events related? 4. Late in 1,1, Shallow tries to talk to Slender about arranging a match between Slender and Ann Page. Note Slender's strange, evasive reaction. Why is Slender being so coy and bashful? Who normally would be expected to respond in this way to a proposed marriage? What does Slender's name suggest about his masculine attributes? How does Slender try to impress Ann later in this scene? 5. Look at the relationships between masters and servants in this play. How does Falstaff treat his servants? How does Slender? Dr. Caius? This relationship is comparable (but not exactly equal) in contemporary terms with the husband-wife relationship. How do the husbands treat their wives? How does Dr. Caius treat his mistress? What is Shakespeare saying about the respective duties of masters and servants, and husbands and wives? 6. Who are all the suitors of Ann Page? Who is the primary supporter of each candidate? How do they all compare as potential husbands for her? Whom does the lady prefer? Is he the best choice? Who should arrange her marriage? Who tries to arrange it? Why? 7. How do Mrs. Page and Mrs. Ford react to Falstaff's "love letter"? What does this tell you about them? What does Falstaff offer them? What do they do to him when he first meets them? Why is this appropriate? What happens to him the second time? Why is this also appropriate? And the third time? 8. What would happen if Frank Ford actually encountered Falstaff with his wife at either of her first two attempted meetings with Falstaff? What does this tell us about how a husband should deal with his wife? Notice how the other men in the play regard Ford's jealousy. How do they talk about his behavior towards his wife? What is Ford's plan when he goes to Falstaff in disguise as Brook? Is this a wise plan? 9. Note how Dr. Caius is often associated with the body (which he treats as a physician), while Sir Hugh, as a clergyman, is associated with the soul. What does it mean when the two are tricked into a fight in Act 3? Note that this is the center, both physically and thematically, in a five act play. Why put this fight here? Do they even want to fight? How do they settle their problems? How does this compare to the plot about the wives and Falstaff? 10. Who is the Host and what is he doing in this play? 11. Why are there so many stolen horses in this play? What does the horse represent in the symbolism of this age? (Hint: remember Redcross Knight's horse in The Faerie Queene? No? How about Plato's horses in the Phaedrus? No? Then you're on your own!) 12. What is the ruse played on Falstaff in Act 5? Fairies generally punish people in mild ways for harmless but inappropriate behavior--Cf. Lyly's Endimion, Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream, and Jonson's The Alchemist--but these are phony fairies. Why? Why not use real ones? How does the ruse with all the phony Ann Pages dressed as fairies relate to the trick played on Falstaff here? Whom do Slender and Caius get when they unmask their Anns? Why? Why is this appropriate for each of them? Why is it especially interesting in a sixteenth-century, English play anyway?
Extracts from reviews of a performance of the play at the Open Air Theatre:
Review of a production by the Shakespeare Theatre:
Review of a performance at the Publick Theatre: