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The Merry Wives of Windsor | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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The Merry Wives of Windsor | Act 1, Scene 1 | Summary



Justice Robert Shallow has just arrived in Windsor, accompanied by his nephew Abraham Slender and Sir Hugh Evans, a clergyman. As they approach the door of Master Thomas Page, Shallow complains of Sir John Falstaff's recent—as yet unspecified—misdeeds. Sir Hugh, meanwhile, talks about the marriageability of the Pages' daughter Anne, a young gentlewoman who possesses a modest fortune of her own. He suggests she and Slender would make a good match.

Master Page opens the door, and the men exchange greetings. Falstaff arrives soon after, along with his followers Bardolph, Nym, and Pistol. Shallow's quarrel with Falstaff now becomes clear: the knight has "beaten [Shallow's] men, killed [his] deer, and broke open [his] lodge." Falstaff does not deny it, though he scoffs at Shallow's threat to sue. Slender then stokes the fire by accusing Falstaff's men of being pickpockets. One by one they refute the charge, claiming Slender was drunk at the time he lost his money and is now misremembering events. Sir Hugh feebly attempts to sort out these quarrels before retreating to the sidelines.

The next dozen or so lines are a flurry of comings and goings. Anne Page comes out with wine for the guests, but Master Page tells her to go back inside. Mistress Page, the lady of the house, now appears with her friend and neighbor Mistress Ford. Page invites everyone in for supper, and all but Slender, Shallow, and Sir Hugh leave the stage. Slender's servant Simple shows up and is scolded for being late. When Shallow and Sir Hugh ask Slender whether he intends to woo Anne Page, they get a wishy-washy response: Slender says he will woo her if they think he should.

Anne herself comes out and repeats the dinner invitation, which Sir Hugh and Shallow promptly accept. Slender stays outside with Anne and, sending Simple away, makes awkward small talk about fencing and bear baiting. At last Page comes out and insists on Slender's presence at the table. All go into the house.


For Elizabethan audiences, Sir John Falstaff is a man who needs no introduction. Having already appeared in Shakespeare's acclaimed Henry IV, Part 1, Falstaff is well known as one of the funniest troublemakers on the English stage. In that play, as here, Falstaff has a reputation for comic mischief, petty crime, and absurd predicaments. He is much more an antihero than a real villain, though his greed and cynicism do occasionally lead him into villainous behavior. Moreover, true to his presentation in Henry IV, Part 1, Falstaff is unrepentant when the law catches up to him. When Justice Shallow charges Falstaff with vandalism, poaching, and assault, Falstaff scoffs as if to say, "Oh, is that all?" The more worked up Shallow gets, the more ridiculous he seems, and Falstaff begins to look reasonable by comparison.

Several other characters introduced in this scene are notable for their strange mannerisms and odd manners of speech. Sir Hugh Evans speaks with a stereotyped Welsh accent, a rather regrettable comic device also used in the roughly contemporary Henry V. He will subsequently be the butt of jokes surrounding his fondness for cheese, another Welsh stereotype of Shakespeare's day and which audiences found highly amusing. Pistol, who appears in Henry IV, Part 1 and again in Henry V, is quick to insult and threaten. Prone to making violent threats and using military jargon unnecessarily, Pistol is Shakespeare's rendition of the miles gloriosus, the stock "braggart soldier" character from classical comedy. Nym, another Henry V holdover, is a pickpocket whose name comes from an old Germanic word meaning "take" or "steal." His conspicuous overuse of the word humor will be discussed in Act 1, Scene 3.

Despite all the hustle and bustle with which these characters are introduced, the play's main plot is not yet underway. Falstaff's poverty, and his dishonest means of addressing it, will come up only in Act 1, Scene 3. The "three suitors" subplot, though not quite as prominent in the play overall, does get kicked off in this scene as Slender is given the idea to woo Anne Page. He quickly shows himself uninterested in Anne as a person, happily talking past her in their first onstage conversation. Invited to dinner, he says he is not hungry and complains he "cannot / abide the smell of hot meat," questions why her "dogs bark so," and segues into the topic of bears. After a ridiculous exchange about who should enter the house first, Slender seems even less of an acceptable suitor. Indeed Slender's plodding pursuit of the young woman's wealth will, not surprisingly, make him completely unattractive. Page, however, will favor Slender as a potential son-in-law because the young man is well off and comes from a respectable family.

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