The Merry Wives of Windsor | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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The Merry Wives of Windsor | Act 1, Scene 4 | Summary

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Summary

Simple visits Mistress Quickly at the home of her employer, Doctor Caius. She tells John Rugby, the Doctor's manservant, to stand watch and alert them if Doctor Caius comes home. Then, turning to Simple, she promises to "do what [she] can" on behalf of his master, Slender. John Rugby comes running back to announce the Doctor's return. Simple hides in a closet as Mistress Quickly, trying to act casually, begins singing to herself.

A moment later Doctor Caius barges irritably into the room. He asks Mistress Quickly to fetch him a green box from his closet and then tells John Rugby to gird on his rapier and follow him. For a moment it looks as though Simple will go undetected, but then the Doctor decides to retrieve some "simples" (herbs) from the closet. Opening the door, he is startled to find Simple hiding there and immediately calls for his sword. Mistress Quickly attempts to patch things up by explaining the nature of Simple's errand. It works, or at least seems to, as the Doctor grows less agitated. He writes a message for Simple to carry back to Sir Hugh, "shallenge"-ing the clergyman to a duel. Doctor Caius too, it becomes clear, wants to marry Anne Page, and he resents Sir Hugh's meddling. Mistress Quickly tries to reassure Doctor Caius by affirming Anne loves him. Simple leaves with the letter, and Doctor Caius and John Rugby depart soon afterward.

Mistress Quickly barely has time to catch her breath before another visitor arrives. Fenton, a young gentleman, asks about his own prospects as a suitor to "pretty Mistress Anne." Mistress Quickly tells him his odds are good: "I'll be sworn on a book she loves you." Happy at this news, Fenton hands Mistress Quickly some money and asks her to speak to Anne on his behalf, which she promises to do. Fenton departs hastily, and Mistress Quickly confides to the audience that, although Fenton seems to be a nice guy, "Anne loves him not."

Analysis

With this scene, the last few pieces of the plot mechanism click into place. Broadly speaking, The Merry Wives of Windsor might be said to have three major, interconnected subplots. In the "merry wives" subplot, actually the main plot, Falstaff foolishly attempts to seduce Mistresses Ford and Page. He then gets his comeuppance in the form of pranks. The "three suitors" subplot features Slender, Doctor Caius, and Fenton vying for the hand of Anne Page. Finally, in what might be called the "Caius and Hugh" subplot, Doctor Caius and Sir Hugh prepare to fight before joining against a shared enemy.

The missing pieces, then, are Fenton and Doctor Caius. Fenton is a kind-hearted gentleman who has led a checkered youth but has now mended his ways. Doctor Caius, in contrast, is now revealed to be a jealous and easily offended man who prefers to settle disputes through swordplay. He is, in other words, nearly the opposite of the officious but well-intentioned Sir Hugh, who has inadvertently crossed Doctor Caius by sending Simple to deliver his message. Doctor Caius is ready to stab any stranger he finds hanging around his house, whereas Sir Hugh will prove a nervous and unwilling combatant.

The two men do, however, resemble one another in one important way. Both are outsiders within the play's Anglo-centric world. Sir Hugh, as depicted from Act 1, Scene 1 onward, is a stereotypical "stage Welshman" whose thick accent and odd manners attract comment from the other English characters. Falstaff, with his irrepressible sarcasm, will lead the mockery of Sir Hugh's tendency to "make fritters of English," and the others will join in from time to time. Hugh either fails to notice or chooses to ignore this rather uncharitable behavior.

Doctor Caius, as a Frenchman, is even farther from the center of the characters' cultural world and thus even more apt to be ridiculed for being different. Even Mistress Quickly, otherwise a good-natured and likable person, describes Doctor Caius's rants as "an old abusing of God's patience and the King's English." Like many other Shakespearean Frenchmen, the Doctor is portrayed as vain, impetuous, and overeager—stereotypically "French" traits from an Elizabethan English point of view. In Act 3 he and the long-suffering Sir Hugh will prove to be unlikely allies, partly because they are tired of being the other characters' laughing stocks.

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