The Merry Wives of Windsor | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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The Merry Wives of Windsor | Act 2, Scene 1 | Summary

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Summary

Back at the Pages' house, Mistress Page is reading a love letter. It is full of over-the-top rhetoric and bad poetry and, to her shock and amusement, it's signed "John Falstaff." Offended at this assault on her chastity, Mistress Page vows revenge. Just then, Mistress Ford shows up and presents her own love letter from Falstaff, which is identical except for the name of the addressee. Mistress Ford thinks the best revenge would be "to entertain him with hope / till the wicked fire of lust have melted him in his / own grease." The two joke about Falstaff's audacity in trying to seduce them through form letters, but Mistress Ford is relieved her husband hasn't seen the letter, which "would give eternal food to his jealousy." Together the women plot revenge on the "greasy knight."

Ford enters with Pistol, while Page comes onstage with Nym. Both husbands are just now being informed of Falstaff's plot to woo their wives. After delivering their messages, Pistol and Nym depart, leaving Ford and Page to mull over the disturbing report. Page greets his wife, and the two talk off to one side. Ford, meanwhile, falls into a sulk and orders Mistress Ford home. As the two wives are leaving the stage, Mistress Quickly arrives intending to see Anne, and they immediately decide to enlist her as a messenger to Falstaff.

With the three women gone, Page and Ford discuss the alleged plot against their marriage beds. Page thinks it is all a joke, or an attempt to further damage Falstaff's reputation. Ford, however, is wary. Though he does not seriously "misdoubt" his wife's fidelity, he cannot be completely "satisfied" she would not cheat on him. The Host of the Garter Inn now shows up, followed quickly by Justice Shallow. The two newcomers announce an imminent duel between Doctor Caius and Sir Hugh Evans. Page departs with them to see the fight, but Ford stays onstage a moment longer. He reveals his plan to wear a disguise and "sound" Falstaff's plans (figure out his intentions) in secret.

Analysis

Falstaff, as this scene shows, has greatly underestimated the two "merry wives," who now join forces against him. There are many potentially insulting aspects to Falstaff's love letters, any one of which could spur Mistress Page and Mistress Ford on to thoughts of revenge. Perhaps the biggest issue, from an early modern viewpoint, is the implicit insult to the women's chastity, for Falstaff would not have bothered sending the letters if he did not think they would cheat. The "form letter" aspect—sending documents that differ only in the name of the "beloved"—is another reason for the wives to be insulted. "I warrant," scoffs Mistress Page, "that he hath a thousand of these letters writ with blank space for different names ... and these are of the second edition." "What doth he think of us?" wonders Mistress Ford.

If the two women knew what Falstaff thought of them, they would likely be even more irritated and more adamant in their pursuit of revenge. The truth, as shown back in Act 1, Scene 3, is Falstaff does not think much of them at all. Rather he regards them essentially as interchangeable sources of money and sexual gratification. He speaks about them, not in the language of love and courtship, but in the language of trade, ownership, and exploitation. Mistress Ford has "the rule of her husband's purse," and Mistress Page is "a region in Guiana, all gold and bounty." Together, Falstaff says, they are his "East and West Indies, and [he] will trade to them both." With that manipulative rhetoric still fresh in the audience's mind, the wives' counterplot against Falstaff seems less like vengeance and more like poetic justice.

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