The Merry Wives of Windsor | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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The Merry Wives of Windsor | Act 3, Scene 2 | Summary

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Summary

Robin walks with Mistress Page on a street in Windsor. The two encounter Ford, who asks how Robin came into Mistress Page's service. They explain Sir John Falstaff has sent Robin to wait upon Page. Mistress Page and Robin then head toward the Ford residence to visit Mistress Ford.

Left by himself, Ford unleashes another agitated soliloquy. He scoffs at Page's foolishness in trusting Falstaff and then reiterates his distrust of both his own wife and Mistress Page. Hoping to catch Falstaff in the act and thus foil his adulterous schemes, Ford decides to head home. Before he can leave the stage, however, Ford is greeted by a large group including Page, Shallow, Slender, Sir Hugh, Doctor Caius, John Rugby, and the Host of the Inn. Ford invites them to his house for some "good cheer," meaning, unbeknownst to them, the spectacle of Falstaff being caught and humiliated. Shallow and Slender, however, declare they have already planned to dine with Anne Page, awaiting her answer to the proposed match between her and Slender.

While on the subject of Anne, the men discuss the relative merits of her three suitors, including Fenton, who is not present. Page favors Slender, though he says his wife favors the Doctor. Fenton, the Host points out, is lively, youthful, and attractive, but Page does not want an irresponsible young gentleman for a son-in-law. As the group breaks up, Shallow and Slender proceed to the Page residence, while John Rugby is sent home to the Doctor's. The Host heads back to his inn to have a drink with Falstaff. This leaves Ford with Page, Doctor Caius, and Sir Hugh, who all agree to accompany him to dinner.

Analysis

In Act 2, Scene 1 Ford learns of Falstaff's adulterous scheme but manages to keep his jealousy to a low simmer. Why, he reasons, would his wife fall for an old, paunchy, disreputable knight without a shilling to his name? Why would Falstaff go after his wife, who is—as Ford bluntly puts it—"not young"? Now, however, the simmer of suspicion builds into a rolling boil. Like other jealous husbands in Shakespeare, Ford begins to see the entire world as a web of disloyalty in which husbands are fools and wives are cheaters. Thus, he reasons, Page must lack either "brains" or "eyes" if he trusts his own wife.

Ford also, in this scene, begins peppering his speech with horn imagery. He calls Page a "secure and willful Acteon," identifying him with the mythological hunter who was turned into a stag. In doing so Ford echoes Pistol's warning from Act 2, Scene 1: "Prevent, / Or go thou like Sir Acteon." Both men are drawing on a longstanding tradition that assigns symbolic horns to cuckolds—husbands of unfaithful wives. As jealousy continues to dominate his thoughts, Ford will make ever more frequent and sustained allusions to horned creatures, seeing himself as a "buck" and Falstaff as an "ox."

Yet for all his ranting and raving, Ford is not the most jealous husband to feature in Shakespeare's works—or even the second most jealous. Although he may sulk, storm, accuse, and even threaten, he never stoops to actual violence against his wife. This is one plot element that keeps The Merry Wives firmly within the bounds of comedy, at least as the genre was understood in Shakespeare's day. In the tragedy Othello, the jealous husband becomes a murderer, and in The Winter's Tale, often called a "romance," the husband drives his wife out of his kingdom. Ford's behavior, bordering on abusive by today's standards, is thus quite mild by the appallingly low standards of Shakespearean drama.

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