The Merry Wives of Windsor | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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The Merry Wives of Windsor | Act 3, Scene 5 | Summary

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Summary

Back in his room at the Garter Inn, Falstaff calls for wine. As Bardolph runs to fetch it, Falstaff complains about nearly drowning in the Thames. Bardolph brings the wine, which Falstaff downs right away before calling for more. Mistress Quickly arrives with a message from Mistress Ford, but at first Falstaff refuses to hear it, having been "thrown into the ford" already. He relents as Mistress Quickly tells of Ford's plan to go bird hunting, leaving his wife at home alone between eight and nine that very morning. Falstaff promises to pay a visit, and Mistress Quickly leaves to bring word to Mistress Ford.

Ford, disguised once more as "Brook," enters next. When he asks Falstaff about his assignation with Mistress Ford, Falstaff tells a rather embellished version of the truth. He suggests Mistress Ford reciprocated his affections, but their meeting was cut short by the return of the jealous Ford. "Brook" hears all this with surprise and presses Falstaff for more details. The knight tells of his narrow escape in the buck-basket and his subsequent plunge into the Thames. Feigning sympathy, "Brook" asks if Falstaff will give up his pursuit of Mistress Ford after all this. Not at all, says Falstaff: "I will be thrown into [the volcano] Etna, as I have been into Thames, ere I will leave her thus." As Falstaff departs for his rendezvous with Mistress Ford, the disguised Ford angrily vows not to let Falstaff escape again.

Analysis

The ease with which the "merry wives" manipulate Falstaff is one of the play's richest sources of dramatic irony. Falstaff considers himself the manipulator par excellence, using flattering letters and speeches to trick the wives into giving up both money and chastity. Moreover, Falstaff chuckles to himself about his exploitation of Ford, the "wittolly knave" who deserves to be cheated on. He even waxes smug about his dealings with "Master Brook," who is supplying him with money and the occasional free glass of wine. From his own point of view, the knightly Falstaff, with his gigantic ego, is simply too clever for these middle-class sots.

Yet the characters Falstaff tries to manipulate—Mistress Ford, Mistress Page, and Ford a.k.a. "Brook"—are in fact the ones holding the puppet strings. Falstaff has barely dried off and warmed up after his plunge into the water when he is baited into another embarrassing prank. In the space of about 15 lines, he goes from resentment and suspicion—"I have had ford enough"—to eager anticipation—"I will not miss her." Nevertheless, despite one setback Falstaff is willing to try again and almost immediately gloats about his payments from "Brook," who shows up right on cue to gather intelligence about Falstaff's next move. Although Ford is somewhat more gullible than the two wives, he eventually joins with them in having the last laugh—at Falstaff's expense.

Much of the play's comic energy comes from how quickly Falstaff rebounds from each successive embarrassment. Rather than timidly tiptoeing into the traps set by Mistress Ford, he hurtles into them with all the energy his overstuffed frame can muster. In this scene, for example, he is still wet behind the ears—literally, though not figuratively—when he decides to go back for a second attempt on Ford's wife and wallet. This is not highbrow, Sophocles-style dramatic irony, with Falstaff diligently working his way toward the unpleasant truth that he's been tricked. Rather, it's the broad irony of a farce, designed to provoke laughter and perhaps a bit of sheepish self-recognition in the audience. Falstaff doesn't tear open the curtain and realize, suddenly, that he's been duped. Instead this is something he half-knows all along.

Punning, in this scene and others featuring Falstaff and Quickly, is another major contributor to the comic mood. Falstaff's play on the word ford is notable, as it refers to the Fords and denotes a shallow part of a river—in other words, where he was dumped in the laundry basket. Once he dries off, he complains he has "had ford enough. I / was thrown into the ford, I have my belly full of / ford." Mistress Quickly's word confusion is especially licentious in this scene, but as often happens in Shakespeare, the risqué language comes from a character who isn't in on the joke. Instead of the word direction, for example, Quickly mistakenly says "erection." Falstaff continues the wordplay by saying he too followed the wrong direction / erection "to build upon a foolish / woman's promise." The double entendre seems clear to modern readers and likely got many laughs among audiences from Shakespeare's time to the present.

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