The Merry Wives of Windsor | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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The Merry Wives of Windsor | Act 4, Scene 2 | Summary

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Summary

Back at the Ford house, Falstaff woos Mistress Ford with flattering speeches. Mistress Page calls from offstage, prompting Falstaff to hide. She then hurries in to warn Mistress Ford her husband "is in his old lunes (madness) again" railing "against all married mankind ... / curs[ing] all Eve's daughters," and will be home any minute. She adds she is glad "the fat knight" is not there, for Ford rants of no one but him. Mistress Ford feigns panic and asks how she can get Falstaff out of the house undetected. Eventually the women hit upon a suitable scheme: they will disguise him as the Fords' maid's aunt, the "fat woman of Brentford." As Falstaff rushes offstage to put on the woman's hat and gown, which the aunt left at the Ford house, Mistress Ford divulges her husband's loathing of the Brentford "witch." Meanwhile servants Robert and John enter with the laundry basket from Act 3, Scene 3.

Ford arrives a moment later with Page, Doctor Caius, Sir Hugh, and Shallow. He begins jealously searching the house, starting with the basket, which he empties of its contents one garment at a time. The other men grow embarrassed at this absurd behavior, but Ford pleads with them to help search the house one last time. Mistress Ford calls for Mistress Page and the "old woman" to come downstairs, prompting Ford to rail against the old "witch" of Brentford. Then, when the disguised Falstaff enters the room, Ford drives the "witch" out of the house with a cudgel—a short, heavy club. As he rains down blows on the hapless old "woman," he shrieks insults at her: "you witch, you rag, you baggage, you polecat!" He and the other men then search the house, to no avail. Mistress Page and Mistress Ford, meanwhile, congratulate each other on the success of their prank and agree to let their husbands in on the finale.

Analysis

After two successful pranks, the "merry wives" realize it's time to come clean. They make this decision only partly out of sympathy for Falstaff, the "poor unvirtuous fat knight" who has been so "afflicted" by their practical jokes. A more serious though unstated motivator is Ford's mounting and increasingly violent jealousy, which may pose a danger to Mistress Ford if it continues unchecked. After all, as the audience has just seen, Ford has no qualms about beating a woman with a cudgel if he happens to dislike her. What would he do if he found satisfactory "proof" of Mistress Ford's infidelity? A modern audience likely would be disturbed by a man beating an old woman—and his friends standing around watching him do it—but Shakespeare's audiences found such slapstick amusing, especially in this scene knowing the character is not actually an old woman but Falstaff.

With the cudgeling scene still fresh in their minds, the wives plot to "scrape the figures out of [Ford's] brains"—in other words, to erase the images of jealousy impressed upon his mind. To accomplish this they must do two things: tell their husbands about Falstaff's letters and offer the men a chance to get even. Until the latter is done—until Falstaff is "publicly shamed"—Mistress Ford worries there will be no "period" (end) to the vengeful pranks. Consequently, their final plot is an attempt to bring closure by making Falstaff the center not only of a private joke but also of an embarrassing public spectacle.

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