The Merry Wives of Windsor | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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

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Summary

At the Ford residence, Mistress Page and Mistress Ford reveal Falstaff's love letters to their husbands. Sir Hugh is also present. Hearing of Falstaff's plot and the wives' retaliatory pranks, Ford asks Mistress Ford's forgiveness for his jealous actions.

The husbands then agree to their wives' plan for a final, elaborate practical joke. Falstaff is to be summoned to the park at midnight, dressed as "Herne the Hunter," a horned figure from local folklore. When he arrives, Anne Page, William Page, and other Windsor youth disguised as fairies and carrying candles will accost him. The "fairies" are to pinch Falstaff and singe him with their candles until he confesses what has led him to trespass in "their" forest. At that point the Pages and the Fords will reveal themselves and have a laugh at Falstaff's knavish behavior.

Now that everyone is on board with this bizarre prank, the jokesters plan their next move. Sir Hugh says he will instruct the children in their fairy routine. Ford will buy the masks, and Page will procure the silk for Anne's "fairy queen" gown. In an aside, Page reveals his plot to have Slender sneak away with Anne during the fairy dance. Mistress Page, meanwhile, divulges her own plan to have Anne marry Doctor Caius.

Analysis

For the past several scenes, Ford's excessive jealousy has isolated him from his household and alienated him somewhat from Windsor society at large. Now at last he reconciles with his wife and joins in the spirit of general merriment that governs most of the other characters. The Ford who appears in Act 5 will not be vindictive or bitter, like the Ford who appeared in Act 3. Rather he will be in on the joke and thus able to laugh and relax somewhat. He will even make his own contribution to the prank by withholding and then divulging his secret identity as "Master Brook."

The figure of "Herne the Hunter" is chosen as Falstaff's disguise for multiple reasons. For one thing, as Mistress Page points out in telling her ghost story, Herne's inclusion adds a bit of local color to the play. The Merry Wives is Shakespeare's only comedy set in England, and a touch of local folklore helps render that setting both familiar and exciting. In choosing a horned figure, moreover, the Fords and the Pages draw on the horn symbol developed throughout the play. Until now Master Ford has been the one concerned with growing a pair of "cuckold's horns." But in getting Falstaff to place a pair of horns on his own head, the pranksters banish those fears and make Falstaff, not Ford, the butt of the joke.

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