The Merry Wives of Windsor | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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

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Summary

Falstaff, wearing a deer's head complete with antlers, arrives at the appointed meeting spot in Windsor Park. Lustfully anticipating his meeting with Mistress Ford, he unleashes a soliloquy full of jokes about deer in breeding season. Mistresses Ford and Page approach. Seeing the latter, Falstaff blithely proposes the two women "divide [him] like a bribed buck." (In other words: "Ladies, please! One at a time!") Just then the sound of horns is heard offstage, and the two wives run off.

A group of fairies now enters—including, in disguise, Mistress Quickly, Pistol, Sir Hugh, Anne Page, and a group of Windsor schoolchildren. Mistress Quickly, playing the Fairy Queen, summons the other fairies, while Pistol calls them to attention and assigns them to various whimsical errands. As "Queen Quickly" continues issuing orders to the fairies, Falstaff hides and trembles, afraid to be spotted by these supernatural creatures. Sir Hugh speaks up: "But stay! I smell a man of Middle Earth." Pretending just now to see Falstaff, the fairies touch a burning candle to his fingertips in what they claim is a magical chastity test. If Falstaff is chaste, "the flame will back descend / And turn him to no pain." Falstaff, naturally, is singed and cries out, leading the other fairies to surround him, singing "a scornful rhyme" and pinching him. As they dance, Slender and Doctor Caius duck in and lead two of the fairies away. As planned, Slender absconds with a fairy in white, while Doctor Caius runs off with a fairy in green. These, however, are decoys: a moment later, Fenton appears and runs off with Anne Page.

A horn sounds again. Page and Ford enter with their wives. Realizing he has been fooled, Falstaff attempts to laugh it off. Sir Hugh joins the four in mocking Falstaff, but they end on a good-natured note, with Page inviting him home for a posset (a sweet dessert or beverage). Page's cheerfulness comes, in part, from the belief his daughter Anne has run off and married Slender. Mistress Page, in an aside, chuckles about her husband's mistake, since Anne has really run off and married the Doctor. Just then, however, both Slender and Doctor Caius reappear. Each complains of having been tricked into running off with a boy rather than with Anne. "Who hath got the right Anne?" demands Ford.

Right on cue, Fenton and Anne Page appear. Fenton urges Anne's parents not to be angry, since by eloping with her he has saved her from the misery of a "forcèd" union. The Pages, seeing nothing can be done, give their blessing to the marriage. Finally, as the group leaves the stage, Ford reveals his identity as "Master Brook." Falstaff, he says, will keep his word after all, since "[Brook] tonight shall lie with Mistress Ford."

Analysis

In this final scene, the "merry wives" plot and the "three suitors" subplot are brought together and resolved. The wives, joining with their husbands, plot and execute their ultimate act of comic revenge against Falstaff. Ford, once overwhelmed by fears of being cuckolded, gets to see Falstaff ceremonially wearing the symbolic "horns" in his place. In addition, the Pages—Master and Mistress—use the prank as an opportunity to marry Anne off. Anne, however, rejects both of these lackluster suitors and opts to elope with the more sympathetic Fenton, making her own decision and upsetting her parents' plans.

This conclusion to the courtship plot, in which the young lovers defy Anne's parents and finally marry, is a staple of Shakespearean comedy. Before its appearance in The Merry Wives, the same basic plot appeared in A Midsummer Night's Dream (written 1595–96). In the earlier comedy, a father much less sympathetic than Page is eventually forced to honor his daughter's wishes. Similar subplots occur in The Tempest and even in The Taming of The Shrew, a comedy not known for its rosy depiction of marriage. Among these, The Merry Wives is unusual in that it shows the parents changing their minds not reluctantly or under duress but cheerfully. Anne does not simply outsmart her parents, and Fenton does not merely dupe his new in-laws; rather, the young couple wins them over.

Falstaff, meanwhile, finally "begin[s] to perceive" his scheme has backfired. For an extraordinary moment, he even admits to being speechless at what has happened to him. Whether Falstaff has really "learned his lesson," however, remains far from clear. After all, this is not the first time he has promised to mend his ways. Back in Henry IV, Part 1, where Falstaff made his dramatic debut, he entertained the thought of giving up drinking and "liv[ing] cleanly as a nobleman should do." That resolution proved to be a vain fantasy, as Falstaff is back to his lecherous, thieving, hard-drinking self in both The Merry Wives and Henry IV, Part 2. Despite his humiliation Falstaff's old habits seem poised to bounce back the moment he spies a pretty face, an unguarded purse, or a "pottle" of strong Spanish wine.

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