Sir John Falstaff
Egoistic, self-serving, immoral, dishonest Sir John Falstaff is well known for his lewd and gluttonous behavior. He is the "breakout star" of Shakespeare's earlier history plays, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, in which he serves as a form of comic relief. In The Merry Wives of Windsor Falstaff takes center stage as he tries to seduce two married women, hoping to conquer both their beds and their purses. As a first step in his Don Juan act, Falstaff sends nearly identical love letters to the two wives. Thrilled when they seem to reciprocate his affections, he immediately plans secret visits to their homes. However, he greatly underestimates the "merry wives," who go along with his wooing only to play a series of uproarious pranks on him. Ultimately Falstaff is humiliated and forced to repent his lecherous ways—at least for the moment.
Mistress Alice Ford and her best friend Mistress Page are, in most respects, two peas in a pod. They have the same quirky sense of humor, lead similar lives, and show the same comical contempt for Falstaff. Of the two "merry wives," however, Mistress Ford is the ringleader. She pretends to be infatuated with Falstaff and invites him into her home, where he becomes the victim of a series of humiliating practical jokes. Pranking Falstaff in this way also allows Mistress Ford to have a laugh at her jealous husband.
Mistress Meg Page, like Mistress Ford, is a "merry wife" who exacts comic revenge on Falstaff for his attempts to seduce her. Like Mistress Ford, she too has control of the family budget. She follows Mistress Ford's lead in playing pranks on the hapless knight, justifying these antics as a lesson not only to Falstaff but also to men who distrust their wives without cause. However, Mistress Page's maternal actions might be called into question when she unsuccessfully tries to trick her daughter into marrying a man she doesn't want to marry. Although the situation is meant to be comic, it perhaps casts Mistress Page in a less favorable light.
If Mistress Ford is a "merry wife," Master Francis Ford is hardly a "merry husband." When this wealthy and respectable Windsor man learns of Falstaff's designs on his wife, he is consumed by jealousy. Donning a disguise, he meets with Falstaff and offers the knight money to try to seduce Mistress Ford. This, Ford hopes, will allow him to catch Falstaff in the act. But his plan fails at every turn, and Ford eventually repents of his lack of trust.
Master George Page is a well-to-do man who lives in Windsor. Calmer and more trusting than Master Ford, he pays relatively little attention to his wife's supposed dalliances with Falstaff. As he sees it, the chances of Mistress Page cheating on him—with Falstaff of all people—are too slim to merit a second thought. From Page's point of view, Ford's jealous actions are absurd and demeaning. Page's big problem, however, is the trio of suitors vying for his daughter's hand in marriage. He has already made up his mind to marry Anne to Slender, a boring, unimpressive man who comes from a respectable family. Anne, however, defies Page by continuing to see Fenton, a spendthrift young gentleman whom Page sees as wholly inappropriate. When Anne elopes with Fenton, Page—realizing he can do nothing about it—graciously gives the couple his blessing.
Anne Page, to judge from other characters' reactions, is the most eligible young woman in Windsor. Her wealth and good looks (Sir Hugh calls her "pretty virginity") quickly make her the center of a wooing contest among Slender, Doctor Caius, and Fenton. Anne and her parents, however, do not see eye-to-eye on what makes a good husband—or a good son-in-law. At first, it seems Anne cares for none of her suitors. She finds Slender dull and irritating. When her mother proposes to marry her to the Doctor, Anne says she would rather be "bowled to death with turnips." Her feelings for Fenton, however, gradually become clear, and the two elope during the chaotic merry making at the end of Act 5.