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The Merry Wives of Windsor | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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The Merry Wives of Windsor | Context


Sir John Falstaff

The first audiences to see The Merry Wives of Windsor would have remembered the protagonist from his appearance in Henry IV, Part 1 (c. 1596–97). Shakespeare establishes much of Falstaff's antiheroic character in this earlier work, depicting him as the corpulent, cowardly friend of the future king, with a fondness for food, drink, and womanizing. These comically exaggerated flaws endeared Falstaff to playgoers, including—according to myth—Queen Elizabeth I, who so enjoyed Falstaff she wished him to star in his own comedy. Whether or not Shakespeare wrote The Merry Wives at the queen's command, Falstaff is unquestionably the breakout character of Henry IV, Part 1. Literally and figuratively larger than life, he is more memorable than nearly anyone else in the play, including Henry himself. Well aware of Falstaff's appeal, Shakespeare went on to include him not only in The Merry Wives but also in the roughly contemporary Henry IV, Part 2 (1597–98).

In Henry IV, Part 1 Falstaff appears as a disreputable "mentor" to Prince Hal, the future Henry V. Like the prince, Falstaff makes his home-away-from-home at the Boar's Head Tavern in Eastcheap, London. He is, as in The Merry Wives of Windsor, perennially short of funds, in part because of his enormous consumption of food and wine. When not wheedling drinks from Hal, he raises money by resorting to petty crime, something completely out of keeping with his standing as a knight. In addition to revealing this unsavory behavior, the play shows hints of a truly dark dimension to Falstaff's character when he recruits soldiers for the king's army. Asked about the pitiful condition of his troops—who are drawn from the lowest strata of English society—Falstaff glibly refers to them as "food for powder," or cannon fodder. Some of Falstaff's associates from this play, including the "wild Prince" (Hal) and the thief Ned Poins, are mentioned in passing in The Merry Wives. Most of Falstaff's companions in The Merry Wives, however, do not appear in Henry IV, Part 1. Exceptions are Mistress Quickly, who serves as the hostess of the Boar's Head, and Bardolph, whose drink-reddened complexion is the source of many jokes.

Falstaff returns in Henry IV, Part 2 as the ringleader of a group of military ruffians, most of whom also appear in The Merry Wives of Windsor. By this point Prince Hal has outgrown the irresponsible Falstaff and is maturing into his future role as king. Falstaff's role is thus more marginal in this play. Many of the play's secondary characters, however, are shared with The Merry Wives. Among Falstaff's circle these include the hard-drinking Bardolph, the verbose and temperamental Pistol, and the tiny page Robin. Falstaff's contentious relationship with Justice Shallow is another element common to both Henry IV, Part 2 and The Merry Wives. In the former play the two are represented as old friends who were wild partiers in their youth. Falstaff later alienates Shallow, however, by vainly promising to procure him political favors from the new king, Henry V.

Falstaff's final mention in Shakespeare occurs in Henry V (1599), where the knight's offstage death is reported by Mistress Quickly. His thieving associates, including Pistol, Nym, and Bardolph, mourn the loss of their leader, paying tribute to his wily wit and irrepressible sense of humor. Pressed into service in King Henry V's army, they mourn not only their leader but also the passing of the carefree way of life he represented. At once highborn and lowbrow, eloquent and raffish, Falstaff is a foil to the severe dignity of the crown. In The Merry Wives of Windsor Shakespeare allows this wily but amoral knight a second chance onstage.

Textual History

The Merry Wives of Windsor was first published in 1602 in the relatively small and inexpensive quarto format (pages about 7 by 9 inches in size). This edition, known as Q1, is thought to have been written down from memory by one of the play's actors, a process critics call memorial reconstruction. Because of the way it was produced, Q1 is generally known to scholars as a bad quarto. Not quite as pejorative as it sounds, the term means simply an "unofficial or unauthorized printing," as early quartos of Henry V and Hamlet (1599–1601) also were. Like Henry V, but unlike Hamlet, no good quarto of The Merry Wives survives: the second quarto (Q2), which appeared in 1619, was based directly on Q1.

In 1623 The Merry Wives of Windsor was included in the First Folio (pages about 14 by 18 inches in size), the earliest "collected works" volume attributed to Shakespeare. This version, denoted F1 or simply F in shorthand, is much longer and more coherent than the early quartos, containing nearly 1,000 lines absent from Q1 and Q2. Notable Folio-only passages include most of Act 4, Scene 1, in which young William Page receives a Latin lesson, and a few new scenes in Act 5. On the basis of the quality of the text and stage directions, scholars surmise F was transcribed from a promptbook, an annotated performance copy of the play. The scribe is thought to have been Ralph Crane, a professional copyist closely associated with the First Folio. This edition now serves as the basis for modern reading and performance editions of The Merry Wives.

The Merry Wives in Performance

According to its first-edition frontispiece, The Merry Wives of Windsor had already been performed multiple times when it finally appeared in print in 1602. The date of its premiere is uncertain, with some sources suggesting it debuted during an Order of the Garter feast in 1597. Regardless, The Merry Wives was popular enough to be revived in 1604 for another court performance before King James I, and then again in 1638 before Charles I. London's theatres were closed for nearly two decades during the English Civil War (1642–51), but when they reopened The Merry Wives became one of the earliest Shakespearean hits of the Restoration. English politician and diarist Samuel Pepys (1633–1703), whose fastidiously kept journals are a gold mine of information about Restoration drama, saw the play three times in the 1660s. Each time, however, he gave the performance only a lukewarm review.

Like many of Shakespeare's works, The Merry Wives of Windsor was eventually adapted to suit 18th-century tastes—which, in this case, meant streamlining and unifying its unruly plot. For decades English playwright John Dennis's The Comical Gallant (1702) held the stage with its emphasis on the Fenton/Anne Page love affair. Abridged versions of Shakespeare's original play text made a gradual comeback in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. During the Victorian era (1837–1901), however, Falstaff's lecherous antics ran afoul of contemporary social mores, and operatic adaptations displaced nonmusical performances. The play finally regained momentum in the early 20th century, as the first modern-dress productions reached the London stage. It remained popular in England throughout World War II (1939–45), perhaps because its lighthearted plot offered relief from the grim realities of rationing and air raids.

In the latter half of the 20th century and well into the 21st, modernized interpretations have become increasingly common. The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), known for both period-dress and modern-dress performances, produced several of each during the postwar decades. John Blatchley's 1964 production featured the familiar ruff collars and puff sleeves, whereas Bill Alexander's 1985 rendition brought the play forward into a 1950s "mock Tudor suburbia." Merry Wives The Musical, with its zany blend of Victorian and punk-rocker aesthetics, followed in 2006. Other theatre companies have likewise sought out nontraditional settings for this classic comedy, including "groovy" 1970s California (Marin Shakespeare Company, 2003) and colonial New England (Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 2004).

In 2012 the RSC mounted its most modern production yet, set in the wake of the global financial crisis of 2008. This staging underscored the sense of material and personal insecurity underlying Falstaff's gambit to woo the wives. "The idea of a guy in his sixties having to hustle because he doesn't have enough money to retire on," said English director Philip Breen, "is quite a current idea." Some of the updates, however, were more whimsical, such as the transformation of the play's final scene into a modern costume party. Yet the 2012 production also called attention to timeless problems of aging and mortality—fitting themes for a play often billed as Falstaff's swan song. "Falstaff," mused Breen, "is like an old wizard for whom the magic isn't working any more, who's maybe having to consider the hereafter for the first time."

Musical Wives of Windsor

The Merry Wives of Windsor also has provided material for a trio of well-known operas. The first such adaptation was composed by Italian Antonio Salieri (1750–1825), popularly known for his much-vaunted rivalry with Austrian composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Although the 1984 film Amadeus depicts him as a bitter, humorless man, Salieri was well known in his time as a master of comic opera. His version of The Merry Wives, titled Falstaff, ossia Le tre burle (Falstaff, or The Three Jokes, 1799) is perhaps most notable for what it omits. Several notable characters from Shakespeare's version are gone, including the energetic but absentminded housekeeper Mistress Quickly. Gone, too, are the young lovers Anne Page and Fenton, whose marriage is the final plot development in the original play. These cuts leave room to develop Falstaff's farcical romance with Mistress Ford and to play up the three "jokes" to which Falstaff falls victim.

The most famous musical adaptation of The Merry Wives of Windsor, however, is the 1893 opera Falstaff by Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi. In 1887 Verdi had premiered Otello, his operatic adaptation of Shakespeare's tragedy Othello (1603–04). Already in his 70s, Verdi believed this serious and well-regarded work would be the final, crowning touch for his career. However, Arrigo Boito, Verdi's librettist (musical playwright or lyricist), had other plans and soon began working on a treatment of The Merry Wives. Ultimately Boito's enthusiasm proved contagious, and Verdi was persuaded to step back into the ring for a last comic effort.

Critic Jeremy Nicholas, writing for Gramophone (2016), offers some insights into what made this bizarre play so appealing to Verdi and Boito. For one thing, Nicholas notes, Verdi "had long been fascinated with the character of Falstaff," a larger-than-life buffoon whose outsized personality seemed practically written for opera. For another, Verdi's many successes had never included an opera buffa (comic opera), and he was keen to make one last attempt at the form. Of the various Merry Wives of Windsor adaptations, Verdi's was and remains the most critically acclaimed, as well as the most frequently restaged.

In the 20th century, English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958) also found inspiration in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Well known for his interest in the music of the Elizabethan era (1558–1603), Vaughan Williams conjured up the world of Shakespearean romance by interweaving Tudor love songs with the text of the play. The result, titled Sir John in Love (1929), portrays Falstaff more seriously and sympathetically than do most other versions of the play, sung or otherwise. He is still flawed, foolish, and very much a comic figure—but not the grotesque "tuns of oil" he is in the Shakespearean original. Throughout the past century, performances and recordings of Vaughan Williams's opera have generally been well received by critics. For example, New York Times music critic Will Crutchfield (1988) described Sir John as among the "closest approach [es] ... to a satisfactory Shakespeare opera in English." However, Sir John has drawn criticism for including all the scattered subplots of the original Merry Wives of Windsor, resulting in a work that, arguably, lacks focus.

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