The Merry Wives of Windsor | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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The Merry Wives of Windsor | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


Act 1

The disgraced and dissolute knight Sir John Falstaff arrives in Windsor with his ragtag retinue and takes a room at the Garter Inn. Desperate for money, he hatches a plot to woo—separately and secretly—two wealthy married women of the town: Mistress Page and Mistress Ford. When his followers, Pistol and Nym, refuse to deliver the love letters he has written to the women, Falstaff fires them. They plot to get even by informing masters Ford and Page of Falstaff's designs on their wives.

Meanwhile, three suitors seek the hand of Anne Page, the daughter of Master and Mistress Page. Doctor Caius, a French physician, seems to care for Anne, but his bad temper and eccentric mannerisms make him an unconventional suitor at best. Abraham Slender, nephew of Justice Shallow, seeks to marry Anne because his uncle tells him it is a wise move. His friend Sir Hugh Evans, a Welsh parson, is content to play matchmaker: he does not want to marry Anne himself but he hopes to broker a match between her and Slender. (Unfortunately for Hugh, Doctor Caius catches wind of his meddling on Slender's behalf and soon challenges the priest to a duel.) Fenton, the youngest and most charismatic of the three contenders, is the last to appear onstage. Anne favors him, but her parents disapprove of his spendthrift ways and checkered past.

Act 2

Mistress Page and Mistress Ford receive virtually identical love letters from Falstaff. Half-insulted and half-amused, they plot their revenge in the form of practical jokes on the scheming knight. Master Ford and Master Page are warned of Falstaff's plot, but only Ford, a jealous man, takes it seriously. He hatches a plan to disguise himself and learn of Falstaff's intentions.

Soon afterward, the "merry wives" begin orchestrating their pranks on Falstaff. Pretending to have fallen for the love letter, Mistress Ford invites Falstaff to her home one morning when her husband is out. Ford, disguised as "Master Brook," asks Falstaff to try to seduce Mistress Ford to prove she is unchaste and therefore potentially amenable to Brook's advances. Falstaff accepts, revealing he has already been invited to her home. This information, for Ford, serves as ample proof of his wife's infidelity. After his interview with Falstaff, he heads home and plans his next move.

The "three suitors" subplot is largely put on hold in Act 2, apart from the duel between Doctor Caius and Sir Hugh Evans. Doctor Caius shows up to the dueling ground as expected, but Sir Hugh is nowhere to be found. The Host of the local inn arrives with a group of men eager to see the fight and then feigns disappointment at Sir Hugh's absence. He leads Doctor Caius to a field outside Frogmore under the pretext of taking him to see Anne Page.

Act 3

Sir Hugh waits anxiously in the field near Frogmore. When the Doctor finally arrives, he and Hugh are disarmed by Page and Shallow. The Host reveals he sent the two duelists to the wrong places on purpose, hoping to spare each from harm. Angry at the Host's interference, Sir Hugh and Doctor Caius become allies in pursuit of revenge on him.

Back in Windsor, Ford tries to gather a group to come home with him to dinner, where he hopes to unmask and humiliate Falstaff. Meanwhile at the Ford house Mistress Ford and Mistress Page contrive for Falstaff to be caught unawares by Ford's arrival. When Falstaff arrives, Mistress Ford flirts with him until Mistress Page rushes in to announce the master of the house has returned. Afraid for his life, the knight jumps into a huge laundry basket and is carted offstage to be dumped into the Thames. Ford searches the house for the intruder but is embarrassed to find no sign of Falstaff. Recovering from his plunge into the river, Falstaff is easily tricked into meeting Mistress Ford again the next morning. "Mr. Brook" continues to visit the Garter Inn to keep tabs on the knight's activities.

At the Page residence, Fenton pays a visit to Anne and hints the two should simply elope. Mistress Quickly, Shallow, and Slender come calling, but Slender bores and alienates Anne even more than he has done before. Returning home, Page orders Fenton to stop seeing his daughter, but on Mistress Quickly's suggestion, Fenton speaks to Mistress Page who promises to find out Anne's true feelings and respect her wishes.

Act 4

While Ford and most of the other men are out bird hunting, Falstaff visits Mistress Ford, hoping to find her alone as promised. Just as before, Mistress Ford is "surprised" to find her husband coming home early. With the help of Mistress Page, she gets the frightened Falstaff to disguise himself as the "fat woman of Brentford," a suspected witch whom Ford despises and has banned from his home. Thus when Ford comes home, he finds no sign of Falstaff but is incensed to see the Brentford "witch" in his house. He thrashes the disguised Falstaff with a heavy club and chases him out the door.

Their prank accomplished, the "merry wives" decide to tell their husbands about Falstaff's love letters. Working together, the Fords and the Pages plot a final, elaborate act of comic revenge. Mistress Ford asks Falstaff to wear a disguise and meet her in Windsor Park at midnight. When he gets there, a group of dancing fairies—disguised children instructed by Sir Hugh—will surround the cowardly knight to frighten and mock him. After this performance, Falstaff will be unmasked and ridiculed by all.

The "three suitors" subplot gradually moves toward its end. As they plan their last prank against Falstaff, Master and Mistress Page make separate arrangements concerning Anne's marriage. Each plans to have Anne visit the park, disguised as the Fairy Queen, and run off with her future husband during the confusion of the fairy dance. Anne and her suitor will then head for a nearby chapel to be married immediately. In Page's version of the plot, the lucky suitor is Slender, who is told he will find Anne wearing a white costume. Mistress Page, meanwhile, lays a virtually identical plot with her favored suitor, Doctor Caius. To trick Page and Slender, she intends to have Anne wear green.

Act 5

Falstaff reluctantly keeps his appointment with Mistress Ford, but not before informing "Brook" of his plans. When he gets to Windsor Park, he is terrified to see a troop of fairies emerging from the woods with candles in their hands. Led by Mistress Quickly and Sir Hugh—both disguised—the children dance around Falstaff, pinching him and singeing him with their candles. As the troupe capers about and "sings" its "scornful rhyme," Slender and Doctor Caius rush in and steal away with two of the fairies. Finally, Fenton appears and runs off with the disguised Anne Page.

The Pages and the Fords now step out of their hiding places and have a good, long laugh at Falstaff, who is promptly unmasked. The knight is both embarrassed and amused—mostly the former—at being pranked in such a bizarre manner. Slender and Doctor Caius return, each having been tricked into running off with the wrong fairy. Moments later Fenton enters with Anne Page, now his wife. Realizing nothing can be done at this point, Anne's parents surprise Fenton with their cheerful response to this news. All retire to the Page house for a fireside drink.

The Merry Wives of Windsor Plot Diagram

Falling ActionRising ActionResolutionClimax123456789101112Introduction


1 Falstaff and his followers arrive in Windsor.

Rising Action

2 Short on money, Falstaff downsizes his entourage.

3 Falstaff tries to seduce the "merry wives" via love letters.

4 Mistresses Ford and Page plan their "merry" revenge.

5 Falstaff visits Mistress Ford and gets dumped in the Thames.

6 Falstaff flees the Ford home in an embarrassing disguise.

7 The Fords and Pages plot their final prank against Falstaff.

8 Anne Page's three suitors each plan to steal away with her.


9 Summoned by Mistress Ford, Falstaff visits Windsor Park.

Falling Action

10 A group of costumed children mock and torment Falstaff.

11 Falstaff is unmasked and ridiculed.


12 Fenton elopes with Anne Page.

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