The Merry Wives of Windsor | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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The Merry Wives of Windsor | Themes

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Jealousy and Betrayal

Jealousy is one of the great motivators in Shakespearean drama, and The Merry Wives of Windsor is no exception. The most conspicuous example of jealousy is Master Ford, who nearly descends into madness at the thought of his wife cheating on him. In Act 2 Ford is tipped off to Falstaff's plan to cuckold him, but at first he scarcely believes his wife would even want to sleep with Falstaff. Just to be sure, however, Ford decides to disguise himself and visit Falstaff to learn exactly what he is plotting.

This action turns out to be a huge mistake. Ford gets only Falstaff's half of the story, which exaggerates—indeed, fabricates—Mistress Ford's infidelity and plays up Falstaff's skills as a seducer. Troublingly, Ford believes Falstaff's version of events and refuses to trust his own wife from that point onward. He stews in his own suspicion and resentment, making sarcastic gibes about the cuckold's horns he expects to grow. At the height of his jealous rage, Ford declares himself ready to "torture" his wife if he finds her unfaithful. He is, to put it bluntly, an Othello-style tragedy waiting to happen. Luckily for all involved, Mistress Ford finally clues her husband in to her game of revenge against Falstaff, and neither she nor the old knight is seriously harmed.

Jealousy also plays a conspicuous role in the behavior of Doctor Caius, the French physician who wishes to marry Anne Page. Although he does not seem overtly jealous of his rivals, he is adamant that nobody try to help them. Thus when Sir Hugh sends a letter on Slender's behalf, Doctor Caius quickly identifies Hugh—not Slender—as the real enemy. His honor wounded and his plans frustrated, Doctor Caius instantly challenges the meddlesome cleric to a duel. Like Ford, though on a smaller scale, the Doctor then carries on about the violence he will inflict on Sir Hugh when he sees him. He grimly promises to "cut all his two stones" (castrate him) and "cut his throat in de park." With a twist of dramatic irony, Doctor Caius later claims jealousy is not a common or fashionable trait in France and chides the Englishman Ford for giving in to it.

In Ford and Doctor Caius, Shakespeare presents jealousy as a slippery slope that leads to mental dissolution and loss of social standing. (This, again, is consistent with Shakespeare's later and more serious treatment of the theme in Othello.) Ford's friends and neighbors are quick to point out how his jealousy is transforming him. His suspicions, they say, are unworthy of him and end up harming both Ford and his reputation. Doctor Caius, as a Frenchman in a Shakespeare play and therefore ridiculous by default, needs nobody to underscore how irrational he is being. Luckily his easily bruised ego is assuaged by a nonviolent act of revenge against the Host, who makes the mistake of interrupting Doctor Caius's duel with Hugh.

Revenge

For a comedy, The Merry Wives of Windsor is unusually preoccupied with the idea of getting even. Three separate pairs of characters seek revenge against a real or an imagined aggressor, and each pair succeeds in settling the score. Unlike jealousy, which Shakespeare portrays as pathological, the revenge plots in The Merry Wives are upheld as clever and generally appropriate ways of righting a wrong. When revenge takes the form of physical violence—as the Act 2 sword fight threatens to—the play's characters quickly step in and denounce it as extreme. For the most part, however, cleverly planned acts of revenge serve as a way of defusing the potentially tragic jealousies that swirl about in Shakespeare's Windsor.

The most prominent avengers in the play are Mistress Ford and Mistress Page, who see their pranks on Falstaff as a form of payback for trying to seduce them. Just what is being "avenged" remains unclear, though the two are understandably insulted by Falstaff's insinuation they would cheat on their husbands. The wives also may be put off by the suggestion Falstaff, specifically, is the one they would choose to cheat with. But whatever mixture of motives prompts them to prank Falstaff, the wives are consistent in using the rhetoric of revenge to discuss their actions. "How shall I be revenged on him?" muses Mistress Page as soon as she receives Falstaff's letter, "for revenged I will be, as sure as his guts are made of puddings." Later, Mistress Ford voices concern that excessive vengefulness may go against the spirit of "womanhood" and the demands of a "good conscience." The worry is a transient one, for the women then agree to have Falstaff "publicly shamed" when next they meet with him.

Nym and Pistol, meanwhile, act out their "humors of revenge" toward Falstaff for his sudden decision to fire them. Their vengeance is on a smaller scale and consists of warning Ford and Page about Falstaff's attempt to seduce their wives. Later in the play Nym and Pistol also may be involved in the scheme to defraud the Host (Act 4, Scene 5). If so they are almost surely motivated, at least in part, by a desire to get even with him. The Host, after all, is the one who encourages Falstaff to downsize his entourage in Act 1 and is thus partly responsible for Nym's and Pistol's unemployment.

Doctor Caius and Sir Hugh, however, are the only ones who speak directly of their desire to give the Host his comeuppance. Their vindictiveness follows from the Host's meddling with their planned duel in Act 2, Scene 3, itself motivated by a wish for revenge. By sending the "Germans" to visit the Host in Act 4, Doctor Caius and Hugh interfere with his business just as he has interfered with theirs. Moreover, in making common cause against the Host, Doctor Caius and Hugh are able to settle their own differences without any bloodshed whatsoever. A comic but nonviolent act of revenge proves perfectly sufficient and, arguably, more entertaining for both the audience and the characters.

Women's Empowerment

Although Falstaff is the star of The Merry Wives of Windsor, the real heroes are the "merry wives" themselves. Faced with Falstaff's predatory behavior and Ford's overpowering jealousy, they hatch a plot that punishes the former while teaching the latter a lesson. "Wives," says Mistress Page in Act 4, Scene 2, "may be merry and yet honest too." In other words, just because women aren't glumly submissive to their menfolk, it doesn't mean they're up to no good. The wives proceed to prove this assertion by organizing a series of pranks against Falstaff. In doing so they turn traditionally feminine objects—gowns, hats, laundry baskets—into tools of deception. Anne Page, too, exercises her autonomy in defying her parents and choosing—and then running off with—the suitor she loves best.

To the extent they attempt to impose their wills on their wives, daughters, and would-be lovers, the men of the play generally end up as fools and laughingstocks. Slender and Doctor Caius, both of whom wish to marry Anne Page, go over her head in trying to negotiate with her parents instead. Each ends the play in dejected embarrassment. Ford, whose jealousy nearly pushes him off the deep end, later comes to realize how ridiculous his behavior has been. "I rather will suspect the sun with cold," he apologetically declares, than "[my wife] with wantonness." His neighbor Page, less aggressive and somewhat wiser, comes to endorse his daughter's wishes and cheerfully accepts his role as father of the bride. Arguably the most successful man in the play, however, is Fenton, who alone achieves the goal he announces in Act 1. Far from attempting to bully or trick Anne, Fenton is explicitly described as having an "honest" and "kindhearted" disposition. Initially, he is as money minded as the play's other suitors, but he later—uniquely—comes to appreciate Anne for herself.

To call The Merry Wives of Windsor a "feminist" work, however, would be going too far. Fidelity in marriage is still a paramount concern, regardless of whether the marriage is a loving one. Moreover, the patriarchal structure of marriage, with its transfer of property and power from wife to husband, is not seriously questioned in the play. Rather, the women are concerned with maximizing their position within the unequal "game" of marriage, either by choosing good husbands or by subduing or countering their husbands' worst impulses. The all-encompassing nature of marriage can be seen in Act 3, Scene 2 when Ford jokes about the close friendship between the two wives: "I think if your husbands were dead, you two would marry" to which his wife responds, "Be sure of that—two other husbands." Given the option of being rich widows, Mistress Page suggests, she and Mistress Ford would still rather be rich wives.

Moreover, the relations among the play's female characters are sometimes as manipulative as those among the men. Although in general the women in the play collaborate while the men compete, the wealthier women—the "merry wives"—are still happy to use the less well-off women to serve their ends. In organizing the pranks against Falstaff, Mistress Ford describes the housekeeper Mistress Quickly as "that foolish carrion," a term that identifies her as a tool, not an ally. Likewise, Mistress Page is insistent on marrying Anne off to Doctor Caius but not because she thinks of her daughter's wishes. Rather, Mistress Page favors the Doctor because he is "well-moneyed," has powerful "friends" at the royal court, and is not quite so much of an idiot as Slender. Yet these moments of manipulation do not seriously compromise the play's overall message. If Shakespeare's Windsor is not quite a utopian sisterhood, it is still a place in which women stand up for themselves—and sometimes for each other.

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