Sir John Falstaff attempts to seduce two married ladies, Mistress Page and Mistress Ford; neither is impressed by him, and they conspire to subject him to a succession of practical jokes. A subplot concerns Mistress Page's daughter Anne, whose parents want her to marry, but can't agree on which of her suitors she should choose, while she herself prefers a man neither of her parents approves of.
Not one of Shakespeare's stronger efforts, the play is thought to have been commissioned for a specific occasion and written in a hurry. The characters are all stock, the A-plot and B-plot are barely even aware of each other, the exposition gets especially clunky in the build-up to the finale and it's all Strictly Formula. But Falstaff remains a joyously Unsympathetic Comedy Protagonist, and the unsuccessful suitors are two of the purest buffoons in the Shakespearean canon. With a few edits and a good cast it's a great way to kill an hour and a half. There is a persistent story that Queen Elizabeth, after seeing Henry IV, ordered Shakespeare to write a play about "Falstaff in love," but this story first appeared decades after Shakespeare's death in the writings of the dramatist John Dennis—who just happened to be promoting his own rewrite of the play at the time. (It was a flop.)
This appears to be one of the few plays for which Shakespeare came up with an original plotnote . At least three operas have been based on the play: one with music by Otto Nicolai, one by Ralph Vaughn Williams, and one, under the title of Falstaff, by Giuseppe Verdi.
The Merry Wives of Windsor provides examples of:
- Abhorrent Admirer:
- Falstaff to mistresses Page and Ford.
- Slender to Anne.
- Cuckold Horns: When Ford, disguised as Master Brook, encourages Falstaff to go after his wife, Falstaff boasts that he will put the cuckold's horns on Ford and later mockingly describes him as a "peaking cornuto." Ford vows revenge on him: "If I have horns to make one mad, let the proverb go with me—I'll be horn mad." The wives con Falstaff into meeting them in Windsor Forest disguised as Herne the Hunter, the Horned Humanoid of myth. When Falstaff has been properly humiliated in his horned disguise, Ford points to the horns and tells him, "Now, sir, who's a cuckold now?"
- Dog Latin: Played with during William's Latin exam and Mistress Quickly's comments throughout the lesson:Hugh Evans: What is he, William, that does lend articles?
William: Articles are borrowed of the pronoun, and be thus declined: Singulariter, nominativo, hic, haec, hoc.
Hugh Evans: Nominativo, hig, hag, hog; pray you, mark:genitivo:, hujus. Well, what is your accusative case?
William: Accusativo, hinc.
Hugh Evans: I pray you, have your remembrance, child; Accusativo, hung, hang, hog.
Mistress Quickly: "Hang hog" is Latin for bacon, I warrant you.
- Disguised in Drag: This is the only Shakespeare play where a man disguises himself as a woman, and not the other way around.
- Falstaff dresses up as the Witch of Branford to safely get out of the Fords' house after Master Ford comes home early.
- The decoy boy working for Mistress Page fits this trope on multiple levels. He's dressed up as the fairy queen, to scare Falstaff, but he's also pretending that it's Anne, and not him, underneath the costume. In other words, he's playing the role of fairy queen and the role of Anne simultaneously.
- Easily Forgiven:
- Once Fenton points out how unhappy Anne would have been in an arranged marriage, neither one of her parents has a single critical word to say about the young lovers' secret wedding.
- Mistress Ford doesn't hold a grudge against her husband for wrongly suspecting her of cheating on him with Falstaff.
- Exact Words: "To Master Brook [i.e. Ford] you yet shall keep your word/For he tonight shall lie with Mistress Ford."
- Funetik Aksent: Shakespeare writes out Evans's Welsh accent and Doctor Caius's French accent. When Evans is disguised as a fairy, he tries to suppress his accent. He succeeds partially—it's not written out phonetically anymore, but it's still heavy enough to be recognizable as a Welsh accent.Falstaff: Heavens defend me from that Welsh fairy, lest he transform me to a piece of cheese!
- Funny Foreigner: Both Doctor Caius and Hugh Evans serve as this.
- Gold Digger: Falstaff is short on funds. Mistresses Page and Ford are not. So Falstaff sends them identically worded love letter (apart from their names), hoping that they might respond favorably.
- Graceful Loser: Falstaff happily accepts that he deserves his humiliation at the end.
- Humiliation Conga: Falstaff's entire plotline is this.
- Internal Reveal: The audience knows all along that "Anne" who sneaks away with Slender is actually a boy. Slender, of course, doesn't know this, and is none too pleased when he finds out.
- It Is Pronounced Tropay: In French as it was spoken both when the play is set and when it was written, "Honi soit qui mal y pense" was pronounced "Õ-nee SWAY key MAHL ee PẼ-suh".
- Kansas City Shuffle: Attempted twice, successful once.
- During Falstaff's final humiliation by the "fairies" (that are actually normal humans in disguise) Anne's father, George Page, wants to sneak Anne, who will be disguised as the fairy queen, off with Slender so that Anne and Slender can get married like George wants. Anne's mother, Margaret, wants her to marry doctor Caius instead, so she's made arrangements for the role of the fairy queen to be played by a boy instead. That way, the "Anne" in the fairy queen suit will be a decoy to fool George. The real Anne will be another of the masked "fairies," made to dress in green so that Margaret can tell which one is Anne.
- Or at least that's how Margaret expects things to go. The truth is that "Anne" in green is another decoy, set by Fenton, who Annie is actually in love with and wants to marry. So while George thinks he's outsmarted Margaret, and Margaret thinks she's outsmarted George, both of them are outsmarted by Fenton, who sneaks away with Anne for a secret wedding.
- Mistaken for Cheating: Ford learns of Falstaff's intentions toward his wife, and spends part of the play believing that she reciprocates them.
- The Musical: Or rather, The Opera. It was adapted by both Giuseppe Verdi and Antonio Salieri.
- Paper-Thin Disguise:
- Falstaff dressed up as the Witch of Brentford to avoid Ford.
- Ford himself as Brook, talking to Falstaff.
- "Scooby-Doo" Hoax: A bunch of people disguised as fairies scare the living daylights out of Falstaff as revenge for his dishonest behavior.
- Sisterhood Eliminates Creep: The play is about a Casanova Wannabe who ends up getting taunted by practical jokes.
- Zany Scheme: Anne's parents each come up with one to let their respective preferred son-in-law-to-be elope with Anne while everybody's preoccupied with Falstaff's Humiliation Conga. In the denouement, the two preferred suitors discover they've eloped with decoy Annes while the real thing has eloped with her preferred suitor.