Characters Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Sir John Falstaff
Sir John Falstaff (FOHL-staf), the jovial, rotund friend of Prince Hal in Henry IV, who comes with his hangers-on to Windsor and amuses himself by wooing the respectable ladies of two merchants. Twice gulled by the “merry wives,” beaten and dumped into the Thames from a laundry basket, he tries a third time to succeed in his amorous designs and plans a rendezvous in the woods. He is discovered there by his friends wearing a buck’s head and lying face down for fear of the fairies and elves who have been pinching him. He accepts this last deception in good humor and confesses that he was rather dubious about the authenticity of the spirits who visited him.
Mistress Page and
Mistress Ford, the brisk, practical ladies on whom Falstaff practices his romantic arts. Incensed as much by his identical letter to each of them as by his presumption in writing, they outwit the fat knight at every turn and firmly convince their husbands of their fidelity.
Thomas Page, Mistress Page’s husband, a well-to-do burgher dwelling at Windsor. He trusts his wife’s ability to withstand Falstaff’s advances, although he follows his more suspicious friend Ford when he sets out to search for the knight at his own home. He disapproves of Fenton’s suit for his daughter’s hand,...
(The entire section is 734 words.)
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Evans (Sir Hugh Evans)
A Welsh parson, Evans is, like Doctor Caius, a social outsider. But his place in the town's society is more secure: as the parson, he is also the local schoolteacher, and is looked to for conventional wisdom. The fact that he does not measure up to the ideals of a country parson provides the source of much of the humor of his character.
In his speech, Evans frequently omits initial "w's," replaces final "d's" with "t's," and replaces "b's" with "p's." His speech is also full of malapropisms (a malapropism is the misuse—generally unintentional and usually funny—of a word or phrase). When he performs a miniature classroom exercise by quizzing young William Ford in his Latin, his questioning is quite elementary and confined to rote learning.
Evans's ethics are questionable, especially given that he is a parson. In the opening scene, as Shallow threatens to take Falstaff to court, Evans distracts the irate justice by mentioning that the young Mistress Anne Page will inherit a large income, and suggests that Slender marry her. Parsons were often portrayed as the advocates of love in marriage over economic considerations, but Evans advocates Slender's monetary gain over any more noble aspirations. When Caius finds out Evans's role in setting up his rival, the challenge is issued.
Evans, in a state of fear, waits for the upcoming duel with Caius. As he waits, he sings, confessing that he feels like crying (III.ii.22). Although the...
(The entire section is 338 words.)
Falstaff (Sir John Falstaff)
Falstaff is the play's central character. Falstaff also appears in Henry IV, Part One and Two, where he is the comic friend and a kind of surrogate father to Prince Hal. When Hal becomes King Henry V, in a famous and poignant moment, he rejects Falstaff in public: ''I know thee not, old man'' (Henry IV, Part Two, V.v.47).
Falstaff's role in the Henry plays has been the subject of much critical and dramatic debate; he is a complex figure who has immense power over language and whose conduct raises important moral questions not only about himself but about the young Prince as well. In both histories and comedy, Falstaff is a fat, old, dissolute knight who regards nothing with complete seriousness, not even the violent political turmoil of Henry IV's kingship. Theatrical tradition has it (first suggested by John Dennis in 1702) that Queen Elizabeth I was so enamored of the Falstaff character in the Henry plays that she asked Shakespeare to write a play about Falstaff in love, whereupon he produced The Merry Wives of Windsor in the space of fourteen days. Many scholars argue that there is no factual evidence to support this story and that in Merry Wives Falstaff is not in love. Additionally, the Falstaff Shakespeare portrays in the comedy is quite a different character from the comic knight of the history plays. It is tempting to regard him as the product of hurried composition, reluctance, or simply the overworking...
(The entire section is 1270 words.)
A gentleman who has kept company with the Prince Hal of the Henry plays, Fenton is the man Anne Page actually marries. He makes few appearances in the play. The love affair between Fenton and Anne Page takes place at the margins of the slapstick of jealousy, greed, and revenge that forms the main action of the play. Fenton admits to a certain level of involvement in the general climate of concern with money, and to "riots past'' and "wild societies" (III.iv.8) of his own. Like Anne's other suitors, Caius and Slender, he says he began wooing Anne because of her father's income. But he assures her he has fallen in love with her, and he wins her in the end spite of her parents' preferences for Slender and Caius.
Fenton, unlike Slender and Caius, is a gentleman. Though he has a wart above one eye (II.i. 144- 52) and therefore appears less than perfectly handsome, and though he admits he has no money, nevertheless he speaks in blank verse (often in Shakespeare the mark of aristocratic birth). Apparently, he spent time with "the wild Prince and Poins" (III.ii.73), that is, in the company of Prince Hal as portrayed in the Henry plays. This description of him has led to scholarly speculation about when The Merry Wives takes place in relation to the Henry plays, but such speculation has proven inconclusive.
Though Mistress Quickly, the go-between, cannot decide whose case she will argue with Anne, she is certain Anne does...
(The entire section is 337 words.)
Ford (Mistress Alice Ford)
Mistress Ford is the wife of the jealous Mister Ford and one of the two women Falstaff woos. Mistresses Ford and Page join forces to trick Falstaff three times in the course of the play in order to teach him a lesson. Mistress Ford also manages to trick her husband twice by sneaking Falstaff out of her house just as Mister Ford arrives. In the opening scene of Act II, when the two women receive their love letters from Falstaff, Mistress Ford is immediately out for revenge against him. She mocks Falstaff's status as a knight, his fatness, and his writing style. Her response makes clear that he is an outsider at Windsor: "What tempest, I trow, threw this whale ashore at Windsor?" (II.i.64-5).
Indeed, throughout the play, Mistresses Ford and Page together define the acceptable social behavior of their society. When Falstaff writes both of them inappropriate love letters, they expose his self-interested and offensive motives. When Mister Ford's jealousy increases and becomes more explicit, Mistress Ford exposes his unfounded distrust. The women know more than their husbands through much of the play, and certainly more than Falstaff. The first time they trick Falstaff, hiding him in the laundry basket because their husbands are arriving, they do not expect Mister Ford and Mister Page actually to arrive; but Mistress Ford quickly figures out that her husband has some outside knowledge of Falstaff's intentions. The women's next plot against Falstaff anticipates...
(The entire section is 556 words.)
Ford (Francis Ford)
The jealous husband of Mistress Ford, Mister Ford spends most of the play trying to catch Falstaff and his wife together. When Pistol tells him of Falstaff's intention to woo his wife, Ford is immediately on his guard: "A man may be too confident" (II.i. 186-7), he says. Thus, while Page goes of blithely to enjoy the non-duel between Caius and Evans, Ford plots to keep watch on his wife. He engages the aid of host, who agrees to introduce him to Falstaff in the disguise of one Mister Brook. He tells Falstaff an elaborate tale, claiming that he (as Mister Brook) has loved Mistress Ford for years, but that she claims to remain faithful to her husband and so won't have him. He hires Falstaff to seduce Mistress Ford in order to prove her faithlessness and hence win her for himself.
The complex parameters of this trick reveal a great deal about how Mister Ford views his marriage. As Mister Brook, he assumes that if he can prove Mistress Ford unfaithful in general, then she will accept not only Falstaff but also himself. His fear is that a woman does not differentiate among lovers, and that therefore his own wife cannot remain faithful to him in particular. If she is unfaithful at all, she is proven to be incapable of choosing a partner. This view of his wife as potentially incapable of choice is mirrored in his view of himself. For, as Mister Brook, he plays the part of a completely rejected lover. The fact that this is an act of make-believe does not take...
(The entire section is 697 words.)
Host of the Garter Inn
The host acts as enabler and judge of a great deal of the activity around him. He also creates a good deal of purposeful disorder; Page suggests that the host is something less than a fine, upstanding member of the community when he says, ''Look where my ranting host of the Garter comes. There is either liquor in his pate, or money in his purse, when he looks so merrily" (II.i.89-91). Like the Fords and Pages, the host represents the middle classes, who earn their money rather than inheriting lands and titles. But his role is to play host to the gentry, specifically Fenton and Falstaff, who represent two extremes of gentlemanly conduct. Both gentlemen, it is worth noting, are low on funds. The Garter Inn refers to the knightly Order of the Garter, to which noblemen were named by the Queen and formally dubbed at Windsor Castle. But knighthood itself, and the Order of the Garter in particular, had a great deal more ceremonial meaning than actual courtly function. The host's character, and the events in and around his Garter Inn, make light of the Order of the Garter, the status of knighthood, and the notion of gentle birth itself.
Like the Fords and the Pages, the host sets up an elaborate ruse, sending the duelers Caius and Evans to two separate places, gaining entertainment and power from the mockery of these two social outsiders. He mocks their malapropisms and their misunderstandings. He teases Falstaff as well, but more respectfully, for Falstaff is...
(The entire section is 498 words.)
Bardolf is one of Falstaff s servants. Because Falstaff doesn't have enough money to pay for the needs of his followers as a knight should do, the host of the Garter Inn takes Bardolph on as his tapster, or bartender.
See Ford. (Francis Ford is at times disguised as a Mister Brook).
Caius (Doctor Caius)
Doctor Caius is a French doctor, and a foreigner. Along with Slender and Fenton, he wants to marry Anne Page. When he finds out that his housekeeper, Mistress Quickly, is at the service of rival suitors, Caius loses his temper in a stereotypically "Latin" outburst. He challenges the Welsh parson, Evans, to a duel. The comedy of this situation lies in the confusion between two foreigners whose mispronunciations only increase their mutual misunderstanding.
Caius's masculine bravado also has an element of foreign stereotype: in Elizabethan England, the French were frequently mocked as fops, full of transparently false masculine behavior. The host, who sends Caius and his rival Evans to two different places, makes fun of Caius's threatened violence. He also teases him about his profession, a less respectable one in Elizabethan times than in today's society. The host mocks the doctor's English as well.
Caius thinks the host is on his side, but when it turns out he's been misled he vows to get revenge. He and Evans witness Ford's jealous searches of his own house....
(The entire section is 2638 words.)