Under public pressure to bring back Sir John Falstaff after Prince Hal’s arrogant dismissal of his boyhood friend in Henry IV, Part II (pr. 1598, pb. 1600) and Henry V (pr. c. 1598-1599, pb. 1600), William Shakespeare reintroduces the fat knight in a slapstick romp, The Merry Wives of Windsor. On one hand, the farce can be viewed as a ridiculous satire of the London burghers, the Fords and the Pages, who successfully outwit the not-so-sly fox of an aristocrat, Falstaff, who is trying in his usual way to disrupt the pleasures and the comforts of the conventional.
Another way of approaching the play is by viewing it as a comic resolve of a story similar in some incidents to Shakespeare’s earlier play, Romeo and Juliet (pr. c. 1595-1596, pb. 1597). Unwittingly, Falstaff, in his buffoonery, performs the role of diverting the Pages from the elopement of their daughter, Anne, and Fenton, the comic Romeo. A potential tragedy thus averted, love is allowed to flourish. Falstaff plays the same role that Shakespeare assigned to him in the histories. As opposed to the deliberate Hal, who orders everything in his life, even his leisure with his cronies, Falstaff devotes his whole life to play, the gratification of the instincts, and the preservation of the self. His dalliance with the Mistresses Page and Ford may be a mockery of good burgher virtue, but he also pursues it with a good deal of pleasure, pleasure for its own sake. Everyone wins in the process. Anne is married to the man she loves, and the Pages, the Fords, and Sir John all have a thoroughly fine time in the romp. The only loser is respectability, which takes a back seat to the loud, vulgar guffaws of “Fat Jack” Falstaff.