Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1138
Sir John Falstaff is, without doubt, a rogue. True, he is fat, jolly, and in a way lovable, but he is still a rogue. His men rob and plunder the citizens of Windsor, but he himself is seldom taken or convicted for his crimes. His fortunes at low ebb, he hits upon a plan to remedy that situation. He meets Mistress Ford and Mistress Page, two good ladies who hold the purse strings in their respective houses. Falstaff writes identical letters to the two good ladies, letters protesting undying love for each of them.
The daughter of one of the ladies, Anne Page, is the center of a love triangle. Her father wishes her to marry Slender, a foolish gentleman who does not love her or anyone else, but who will marry any girl recommended to him by his cousin, the justice. Mistress Page, on the other hand, wants her daughter married to Doctor Caius, a French physician then in Windsor. Anne herself loves Fenton, a fine young gentleman deeply in love with her. All three lovers pay the doctor’s housekeeper, Mistress Quickly, to plead their cause with Anne, for Mistress Quickly convinces each that she alone can persuade Anne to answer yes to a proposal. Mistress Quickly is, in fact, second only to Falstaff in her plotting and her trickery.
Unknown to poor Falstaff, Mistress Ford and Mistress Page compare the letters received from him, alike except for the lady’s name. They decide to cure him of his knavery once and for all. Mistress Ford arranges to have him come to her house that night when her husband will not be there. Mistress Page writes that she will meet him as soon as she can cautiously arrange it. In the meantime, two former followers of Falstaff tell the two husbands of that knave’s designs on their wives. Page refuses to believe his wife unfaithful, but Ford becomes jealous and plans to spy on his wife. Disguising himself as Mr. Brook, he calls on Falstaff. His story is that he loves Mistress Ford but cannot win her love, and he comes to pay Falstaff to court her for him. His stratagem is successful; he learns from Falstaff that the knight already has a rendezvous with the lady that very night.
At the appointed time, previously arranging to have several servants assist in the plot, the two ladies are ready for Falstaff. While Falstaff is trying to make love to Mistress Ford, Mistress Page rushes in and says that Ford is on his way home. Quickly the ladies put Falstaff in a clothes basket and have him carried out by the servants, to be dumped into the Thames. Ford does arrive, of course, for, unknown to his wife, he knows Falstaff is to be there. After looking high and low without finding the rogue, he apologizes to his wife for his suspicions. Mistress Ford does not know which was the most sport, having Falstaff dumped into the river or listening to her husband’s discomfited apologies.
The ladies have so much fun over their first joke played on Falstaff that they decide to try another. Mistress Ford then sends him another message, this one saying that her husband will be gone all of the following morning, and she asks Falstaff to call on her at that time so that she can make amends for the previous affair of the basket. Again Ford, disguised as Brook, calls on Falstaff, and again he learns of the proposed assignation. He learns also of the method of Falstaff’s previous escape and vows the old roisterer should not again slip through his fingers.
When Mistress Ford hears from Mistress Page that Ford is returning unexpectedly, the ladies dress Falstaff in the clothes of a fat woman whom Ford hates. Ford, finding the supposed woman in his house, drubs the disguised knight soundly and chases him from the house. Again Ford searches everywhere for Falstaff, and again he is forced to apologize to his wife in the presence of the friends he brought with him to witness her disgrace. The two ladies think his discomfiture the funniest part of their joke.
Once more the wives plan to plague poor Falstaff, but this time they take their husbands into their confidence. When Mistress Page and Mistress Ford tell about the letters they received from Falstaff and explain the details of the two previous adventures, Ford feels very contrite over his former suspicions of his wife. Eagerly, the husbands join their wives in a final scheme intended to bring Falstaff to public shame. The ladies persuade Falstaff to meet them in the park at midnight. Falstaff is to be disguised as Herne the Hunter, a horned legendary huntsman said to roam the wintry woods each midnight. There he will be surrounded by Anne and others dressed as fairies and elves. After he is frightened half to death, the husbands will accost him and publicly display his knavery.
A quite different event was planned for that night. Page plots to have Slender seize Anne in her disguise as the fairy queen and carry her away to marry her. At the same time, Mistress Page arranges to have Doctor Caius find Anne and take her away to be married. Anne, however, has other plans. She and Fenton agree to meet in the park and under cover of the dark and confusion flee her parents and her two unwelcome suitors.
All plans are put into effect. Falstaff, after telling the supposed Brook that on this night he will for a certainty win Mistress Ford for him, dons the horns of a stag and meets the two ladies at the appointed place. Quickly the fairies and witches surround him, and the women run to join their husbands and watch the fun. Poor Falstaff tries to pretend that he is asleep or dead, but the merry revelers burn his fingers with tapers they carry and pinch him unmercifully. When Falstaff throws off his disguise, Ford and Page and their wives lay hold of him and soundly scold him for his silly gallantry and bombast. The wives ridicule his ungainly body and swear that none will ever have such a fool for a lover. Such is Falstaff’s nature, however, that no one can hate him for long. After he admits his guilt and his stupidity, they all forgive him.
While all this merriment is going on, Anne and Fenton steal away to be married. They return while the rest are busy with Falstaff. Page and his wife are in such good humor over all that occurs that they forgive the young lovers and bestow their blessing on them. Then the whole company, Falstaff included, retires to Page’s house to laugh again over the happenings of that night.
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