The Merry Wives of Windsor
Until fairly recently, much of the criticism directed toward The Merry Wives of Windsor was unfavorable. Critics were apt to note that the Falstaff in this early comedy of Shakespeare's was greatly diminished from the charismatic and comical tour de force that appeared in 1 Henry IV. One explanation is found in the traditional anecdote which claims that Falstaff had been brought back to life after 2 Henry IV at the command of Queen Elizabeth I, who wanted to see the roguish, fat knight in love. Later criticism, however, has focused on the play's sources as well as its individual merits. Specifically, emphasis has been placed on the play's setting and connection to Elizabethan society, Falstaff's role as scapegoat, and on the issues of disguise and deception.
Leslie S. Katz (1995) looks back at the play's early performances. Drawing a connection between its first showing before the Queen in honor of her knights of the Garter and subsequent performances held for the general populace, Katz suggests that The Merry Wives of Windsor was intended to inspire patriotism in a citizenry who "went to the theater to see what the court saw." Rosemary Kegl (1994), on the other hand, underscores the play's link with its Elizabethan audience by studying the characters' insults and the manner in which they help to identify the vague and fluctuating middle class of the Elizabethan era.
Other critics have discussed the ways in which Falstaff acts as the play's scapegoat. G. Beiner (1988) uses the "social/anthropological term 'pharmakos'" to pinpoint Falstaff as "a threat and an aberration" that the wives must neutralize to restore morality and order to their community. Frederick B. Jonassen (1991) sees Falstaff somewhat differently. He argues that the knight's role as "Jack-a-Lent," or scapegoat, works both against and for the character, who must be "set apart from the rest of humanity" for his lewdness but who also exposes the overweening power and moral hypocrisy of his tormentors—thereby restoring balance to the community. Jeanne Addison Roberts (1975) concludes that Falstaff's role is "ambiguous," arguing that while he deserves his punishment, the wives go too far, so that in the end, the audience can't help but feel sympathy for the fat knight.
Ultimately, what ties each of the play's elements together is the frequent use of disguise in the play as well as the theme of deception. Picking up on the notion that domestic harmony must be restored in Windsor, Leo Salingar (1974) argues that the wives trick Falstaff to teach him a lesson and to cure Ford of his jealousy. Salingar also remarks that the play is a classic example of "the duper duped," for almost everyone in the play is deceived—including "Mr. and Mrs. Page, who are impregnable against Falstaff," but who "blunder over their daughter's marriage because they attempt to use trickery against her and against each other." William C. Carroll (1985) points to the play's theme of self-deception. Falstaff, Carroll observes, allows himself to be deceived by his own vain lust and Ford by his unwarranted jealousy. Nancy Cotton (1987) provides another variation on the theme of deception when she argues that the wives use deceit that borders on witchcraft when their "trick on the would-be cuckolder [Falstaff] restores potency to the husband, Ford." The Merry Wives of Windsor is, in fact, full of disguises meant to deceive someone, whether it be hopeful suitors to Anne Page, a jealous husband, ambitious parents; or a lascivious knight. But as Roger Moss (1995) asserts in his discussion of the scene in which Falstaff escapes from the Ford household disguised as a woman, all of this "dressing-up" also amounts to a form of adult "play," or "of wish-fulfillment stories, that belong to drama."