*Windsor. Town on the River Thames that is the play’s principal setting. Windsor is also the site of Windsor Castle, about twenty miles west of the center of London. Landmarks in the town include the great park and the castle, Datchet Mead, the road to Frogmore, the Garter Inn, the great oak in the forest, the nearby sawpit, and the castle ditch, in which Thomas Page conceals himself with Justice Shallow and Shallow’s simple-minded nephew, Slender. The play’s Windsor is a solid, comfortable community that takes pride in itself. Apart from the decadent knight Sir John Falstaff, Master Fenton, Justice Shallow, and Slender, all the characters in the play are citizens of Windsor.
*Garter Inn. Windsor meeting place of Falstaff and his cohorts. The setting provides another perspective of Windsor society and affords Falstaff a place in which to hatch his scheme to replenish his finances by wooing Mistress Ford and Mistress Page, the wives of two substantial citizens.
Caius’s house. Home of the stupid French doctor Caius that is the scene of sheer farce, in which the eccentric Frenchman is satirized. Production designers avail themselves of the opportunity to embellish the set with extra doors and paraphernalia that add to the scene’s zaniness.
Herne’s oak. Site of Falstaff’s third adventure, where he appears at midnight, disguised as Herne the Hunter with antlers on his head. The forest is appropriate for the references to Diana and Actaeon, with Falstaff’s becoming a parodic Actaeon figure.
The Merry Wives of Windsor focuses on how a community establishes and preserves its own standards. Outsiders like Falstaff, Fenton, Caius, and Evans cause a wide range of threats to Windsor's inhabitants. Evans and Caius threaten the conventions of language use that other characters rely on: the Welsh Evans has an accent, and Caius frequently misunderstands English expressions and imports French words into his speech. Even native speakers within the community often lack language skills— Mistress Quickly mistakes Latin for vulgar English, and Slender frequently mistakes the prefixes and suffixes of words. But language is nevertheless used by the characters to define an inside group and an outside group; and foreigners are on the outside. They are the object of the host's tricks, and remain the subject of humor throughout the play. There are many ways in which modern communities use language to distinguish among groups, and sometimes to exclude certain people or groups of people. For example, slang associated with younger people often receives ridicule and rejection from the adult community.
Falstaff poses a different kind of threat to the community of Windsor: he uses language exceedingly well, and in fact he is fully in control of his own jokes, fully capable of mocking other people (and himself) through language. But his cleverness also works against him. The very ruse he sets up to earn himself money reveals his capacity for using other people for his own ends. Trickster figures often appear as social outsiders, in many other literatures and in social life. Falstaff is not unlike a modern "class clown" who plays clever tricks, shows off, or tells jokes to get attention. As a result, he is punished in an elaborate and ceremonial way that may appear strange to modern audiences. The entire community dresses up as fairies from local folklore in order to torment a stranger. A distant analogy in modern life might be the jokes and disguises designed to frighten people on camping trips or at Halloween. But the punishment Falstaff receives is also quite strange, and it takes on a magical and even solemn quality all its own.
Class anxiety is the source of much of the play's conflict. The Order of the Garter, which provides an underlying context for the whole play, was an order of knights with special privileges and a special relationship to Queen Elizabeth. Much of the play is staged at the Garter Inn,...
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