This bundle of low-brow humor is ostensibly about the fat knight Falstaff, who has found himself down and out in Windsor. He devises a plan to gold-dig two wealthy married women named Mistress Ford and Mistress Page. He writes a love letter to both of them, but since the merry wives are pals, they immediately discover his duplicity. They are scheming little bitches, so they decide to trick Falstaff into thinking they're in love with him for the purpose of openly humiliating him.
He falls for this joke THREE TIMES. In the first case, he ends up being chucked into a laundry basket filled with hot, poopy clothes and thrown into the freezing Thames (where he notes he had "a kind of alacrity in sinking"...so funny to me for some reason). The second time, he is forced to exit Ford's house disguised as "the fat woman of Brentford" while Mistress Ford's husband beats the crap out of him. Finally, he is humiliated in front of the entire town! Hahahahaha, shouldn't have been so poor and lonely, Falstaff!
Like many comedies, it's kind of a heartbreaking story underneath. How desperate must Falstaff be to endure such brazen mockery just to maintain the illusion that he might be lovable? It's especially sad when you factor in that Master Ford is a crime of passion waiting to happen. He basically has an aneurysm whenever his wife makes eye contact with another man, and his seething man-rage is tonally weird in such a light-hearted play. It's like somebody cut-and-pasted Bill Sikes into The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Look out, everyone! There's a loose cannon in your laugh barrel!
Okay, then there's the B plot, which is about Mistress Page's daughter Anne. She's smoking hot and everybody wants to marry her. Her Dad thinks she should marry a guy named Slender for reasons I never quite understood, while her Mum thinks she should marry the French physician Cauis (he's a DOC-TAH).
Anne wants to marry for love, the adorable dummy. She's into this guy named Fenton who blew all his inheritance on the equivalent of cocaine and hookers. Total trust fund kid. But they love each other, and they're bummed about the lack of parental support for their train-wreck of a future. They elope in the last scene, while Falstaff is being publicly tormented in the background. Nothing says "romantic wedding" like a fat, lonely man being exposed as unlovable at in front of all his peers, am I right?
Mistress Page: Trust me, he beat him most pitifully.
Mistress Ford: Nay, by the mass, that he did not; he beat him most unpitifully, methought.
Mistress Page: I'll have the cudgel hallowed and hung o'er the altar; it hath done meritorious service.
Mistress Ford: What think you? may we, with the warrant of womanhood and the witness of a good conscience, pursue him with any further revenge?
Mistress Page: The spirit of wantonness is, sure, scared out of him: if the devil have him not in fee-simple, with fine and recovery, he will never, I think, in the way of waste, attempt us again.
Mistress Ford: Shall we tell our husbands how we have served him?
Mistress Page: Yes, by all means; if it be but to scrape the figures out of your husband's brains. If they can find in their hearts the poor unvirtuous fat knight shall be any further afflicted, we two will still be the ministers.
Mistress Ford: I'll warrant they'll have him publicly shamed: and methinks there would be no period to the jest, should he not be publicly shamed.
Mistress Page: Come, to the forge with it then; shape it: I would not have things cool.
He's a human being, you beautiful psychopaths! All Falstaff did was write these women love letters, and they're like, "oh, let's ruin HIS ENTIRE LIFE." With their husbands in on it, they emotionally Melvin him in front of all of Windsor, and then everyone goes on a vicious rampage of new insults:
Mistress Page. Why, Sir John, do you think, though we would have thrust virtue out of our hearts by the head and shoulders, and have given ourselves without scruple to hell, that ever the devil could have made you our delight?
Mistress Ford: What, a hodge-pudding? a bag of flax?
Mistress Page: A puffed man?
Page: Old, cold, withered, and of intolerable entrails?
Ford: And one that is as slanderous as Satan?
Page: And as poor as Job?
Ford: And as wicked as his wife?
Evans: And given to fornications, and to taverns, and sack and wine and metheglins, and to drinkings and swearings and starings, pribbles and prabbles?
I have nothing overarching to say about Merry Wives because it's a really stupid comedy. Like, excruciatingly derivative. But I can't help but love it—and not even in spite of all the dumbness. Because of all the dumbness. Plus, I read this aloud with my husband and he really nailed the hacky accents of the French Dr. Cauis ("by gar") and the Welsh Evans ("fear of Got"). So now I just adore this heap of farty dick jokes even more. The end.
Best Egg Synonym: Falstaff calls eggs "pullet-sperm." Hahahahah, NOW THAT'S WHAT I CALL EGGS TOO. "Yes, can I please have the Pullet-Sperm Florentine please? Or perhaps the Scrambled Pullet-Sperm?" Hahahahahah, I am 12.
Historical Tidbit: There is a story, probably apocryphal, that Queen Elizabeth loved Falstaff in the Henriad so much that she asked Shakespeare to write a play about "Falstaff in love." Merry Wives was the result. Man, Lizzie must have been really disappointed. The lesson is: don't give notes to Shakespeare because he'll use them as a butt rag.
Real Stumper: Sometimes when I don't understand what Shakes is trying to say, I don't look up the line because I like it better open-ended. For example, Falstaff's question: "When gods have hot backs, what shall poor men do?" I dunno, Sir John. That's a crazy person question.