Shakespeare’s “merry wives” are Mistress Ford and Mistress Page, both married to well-to-do citizens of Windsor, a town near London best known for its royal castle and its parks. (“Mistress,” in their case, means what “Mrs.” later came to mean.) The two are fast friends who cooperate with and completely trust each other, and who join together to play elaborate practical jokes on Mistress Ford’s jealous husband and on the knight Sir John Falstaff, a visitor staying at Windsor’s Garter Inn. As a collection of characters in a play, merry wives, jealous husbands, and predatory knights would have been familiar to Shakespeare’s audience. This is a group found over and over again in a particular kind of popular play of Shakespeare’s time called “citizen comedy” or “city comedy.” The staple of such comedy, found throughout the seventeenth century, is a kind of class warfare in which courtiers, gentlemen, or knights prey on married citizens by using social superiority to seduce the wives, thereby gaining access to the married couples’ money and turning the citizen-husbands into figures of scorn called cuckolds (a name for men whose wives are unfaithful). In these plays, proper wives stand out against such seducers and maintain a posture of silence, chastity, and obedience, but merry wives—those who enjoy and are animated by feasting and entertainment—often give in to the pleasures offered by their male social superiors.
Shakespeare’s merry wives, though, do not follow the usual pattern. Instead, Falstaff’s offer of himself as lover to both Mistress Page and Mistress Ford becomes the occasion of their extended torment of him. No matter how much they enjoy having fun, these wives are individually and collectively offended by his offer. They immediately turn their attention to taking revenge for his presuming to approach them. And when one of the husbands, Ford, is overcome by jealousy and seeks to expose what he believes is his wife’s infidelity, he too becomes the target of the wives’ merry schemes.
But the combination of Mistress Page and Mistress Ford is not the only comic engine in this play. While Falstaff is the butt of their jokes, he nonetheless responds to his plight with comic speeches filled with the same linguistic facility that Shakespeare gives this character in the history plays in which he also appears. There is a long, if quite groundless, tradition that Queen Elizabeth so enjoyed Falstaff in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1 and Part 2 that she commanded the dramatist to write a play about Falstaff in love, a command that Shakespeare purportedly fulfilled in just two weeks. While the tradition has nothing factual to support it, it reflects the fact that Falstaff through the centuries has been regarded by audiences as the “hero” of the play.