Why, then the world’s mine oyster Which I with sword will open (2.2)
In The Merry Wives of Windsor, fat, disreputable Sir John Falstaff pursues two housewives, Mistress Ford and Mistress Page, who outwit and humiliate him instead. Meanwhile, three suitors seek the hand of Anne Page, Mistress Page’s daughter.
Falstaff hopes to seduce the wives so he can gain access to their husbands’ wealth. Ford learns of Falstaff’s approaches and is consumed by jealousy. In disguise, he befriends Falstaff to learn about Mistress Ford’s behavior. The wives, however, trick Falstaff and Ford. As Falstaff visits Mistress Ford, Mistress Page announces that Ford is coming. Falstaff hides in a basket of dirty laundry and is thrown in the river.
Another visit ends similarly: Falstaff disguises himself as “the fat woman of Brentford,” whom Ford hates. Ford beats “her” in anger. Finally, Falstaff is lured to a comical nighttime rendezvous where all of Windsor comes together, Falstaff is publicly humiliated, and Ford admits his folly. Two of Anne Page’s suitors elope with boys in disguise while Anne marries her chosen suitor, Fenton (reproduced with permission from Folger).
Postcards of The Merry Wives of Windsor:
Productions of The Merry Wives of Windsor:
1890 Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree‘s production with Tree playing the part of Sir John Falstaff opened at the Haymarket Theatre (London) on February 5, 1890, and ran until February 25, 1890. The principal players were James Fernandez as Mr. Ford, C. H. E. Brookfield as Master Slender, Henry Kemble as Dr. Caius, Lingard as Mistress Ford, Rose Leclercq as Mistress Page, Gurney as Mr. Page, and Mrs. H. B. Tree as Anne Page (Wearing, I: 8).
1900 Frank Benson‘s troupe performed The Merry Wives of Windsor eleven times (December 19-31) at the Comedy Theatre (London). George R. Weir played Falstaff; the other players were Oscar Asche as Pistol, F. R. Benson as Dr. Caius, Constance Benson as Mistress Ford, Frank Rodney as Ford, and Lilian Braithwaite as Anne Page (Wearing, I: 66-7).
1902 Beerbohm Tree played Sir John Falstaff in his company’s presentation of The Merry Wives of Windsor; the play ran for fifty-six performances, June through August. Oscar Asche played Master Ford, with Mrs. W. H. Kendal as Mistress Ford and Ellen Terry as Mistress Page (Wearing, I: 167).
1903 Frank Benson opened a two-week Shakespeare Festival season at Stratford-upon-Avon on April 20. Among the plays his troupe presented were Hamlet,The Winter’s Tale, Macbeth, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Loney, I: 16).
1909 The London Shakespeare Festival presented by Herbert Beerbohm Tree’s ensemble, began June 21 at His Majesty’s Theatre, London. The festival ran for two weeks with The Merry Wives of Windsor, Twelfth Night, Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Richard III, The Merchant of Venice, and Macbeth (Loney, I: 50).
1910 Beginning on March 28, several companies presented a London Shakespeare Festival at His Majesty’s Theatre. Herbert Beerbohm Tree’s company played The Merry Wives of Windsor, Julius Caesar, Twelfth Night, and Hamlet. Norman Mckinnel presented King Lear and The Merchant of Venice; Arthur Bourchier and his company came next with The Merchant of Venice. H. B. Irving played Hamlet, and Frank Benson’s “Bensonians” followed with the Taming of the Shrew and Coriolanus. Poel’s Elizabethan Stage Society gave a performance—in the “original” sixteenth-century style—of The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Lewis Waller revived his Henry V, and Tree returned to close the Festival with The Merchant of Venice and Richard II (Loney, I: 54).
At the first Stratford-upon-Avon Summer Shakespeare Festival, Benson presented The Winter’s Tale, Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Henry V, Twelfth Night, As You Like It, Richard II, Hamlet, and The Merry Wives of Windsor (Loney, I: 54).
1911 On February 25, Oscar Asche and Lily Brayton opened their London season at the Garrick Theatre with The Merry Wives of Windsor (Loney, I: 158).
On April 17, the annual Stratford Shakespeare Festival opened with The Merry Wives of Windsor. This year Frank Benson also offered The Merchant of Venice, Twelfth Night, Much Ado About Nothing, Henry V, Julius Caesar, Macbeth, As You Like It, Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Richard III (Loney, I: 158).
1911 The London Shakespeare Festival opened on May 22 at His Majesty’s Theatre with Herbert Beerbohm Tree’s Julius Caesar, followed by Oscar Asche and Lily Brayton‘s As You Like It. Next came The Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night. Frank Benson presented The Taming of the Shrew, Tree revived his Henry VIII, and the Festival closed with Benson’s Richard III and on July 3, the final night, The Merry Wives of Windsor (Loney, I: 158).
1912 The third annual summer season of Shakespeare began on August 7 at Stratford. The Shakespeare plays performed by Frank Benson’s troupe included Othello, Henry V, Antony and Cleopatra, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and The Merry Wives of Windsor (Loney, I: 64).
1913 Frank Benson’s summer season of Shakespeare’s plays opened on August 2 with The Merchant of Venice; other plays performed that season were As You Like It, Hamlet, King John, Richard II, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Much Ado About Nothing, Romeo and Juliet, The Taming of the Shrew, Twelfth Night, and Henry IV, Part 2 (Loney, I: 68).
1914 Frank Benson returned from the United States to direct the Stratford Summer Festival. He opened the four-week festival with Much Ado About Nothing. The company also presented Hamlet, Richard II, Henry IV, Part 2, Henry V, The Merry Wives of Windsor, The Merchant of Venice, Twelfth Night, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, The Taming of the Shrew, and Romeo and Juliet (Loney, I: 73).
On October 5, the Old Vic Theatre, under the management of Lilian Baylis, mounted a production of The Taming of the Shrew. Additionally, the following plays were performed for the first time in 1914 at the Old Vic: Hamlet, The Merchant of Venice, The Tempest, The Merry Wives of Windsor, The Comedy of Errors, Twelfth Night, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Baylis will, by 1923, have produced the entire Shakespeare canon of thirty-seven plays (Loney, I: 73).