Written around 1597, critics believe that The Merry Wives of Windsor was written to capitalise on the popular success of the corpulent, knavish Sir John Falstaff in the two parts of Henry IV. Falstaff takes centre stage again in this play, hard up for money and planning to pay off his debts by seducing the wives of two rich citizens, Ford and Page. As in the earlier Henry IV plays, Falstaffs elaborate plans go awry, with disastrous and humiliating consequences. Ford is furious with Falstaff's attempt to woo his wife, whilst both Mistress Ford and Mistress Page have the measure of Falstaff, and repeatedly dupe him, first hiding him in a laundry basket and dumping him in the river, then tormenting him in the forest of Windsor with children disguised as fairies.
Often dismissed as a hasty and mechanical play lacking in depth, The Merry Wives of Windsor is in fact a wonderfully inventive farce. Falstaff is a ludicrous mock hero, dressed as a mythical hunter in the forest, declaiming "powerful love that in some respects makes a beast a man, in some others a man a beast!" Mistress Ford and Page are also great comic creations, witty and resilient women who drive the comedy, no longer "in the holiday time" of beauty, but wise and streetwise women who are always one step ahead of the absurd Falstaff. A greatly underrated play. --Jerry Brotton [via]