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Written predominantly in prose, The Merry Wives of Windsor is set in a typical middle-class community of Elizabethan England. The plot revolves around Sir Falstaff and his various misdeeds in Windsor. When the play begins, the reader sees Justice Shallow, a renowned figure of the community, complaining to his friends about injuries received at the hands of Falstaff. Falstaff is questioned, but he is utterly unrepentant, giving the audience a clear picture of his character at the very beginning of the play.
At the same time, a sub-plot is introduced. Anne, the beautiful and rich daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Page, is being pursued by many eager men. Slender, one of her suitors, has been virtually pushed into courting Anne. Fenton, a young gentleman, also reveals himself to be her suitor. Doctor Caius and Sir Evans are also interested in this lovely girl. When Dr. Caius and Sir Evans realize that they are both courting Anne, they are upset. The host of the Garter Inn instigates a duel between Evans and Caius for the hand of Anne. When they realize they have been duped, they plan to seek revenge on the host.
Falstaff decides to seduce Mrs. Page and Mrs. Ford, falsely assuming they both care about him. Robin, his page, delivers messages to both women, inviting them to meet with Falstaff. Both Mrs. Page and Mrs. Ford are indignant at the proposal and immediately devise a plan of action, whereby Falstaff will be exposed and utterly humiliated. They use Mrs. Quickly, Dr. Caius' servant, to serve as the go-between for them. Meanwhile, Nym and Pistol, Falstaff's cronies, deem it proper to inform the husbands, Mr. Page and Mr. Ford, of Falstaff's designs on their wives. On being told of Falstaff's plans, Mr. Page shows remarkable trust in his wife, but Mr. Ford becomes extremely jealous and angry. Ford disguises himself as Mr. Brook and meets Falstaff. Not realizing Ford's true identity, Falstaff boasts about his forthcoming conquest of Mrs. Ford. This makes Ford all the more distrustful of his wife.
Falstaff's first meeting with Mrs. Ford is hilarious, with Mr. Ford entering at an opportune moment. Falstaff has to be carried out in a laundry basket. For the second meeting, he is disguised as an old woman of unsavory character, to whom Ford gives a sound beating. Falstaff is undeterred and agrees to a third meeting. By now, both husbands are in on the planning. Ford is profusely apologetic for his lack of trust and agrees to join in the final humiliation of Falstaff.
In the final forest scene, Falstaff is made to dress up as Herne the Hunter, a character from local folklore, and a few children have been disguised as fairies. These fairies fall upon Falstaff, torturing and tormenting him with their tapers until he confesses his vile character.
Slender, seizing his opportunity, whisks away a fairy in green. Dr. Caius takes a fairy in white. Both of them realize later they have seized the wrong person, not Anne. In the meantime, Anne and Fenton have accepted the host's help and are married by the vicar. Seeing the happily married couple, the parents accept them gracefully.
The play ends with the villain duly chastened and the lovers brought together. Thus, The Merry Wives of Windsor is a festive comedy in which the entire community bands together to "sacrifice an aging fertility God in preparation for a seasonal return to order and normality."