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The story goes that Queen Elizabeth asked Shakespeare to write about Falstaff in love. The play that was written, The Merry Wives of Windsor, did not end up as the prescribed romance. Shakespeare used the opportunity to tell a juicier tale. Love is not the driving force in the play. The characters are instead driven forward by their ambition, jealousy and greed. The joy of watching Merry Wives comes not from the romantic assignations but from witnessing vigilante justice being enacted on the outsider: the one and only Sir John Falstaff.
We like to think of ourselves as part of a civil society where the balance of power comes from justice and wrongs will be righted by law. Yet on the stage when those strictures get lifted we, the audience, live vicariously through the character’s sweet revenge. From the first lines of Merry Wives we are introduced to the inhabitants of Windsor with their eyes on retribution. Justice Shallow starts the play off by making clear that “if he were twenty Sir John Falstaffs, he shall not abuse Robert Shallow, Esquire” (act 1, scene 1). From this we expect a play leading in one direction, toward the plotted downfall of Falstaff.
Falstaff is marked from the beginning as being outside of society. He is the perfect scapegoat for society’s aggression being at once an easy figure of ridicule and a proud iconoclast. Within the traditional structure of classical comedies, status quo falls apart and by the time the curtain descends is again preserved. From his place in Shakespeare’s earlier Henry IV plays, the Elizabethan audience knew that Falstaff’s purpose is disruption and that by the end he will be dealt with. In his wake Falstaff leaves a trail of disorder, leading to statements like that made by Justice Shallow at the start of the play. But it is not law or society that forces him to stop. It is instead the women who turn Falstaff’s unruly personality into a fun game of revenge.
When Mrs. Page tempts Mrs. Ford with the idea of revenge, her response is that she “will consent to any act of villainy against him that may not sully the chariness of our honesty” (act 2, scene 1). Their revenge is the revenge of the status quo and therefore they cannot risk further disruption by their response. Their ever-growing list of revenge tactics results in separating Falstaff further and further from acceptable society. He is stripped of dignity and his outward humanity. They inversely are assured of theirs. In Marguerite A. Tassi’s book Women and Revenge in Shakespeare: Gender, Genre, and Ethics, she writes, “All of the merrymaking that accompanies comedy is directed toward our laughing away the deplorable cultural assumption that merry wives are dishonest, particularly in their lack of chastity” (p. 189). In other words, by enacting revenge on Falstaff, the women are able to show that they are an honest part of the society. Shakespeare may not have given the Queen a lovesick clown she wanted. Instead he gave her a female-powered culture able to take matters of societal disruption into its own hands.