Sir John Falstaff Consistent with the image of the ne'er-do-well companion of Prince Hal (later to be Henry V) in several of Shakespeare's history plays, the Falstaff of The Merry Wives of Windsor is self-consciously pompous and eloquent, self-pitying when the occasion arises, and always ready to exploit anyone — man or woman — to achieve his desired ends. His appetites and his humor are as large as his enormous belly, and it is fitting that when he makes a fool of himself, as he does no less than three times in this play, his folly looms larger than that of the rest of the company combined. In order to secure his financial position and also to indulge his sexual fancy, he makes romantic overtures to the "merry wives" of Windsor, Mrs. Page and Mrs. Ford. They dupe him again and again: first, they stuff him into a "buck-basket" full of ill-smelling linens and then have him dumped into the Thames River; then, they disguise him as the fat "witch of Brainford," who is hated by Mr. Ford, who beats him black and blue; and finally, they trick him into playing the part of "Herne the Hunter," a ghost who haunts Windsor Park with great ragged horns on his head. In the last disguise, Falstaff is surprised by the entire company and is made the butt of their jokes. He admits to being "made an ass" in the very last scene and is welcomed to join the group to "laugh this sport o'er by a country fire."
Fenton, a Young Gentleman Master Fenton is the well-born but impecunious rightful lover in this romantic farce. He successfully pursues young Anne Page over the objections of both her mother and her father. The play ends fittingly just after he announces their secret wedding. His bride has married him in defiance of her parents, he says, "to shun / A thousand irreligious cursed hours / Which forced marriage would have brought upon her."
Shallow, a Country Justice Shallow's main part in the action, aside from swearing to be revenged on Falstaff, is to propose and encourage the courtship of Anne Page by his nephew, Slender.
Slender, Nephew to Shallow Slender's name describes his wit. He is one of Anne Page's unlikely suitors, a man possessing "a little wee face, with a little yellow beard," who prefers talking sport (dogs, bears, and "jests with geese") to courting women. At his uncle's insistence, he makes several romantic overtures to Anne, deluding even himself into thinking that he's in love with her, before the whole enterprise founders.
Ford, a Citizen of Windsor ("Brook," in disguise) Ford is a man of property who can be "mad as a mad dog" when jealousy overtakes him. Disguised as Brook, he pays Falstaff handsomely to compromise "Ford's" wife, but on both occasions, Mrs. Ford has the laugh on both Falstaff and on her husband. In the end, Ford admits his folly ("Pardon me, wife") and joins her in humiliating Falstaff in the final Herne-the-Hunter episode.
Page, a Citizen of Windsor Page is more reasonable than his friend Ford in every respect but one. Though he can see through his friend's jealousy, he cannot see the folly in his own choice of a husband for his daughter Anne. Refusing to consider Fenton as a possibility because Fenton has no property or money, Page favors Slender. His values are stolidly middle class; but for Shakespeare, who came from the same middle class himself, Page's good sense finally prevails over his property instincts, and he consents (after the fact) to the wedding of Anne and Fenton.
William Page, the young son of Page William appears in two scenes: first, he is doing his Latin lessons before Hugh Evans and Mistress Quickly; and second, he acts as one of the forest creatures in the elaborate ritual to unmask Falstaff in Windsor Park.
Sir Hugh Evans, a Welsh Parson Falstaff aptly hits on the most interesting feature of this character when he says that Evans "makes fritters of English." This remark is in response to Sir Hugh's line, typically in dialect: "Seese is not goot to give putter. Your pelly is all putter.": (Cheese is not good to give butter; your belly is all butter.)
Doctor Caius, a French Physician Another practitioner of fractured English (e.g., "If dere be one, or two, I shall make a de turd" ["third"]), Doctor Caius is Hugh Evans' chief antagonist. A revenger's subplot ensues when Caius learns that Hugh Evans is aiding Slender and Shallow in pursuit of Anne Page, a woman whom Caius himself fancies. Engineered by the Host of the Garter, a duel between these two is set to take place — in different locations. The Host, and the audience, would rather hear them argue than see them fight anyway. As retribution, Evans and Caius plan to seek joint revenge on the Host for this trick, and vague reference is made in the play to horses which they may have arranged to have stolen from the Host.
The Host of the Garter Inn The Host's chief motivation seems to be to enjoy himself. He babbles endlessly to all around him while engineering such schemes as the abortive duel between Doctor Caius and Sir Hugh Evans. This trickster, however, finds himself tricked too by the end of the play.
Bardolph, Pistol, and Nym; followers of Falstaff This crew of motley thieves, familiar from the other "Falstaff plays," has only a small part in the action here. They form a rogues' context for Falstaff. Their attitudes toward one another seem to be ones of mutual contempt, for they betray each other at every turn. Nym seems to utter the word "humour" in every sentence which he speaks; Bardolph becomes quickly familiar to us because of his references to his bulbous nose and his scarlet complexion; and Pistol stands out as the most venomous of Falstaff's inner circle of "friends."
Simple, Servant to Slender Even stupider than his master, Simple is usually the yo-yo of other people's witticisms.
Mistress Ford Reasonably cautious at first, Mrs. Ford soon decides not only to teach Falstaff a lesson for his outrageous presumption in trying to seduce her, but also to irritate her jealous husband and to expose his foolishness. At the end of the play, this "merry wife" reaffirms her marriage on the basis of trust, thereby creating a second reason for celebrating Fenton and Anne Page's nuptials.
Mistress Page Mrs. Page has the luxury of material comfort, a trusting husband, and lovely children. Hers is the advantage of the Elizabethan middle class. Her sense of morality is outraged by fat John Falstaff's proposals, and she sets out with her partner, Mrs. Ford, to expose Falstaff as a lecher and a fraud. This done, her (and her class') morality is reaffirmed. Yet Mrs. Page has a blind spot: she prefers the advantages which highly placed social connections can give her and believes that her daughter, Anne Page, should marry Doctor Caius. Anne's opinion of the Frenchman is clear: "I had rather be set quick i' th' earth, / And bowled to death with turnips." The audience, of course, concurs and is happy that Mrs. Page can finally see the rightness of her daughter's marriage to Fenton.
Anne Page Anne is the model of "pretty virginity," the conventional beautiful maiden at the core of a romantic comedy. She adds her mother's pluck and forthrightness to her physical attributes, resists her parents' choice of suitors, and finally has her way with her male counterpart, Fenton.
Mistress Quickly Mistress Quickly, the talkative and meddlesome servant of Doctor Caius, uses her intimate friendship with Anne Page to turn a profit. She promotes all comers who think they have a hope of successfully wooing Anne Page. Quickly is as apt to misuse the English language as the Frenchman or Welshman are in the play, and she also provides some comedy in her penchant for obscene puns. It is especially amusing that she should play the part of the delicate Fairy Queen in the climactic "masque scene."