Falstaff steps into the trap set for him by Mrs. Page and Mrs. Ford. "Have I caught thee, my heavenly jewel?" the fat knight croons to Mrs. Ford upon arrival, only to find himself a few minutes later demeaningly transported out of her house in a "buck-basket" [a dirty linen hamper] to avoid discovery by her husband. Ford is fooled as well, since he fully expected to find the fat knight compromising his wife's "honesty." For Mrs. Ford's part, the pleasure is a double one: "I know not which pleases me better — that my husband is deceived, or Sir John." The two women immediately plan a further adventure in order to offer Falstaff "another hope, to betray him to another punishment."
Disappointed and embarrassed, Ford invites Page, Caius, and Evans to a dinner which he has promised them. At the end of the scene, Caius and Evans reaffirm their plan to be revenged on the Host.
Falstaff enters the scene; now he is "sweet Sir John," the overage, would-be courtly lover, spouting poetry and eager for a sexual conquest. He exits this scene as a whale with so many "tuns of oil in his belly," crammed into a basket which no doubt sags precariously between its unfortunate bearers. Imagine the sight of Falstaff trying to save his skin by squeezing into the basket:
Mrs. Ford: He's too big to go in there. What shall I do?
Falstaff: Let me see it, let me see it. O let me see it!
I'll in, I'll in! Follow your friend's counsel. I'll in! (142-44)
Shakespeare compounds the insult by strongly contrasting the language of Falstaff to the reality of his situation. References made to smelling "like Bucklersbury in simple-time" (the street in London where herbs were sold) are especially comical when one considers the stench of dirty linen under which Falstaff will soon find himself. Mrs. Ford extends the idea, no doubt hardly able to stifle her laughter, when she explains to Mrs. Page that Falstaff's extreme fear may cause him to loose his bowels, so that he'll be in a real need of ducking in ditch water, which they have instructed the servants to give him:
Mrs. Page: What a taking [fright] was he in when
your husband asked who was in the basket!
Mrs. Ford: I am half afraid he will have need of washing;
so throwing him into the water will do him a benefit. (191-95)
Just as Falstaff is being lugged off-stage, Ford hesitates before the basket, but he does not inspect anything. The tension is exquisitely comic, and it intensifies when Ford hears the buzz-word "buck" [cuckold] uttered by his wife, albeit with a different meaning. One wonders if she puts stress on the word, however, in order to raise his hackles.
Mrs. Ford: Why, what have you to do whither they
bear it [the basket]? You were best meddle with buck-washing!
Ford: Buck? I would I could wash myself of the buck
[horned animal-i.e., cuckold]! Buck, buck buck!
Ay, buck; I warrant you, buck — and of the season too, it shall appear. (163-69)
Ford's extreme reaction and Falstaff's extreme debasement highlight the scene.