The wives engineer a second narrow escape for Falstaff from the furious Ford, this time as "the witch of Brainford," Mrs. Ford's maid's fat aunt, the mere sight of whom sends Ford into a rage. Falstaff submits to disguising himself as a woman so that he can evade Ford and the crowd which accompanies him. To escape, however, he must first endure a cudgeling:
Ford: I'll 'prat' [best] her. Out of my door, you witch,
you hag, you baggage, you polecat, you ronyon!
Out, out! (194-95)
Still asserting that his "jealousy is reasonable," Ford searches for evidence of his wife's unfaithfulness — again in vain.
The "merry wives" determine to carry on their harassment of John Falstaff, if their husbands so wish. In Scene 4, Ford begs pardon of his wife for his being such a fool — "I rather will suspect the sun with cold / Than thee with wantonness" — and the group decides to have one last sport at Falstaff's expense. A local folk tale has it that "Herne the Hunter," many years ago a gamekeeper in Windsor Forest, haunts the area in wintertime, blighting the trees and bewitching the cattle. He walks around an old oak tree, wearing "great ragg'd horns," and shaking a chain "in a most hideous and dreadful manner." The plan is to induce Falstaff to meet both women at Herne's oak, wearing horns on his head and disguised as the ancient gamekeeper. The rest of the company will surprise him and "mock him home to Windsor." Before the scene ends, both Page and Mrs. Page separately reveal (in asides) that they will help their daughter sneak off to marry each one's favorite suitor, respectively Slender and Doctor Caius.
Scene 3 is an interlude in which Bardolph tells the Host of the Garter Inn about the arrival of a German duke. Three of his compatriots need to hire horses to go meet him. The Host emphasizes that he will "make them pay; I'll sauce them."
The merry pace of the farce continues here, showing an absurd disguising of Falstaff as a fat witch and promising yet another, Falstaff horned like a beast, as "Herne the Hunter." There is a gleeful sense of mischief in Mrs. Page and Mrs. Ford's actions which dictates the tone of the scenes. As Mrs. Page puts it, "We'll leave a proof by that which we will do / Wives may be merry, and yet honest too." In order to keep the wives' high spirits on this side of sadism and to break the monotony, Shakespeare draws the husbands into the final plot to unmask Falstaff. Indeed, there is something almost festive about the two families' plans for the midnight plot.
Mrs. Page: Nan Page, my daughter, and my little son,
and three or four more of their growth, we'll dress like urchins,
ouphes [elves], and fairies, green and white, with rounds of waxen
tapers on their heads, and rattles in their hands. Upon a sudden, as
Falstaff, she and I are newly met.
. . . Let them all encircle him about. And, fairylike, to pinch the unclean knight. (47-52; 56-57)
Even Mrs. Page and her benevolent husband have blind spots when it comes to the marriage of their daughter Anne. The mother's desire for social connections ("friends potent at court") spurs her on to pro-pose a secret wedding with Doctor Caius; and, as before, Mr. Page is intent on having the financially sound "Master Slender steal my Nan away." Folly is not the sole property of Falstaff in this play.