Summary and Analysis
Falstaff promises Master Brook some "wonders" at midnight by Herne's oak; Page reminds Slender that his daughter will be waiting; and Mrs. Page reassures Caius that Anne Page is ready to be swept away "to the deanery" (to be married); Hugh Evans, disguised as a satyr, calls "Trib, trib [trip], fairies" and leads a troop of revelers to their rendezvous in Windsor Park. So much for the first four scenes of the final act of The Merry Wives of Windsor.
Scene 5 is the climax of the play. Horns on his head, Falstaff calls on "the hot-blooded gods" to assist him. He is virtually licking his lips in anticipation when the two women appear. He "magnanimously" proposes to both of them: "Divide me like a bribed [filched] buck, each a haunch." Immediately the general hubub of the assembled "fairies" is heard, and the two women run off, leaving Falstaff believing that hell itself has had a hand in preventing his sexual mischief these three times: "I think the devil will not have me damned, lest the oil that's in me should set hell on fire. He would never else cross me thus." Falstaff throws himself down but is discovered (hardly surprising!) by the satyr (Evans) and the Fairy Queen (Quickly). They put him to the test of chastity: touching his "finger end" with fire. When he cries out in pain, the lecher is denounced:
Corrupt, corrupt, and tainted in desire!
About him, fairies, sing a scornful rhyme;
And, as you trip, still pinch him to your time. (94-96)
When all decide to end the jest, Falstaff is nonplussed: "I do begin to perceive that I am made an ass." Both Slender and Doctor Caius arrive before long and announce that they have been tricked into running off with boys, whom they mistook for Anne Page. To end the play, the newly married couple, Master Fenton and Anne Page, explain themselves:
The truth is, she and I, long since contracted, are now so
Sure [wedded] that nothing can dissolve us. (234-35)
All present cheer the outcome and follow Mrs. Page:
Heaven give you [Anne and Fenton] many, many merry days!
Good husband, let us every one go home,
And laugh this sport o'er by a country fire; Sir John and all. (254-57)
A change in style marks the very last scene of the play. The verse, the elaborate costumes, and the ceremonial nature of the events involving the "fairy kingdom" in the harassment and final exposure of Falstaff resemble a courtly masque in form. The masque was a courtly entertainment that stressed allegorical figures, splendid costuming, and dancing, in which audience members were encouraged to participate. It highlighted special occasions at court. Many scholars associate The Merry Wives of Windsor (certainly this part of it) with the installation of new members into the honored Order of the Garter by Queen Elizabeth in May 1597. (Indeed, George Carey, the second Lord Hunsdon and a favorite of the Queen, was installed on that occasion.) He was also the patron of Shakespeare's company of actors at the time. When Mistress Quickly, incongruously decked out as the Fairy Queen, instructs the fairy troupe to search the area for any creatures unfit to be present, she makes direct references to Windsor and to the chapel of St. George, where the Knights of the Garter had their stalls.
Quickly: About, about.
Search Windsor Castle, elves, within and out.
Strew good luck, ouphes, on every sacred room,
That it may stand till the perpetual doom,
In state as wholesome as in state 'tis fit,
Worthy the owner, and the owner it.
The several chairs of order [of the Garter] look you scour
With juice of balm and every precious flower. (59-66)
Regardless of these historical details, the final scene offers a splendid and fantastical ending to the comedy. Major characters are transformed and amazed, one after the other. Falstaff has become a horned beast, then an "ass," by his own admittance. His physical torment is real when they "put tapers to his fingers," but one imagines the humiliation which he endures goes beyond that pain: "Have I lived to stand at the taunt of one that makes fritters of English [that is, of Hugh Evans, the Welshman]?"
In the spirit of this good-natured farce, no resistance is offered to the final piece of trickery which results in a perfect matrimonial match between Fenton and Anne Page. General applause and a "country fire" round out the play, which includes all of the characters in its final celebration.