The Merry Wives of Windsor is the most purely farcical of all of Shakespeare's plays. It depends on lightning-quick timing between the actors and the carefully choreographed actions. The "meaning" cannot be separated from the "performance."
The incidents themselves are as follows: There is a main plot in which Sir John Falstaff conspires to seduce Mrs. Page and Mrs. Ford, the wives of two prominent Windsor citizens. The women play along with him in order to expose him as a preposterous lecher. Then, to complicate matters, the insanely jealous Mr. Ford disguises himself as one "Mr. Brook" and hires Falstaff to procure Mrs. Ford for him in order to (so he plans) reveal her suspected infidelity. But Mrs. Ford and Mrs. Page dupe both Falstaff and Mr. Ford. On one occasion, Falstaff is tricked into hiding in a basket of dirty clothes, then dropped into the river ("I have a kind of alacrity in sinking," he says); on another occasion, he must disguise himself as a fat old woman, a "witch" much hated by Mr. Ford, who summarily pummels "her"/him. Finally, both husbands join their "merry wives" in an elaborate masque-like entertainment, the high point of which is the humiliation of Falstaff, who has this time disguised himself as the ghostly "Herne the Hunter," complete with a massive set of horns on his head.
The secondary plot concerns the comical antics of a pair of would-be suitors for the hand of the lovely Anne Page. Doctor Caius, a quick-tempered French doctor, and Slender, the stupid nephew of Justice Shallow, vie for Anne's favor, while she finds both of them abhorrent. Sir Hugh Evans, a friend to Shallow and a supporter of Slender's cause, comes into conflict with Doctor Caius, and because the Welshman Evans and the Frenchman Caius persistently garble the English language, their meetings and arguments give special pleasure to all present.
In the end, Anne Page marries her true-love, a poor young gentleman named Fenton. Mr. Ford promises to desist from being jealous of his wife, Falstaff is made a laughing stock, and then he is reconciled to the group. The spirit of the comedy is best summed up in Mrs. Page's last lines:
Heaven give you 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. (253-57)