Summary and Analysis
The "Country Justice" Shallow complains to Sir Hugh Evans, a Welsh parson, about a wrong which has been done to him by Sir John Falstaff: "I will make a Star-Chamber matter of it. If he were twenty Sir John Falstaffs, he shall not abuse Robert Shallow, Esquire." Sir Hugh momentarily calms the angry waters by suggesting a profitable scheme involving Shallow's nephew, Slender, who is also present. He suggests a "marriage between Master Abraham [Slender] and Mistress Anne Page," the beautiful and soon-to-be-wealthy daughter of a prominent "citizen of Windsor." Slender, the would-be wooer, thinks that he knows her: "She has brown hair and speaks small like a woman?"
The three then make plans to go to Page's house, where Falstaff is said to be. After exchanging greetings with Page, Shallow faces the wrongdoer himself:
Falstaff: Now, Master Shallow, you'll complain of me to the King?
Shallow: Knight, you have beaten my man, killed my deer, and broke open my lodge.
Falstaff: But not kissed your keeper's daughter?
Shallow: Tut, a pin [a trifle]! This shall be answered.
Falstaff: I will answer it straight. I have done all this. That is now answered. (112-18)
Slender adds his complaint against Falstaff's "cony-catching" rascal-friends, Bardolph, Nym, and Pistol. "They carried me to the tavern and made me drunk, and afterward picked my pocket." Egged on by their ringleader, Falstaff, the three "rascals" make elaborate denials of any questionable behavior.
Mistress Ford, Mistress Page, and Anne Page enter and, together with the rest of the company, are bid by Miss Page to come to "have a hot venison pasty to dinner." Sir Hugh and Shallow prevail upon Slender to pursue Anne Page. "I will marry her, sir, at your request; but if there be no great love in the beginning, yet heaven may decrease it upon better acquaintance when we are married and have more occasion to know one another. I hope, upon familiarity will grow more content." The scene ends with a conversation between Anne and Slender about "why" he cannot join them in dinner. Eventually, however, Page persuades him to do so.
The first words of the play introduce its main figure by name — Sir John Falstaff. Though Justice Shallow's complaint against Falstaff (deer trapping) is completely forgotten once the main action gets underway, Shakespeare's choice to open the play in this way is dramatically effective. For Shakespeare's contemporary audience — and for anyone today who is familiar with his Henry IV plays — a mere reference to the comical misdeeds of the "huge hill of flesh," as Prince Hal (in Henry IV) refers to Falstaff, would whet the appetite. The buzz of anger which consumes Shallow conjures up memories of Falstaff's past chicanery and the irritation it has caused, especially to "right-thinking" citizens in other plays. Falstaff's first appearance in Merry Wives, pompous and full of disdain for others, is eminently enjoyable. In response to Shallows bluster of accusation, Falstaff chooses to be tight-lipped: "I will answer it straight. . . . That is now answered." In other words, "I did it. So what?"
From the start, this comedy is different from Shakespeare's other comedies. It is his only completely "English" comedy, set in Windsor, and dealing with distinctly contemporary types. The language has the highest percentage of prose of all of Shakespeare's plays, indicating an attention to the "everyday" aspect and a focus on comic situations rather than to style.
The comic types in the first scene are broadly sketched. Sir Hugh Evans, the Welshman, is fond of displaying his learning, and he speaks in dialect, much to Falstaff's (and the audience's) amusement:
Evans: Pauca verba [few words], Sir John; goot worts [good words].
Falstaff: Good worts [cabbage]! Good cabbage.
Slender, I broke your head. (123-25)
Shallow is eager to match his rather slow-witted nephew to Anne Page because there is money to be made in the deal ["seven hundred pounds and possibilities"]. The issues of money, morality, and marriage, then, are at the core of this farce. Slender, only vaguely aware of the money issue, is a monument of foolishness. His real joy is talking about dogs (to Page) and bears (to Anne), which makes him a comical suitor for the hand of the beautiful and gracious Mistress Page. Their scenes together offer some of the funniest moments in the play.