Summary and Analysis
Act III: Scenes 4-5
Fenton assures Anne Page that he truly loves her, although he admits her "father's wealth / Was the first motive that I wooed thee." Their conversation ends abruptly when Slender arrives. Anne despairingly speaks her thoughts on the matter in an aside:
This is my father's choice. O what a world of vile,
ill-favoured faults looks handsome in three hundred pounds a year. (31-33)
Slender attempts to engage Anne in small talk for a few moments, but Mrs. Page and Mistress Quickly suddenly join them. Anne's mother's choice of a suitor is equally distasteful, and when Quickly refers to her "Master Doctor" as a possible husband, Anne unequivocally refuses:
Alas, I had rather be set quick i' th' earth
And bowled to death with turnips. (90-91)
Scene 4 ends with Mistress Quickly on stage, determined to "do what I can for them all three" — that is, whatever she can do for the potential husbands, for a price! (She has just taken a ring and a bribe to deliver the ring to Anne from Fenton.)
In Scene 5, Falstaff guzzles wine to counter the effect of his dousing in the river, both the wet of it and the horror of it. As he explains,
And you may know by my size that I have a kind of alacrity in sinking.
If the bottom were as deep as hell, I should down. . . . I should have
been a mountain of mummy [dead flesh]. (11-13; 18)
The sight of Master Brook (Ford in disguise) cheers Falstaff into considering another try with Mrs. Ford: "I like his money well." The scene ends as Ford, fuming with anger at having been tricked with the buck-basket (as Falstaff just explained), determines to catch the "lecher" the next time.
Fenton and Anne Page are the normative characters in the comedy. Although ruled at first by the same motivations as the rest of the world, Fenton honestly explains that he would now love Anne — even if he didn't need her money. The audience, conventionally, accepts this as a fact and therefore turns its keener attention to the idiocies of the alternate lovers. The scene between Anne Page and Slender is a classic piece of comedy. From previous scenes, we know that Slender is taken with the idea of marrying Anne Page, yet once he is with her, he freezes and becomes a tongue-tied adolescent. Shallow encourages the small talk between them, but Slender can barely function:
Shallow: She's coming; to her, coz. O boy, thou hadst a father!
Slender: I had a father, Mistress Anne [here, one imagines a pause,
then an exasperated pitch for help]; my uncle can tell you good jests of him.
Pray you, uncle, tell Mistress Anne the jest how my father stole two geese
out of a pen, good uncle.
Shallow: Mistress Anne, my cousin loves you.
Slender: Ay, that I do.
Anne: Good Master Shallow, let him woo for himself. (36-43; 51)
To top this comic turn, Slender reverts to his old self (or at least his old words) when he tells Anne that the whole idea was hatched by his uncle and her father in the first place. Anything, it seems, is preferable to poor Slender than having to come face-to-face with such a young, energetic woman!
Falstaff's description of his misadventure ranks among the richest displays of language in the play. He has just consumed immense quantities of wine in a short period, and he now unloads his woeful tale on Master Brook/Ford. Of course, Ford has very mixed emotions here. Undoubtedly he loves the idea of Falstaff's smelly demise; on the other hand, he is furious at having been duped himself. He is also worried that Falstaff won't be willing to give it another try. One must read the following speech in the spirit of pompous (and theatrical) injured dignity which only a Falstaff can muster:
I suffered the pangs of three several deaths: first, an intolerable fright to be detected with [by] a jealous rotten bell-wether [cuckold]; next, to be compassed like a good bilbo [flexed sword] in the circumference of a peck, hilt to point, heel to head; and then, to be stopp'd in, like a strong distillation, with stinking clothes that fretted in their own grease. Think of that, a man of my kidney [temperament] — think of that — that am as subject to heat as butter; a man of continued dissolution and thaw. It was a miracle to 'scape suffocation. And in the height of this bath, when I was more than half stewed in grease, like a Dutch dish, to be thrown into the Thames, and cooled, glowmg hot, in that surge, like a horseshoe. Think of that — hissing hot — think of that, Master Brook! (109-23)
Remember that Falstaff is also putting on a performance here for a fee. He wants Brook to know the full extent of the suffering he has endured "to bring this woman to evil for your good." Each of them is eager beyond all previous measure to see the plot succeed next time — one out of greed, the other because of jealousy.