The fifth and final act of The Merry Wives of Windsor begins in the Garter Inn, where Falstaff has been convinced by Quickly to meet the two wives in the woods. Master Brook (Ford in disguise) arrives again, and Falstaff proclaims that he will tell Brook
In the next two very short scenes, Page and Slender prepare their plan to have Slender steal away Anne, who will be dressed “in white” (V.ii.5); meanwhile, Mistresses Page and Ford confer with Doctor Caius and remind him that he will steal away Anne, who will be dressed “in green” (V.iii.1).
In the even shorter Scene Four (just four lines), Hugh Evans, dressed as a Satyr, leads his band of children, dressed as fairies into the woods for the night’s festivities.
And so begins the fifth and final scene of the Act Five. In the woods, Falstaff arrives dressed as Herne the Hunter, with huge stag horns on his head. He is joined by Mistresses Ford and Page, and the thought of having them both at once brings him great stag-like joy: “Divide me like a bribe buck, each a haunch” (V.v.23). But before the “cool rut time” (V.v.13) can begin, there is a ruckus, and enter the Satyr (Evans), the fairies (the children including Anne Page), and even a Hobgoblin (Pistol in disguise), all carrying burning tapers.
The wives run off, and Falstaff–unable to escape–decides it’s safer to “wink and crouch” (V.v.47), and he lays face-down in the dirt. The actors circle him, chanting, until Quickly sings:
If he be chaste, the flame will back descend
And turn him to no pain; but if he start,
It is the flesh of a corrupted heart.
And at that point, they burn and pinch Falstaff. Now, with the confusion, Caius takes his girl in green and leaves, Slender takes his girl in white and leaves, and Fenton leaves with Anne. The fairies then depart and the two couples enter.
Mistress Page asks Falstaff, “Now, good Sir John, how like you Windsor wives?” (V.v.105), and Ford reveals himself to be Master Brook. Falstaff can only say, “I do begin to perceive that I am made an ass” (V.v.117). An ox, too, according to Ford, as the horns on Falstaff’s head can attest. The two couples, along with Evans, continue to tease Falstaff, and by the end he is a “dejected” (V.v.158) man. But Page has good news: Falstaff can have a good meal tonight at Page’s house and have a laugh at Mistress Page’s expense as “Master Slender hath married her daughter” (V.v.169). But then Slender arrives to complain to Page that his fairy wasn’t Anne, but a “great lubberly boy” (V.v.179). Mistress Page then tells of her plan, gloating on her success, only to be interrupted by the entrance of Caius, who complains that his fairy turned out to be a boy, too. Anne and Fenton then arrive to reveal their marriage.
Fenton states his case:
Where there was no proportion held in love.
The truth is, she and I, long since contracted,
Are now so sure that nothing can dissolve us.
The offence is holy that she hath committed;
And this deceit loses the name of craft,
Of disobedience, or unduteous title,
Since therein she doth evitate and shun
A thousand irreligious cursed hours,
Which forced marriage would have brought upon her.
True love reigns and Ford–Mr. Jealousy–agrees, saying, “Money buys lands, and wives are sold by fate” (V.v.225).
Falstaff can take little comfort in the Pages’ slight humiliation, as Ford gloats in the play’s final couplet:
For he tonight shall lie with Mistress Ford.