Act Four of The Merry Wives of Windsor begins with Mistress Quickly asking Mistress Page to go to the Ford house where Falstaff is heading, and Mistress Ford waits to meet him. First, though, Mistress Page needs to take her son William, at Parson Hugh Evans’ to his Latin lesson. We get to hear the Latin lesson and its unintentionally bawdy undertones (vocative becomes “focative” [IV.i.45] [and thus fuck-ative], etc…. more on this later in the month, but suffice to say, while the scene does have bawdy elements, to a modern audience [who don’t have a classical education] it’s not quite as funny).
Act Four, Scene Five takes us to the Ford house, where Falstaff has arrived for his rendezvous with Mistress Ford. It’s obvious that Mistress Ford has explained away the earlier incident. When Mistress Page arrives, Mistress Ford sends him into her chamber; and the two merry wives carry on a play-acted dialogue for the benefit of Falstaff. Again, the story is that Ford is coming home and he is NOT happy, or as Mistress Page says, “Any madness I ever yet beheld seemed but tameness, civility and patience” (IV.ii.22-23). Mistress Ford admits that the “fat knight” (IV.ii.24) is there and wonders aloud if they should “put him into the basket again” (40). Falstaff re-enters the scene, proclaiming that he won’t go into the basket again; once in the Thames was enough. They try to think of a place to store him–chimney, oven–but nothing will work.
Instead, they decide to disguise him. Mistress Ford’s aunt, “the fat woman of Brainford” (67), has left a gown upstairs in the house, and they decide to use that. Falstaff leaves to disguise himself, and Mistress Ford cannot be happier:
And here she may get her wish as Mistress Page tells her that he husband really is on his way, and “talks of the basket too, howsoever he hath had intelligence” (IV.ii.83-84). And to toy with him, too, Mistress Ford orders her servants to take up the basket again when her husband arrives. The wives then head upstairs to finish dressing Falstaff.
Accompanied by more of the men of Windsor, Ford comes home in a rage and calls for his wife. When he sees the basket, he begins to pull clothing out of it, but that’s all he finds. Shallow and Evans are stunned by the outburst, and the parson calls for Ford to “pray, and not follow the imaginations of (his) own heart” (IV.ii.143-144). If matters could get worse for Ford, they do, as he learns that his wife’s aunt is in his house. He goes off on a tirade, and when Falstaff appears in drag as the old woman, Ford beats him/her until Falstaff can escape and run off.
Ford tells the townsmen to follow him as he continues to hunt for Falstaff in his home. Meanwhile, the wives decide to let their husbands in on the joke, and perhaps the four of them can now “publicly shame” (IV.ii.204-205) Falstaff.
In the super-short Act Four, Scene Three, Bardolph tells the Host of the Garter that visiting Germans need to rent horses, and we learn that the Host will overcharge them.
In Act Four, Scene Four, we move from the prose that had predominated the prior portions of the play and move into verse for the private conversations of the two couple and Hugh Evans. The women have revealed their schemes against Falstaff and (after Ford apologizes) find their husbands willing accomplices in the further humiliation of the fat knight. The men worry that Falstaff won’t be lured into the trap again (after all he’s been through), but the women disagree. Mistress Ford tells them, “Devise but how you’ll use him when he comes, // And let us two devise to bring him thither” (IV.iv.24-25). The two plan to send a message to the knight that if he comes into the woods at midnight, dress as Herne the Hunter–complete with “huge horns on his head” (IV.iv.41)–then he can have them both. That will be enough to lure him into the woods. There, they plan to use the children of the town (including Page’s daughter, Anne) to act as fairies, who will fright the wives away, and then to “pinch the unclean knight” (IV.iv.56).
Page reveals to Ford in an aside that he plans to use the confusion of the night’s plan to have “Master Slender steal my (daughter) Nan away // And marry her at Eton” (IV.iv.72-73). But when left alone onstage, Mistress Page reveals to us that she plans to make sure that only Doctor Caius marries Anne… could she be thinking of a similar plan?
Act Four, Scene Five takes us to the Garter Inn, where Simple asks to see Falstaff. When the Host points to Falstaff’s room, Simple hesitates, as he has seen “an old woman, a fat woman, gone up into his chamber” (IV.v.10-11), and would rather wait until she comes out. The Host calls out Falstaff, who says that while “an old fat woman (was) even now with (him, now) she’s gone” (IV.v.21-22). What follows is a scene of low living by low-lifes, as we hear of cheats done on multiple folk, from Evans to the visiting Germans. At the end of the scene, Quickly arrives to convince Falstaff to meet the two wives. At first, Falstaff declines, but Quickly appeals to his sympathy by saying that Mistress Ford has been “beaten black and blue” (IV.v.103), and then says that she will reveal more to him a letter from them in private. It works and Falstaff leaves with Quickly.
In Act Four, Scene Six, Fenton asks the Host for assistance in this night’s revels, and for the help, Fenton will pay “a hundred pound” (IV.vi.5). Fenton has learned that both Mister and Mistress Page have planned to use the confusion of the night to have their matrimonial candidate steal Anne away. Anne has agreed to both individually. However, she really plans to “go along” (IV.vi.46) with Fenton to be married. What Fenton needs is for the Host to “procure the vicar” (IV.vi.47) so that they can be married quickly. The Host agrees and we’re set for the wackiness of the final act.