The Merry Wives of Windsor begins not with wives, but with the wife-less: A visiting Justice of the Peace named Shallow (and if that name sounds familiar, you must have been here two months ago when Falstaff and Shallow were reunited in The Second Part of Henry the Fourth), and his cousin Slender, and a Welsh parson, Hugh Evans (who over the course of the play speaks in the same kind of rambling, mispronounced dialogue as last month’s Welshman, Fluellen. [which was a rough draft of the other, I’ll leave up to you all to discuss and decide.]
Shallow is upset, and announces that “Sir John Falstaff… shall not abuse Robert Shallow, esquire” (I.i.2-3). And if you were here two months ago, you might remember that play ended with Falstaff owing the justice a thousand pound. But that doesn’t seem to be the issue at this point. Instead, it appears that there’s been a certain level of disrespect and “disparagements” (I.i.28) taking place, and the man of the cloth Evans is willing to mediate and “make atonements and compromises between” (I.i.30) the men. Shallow isn’t all that willing, saying that if he “were young again, the sword should end it” (I.i.37).
This talk of sword (and its bawdy and phallic undertone) brings the conversation around to “Anne Page, which is daughter to Master Thomas Page, which is pretty virginity” (I.i.42). The young Anne (she has yet to “overtake seventeen” [I.i.49]) is very popular, mainly for her “good gifts” (I.i.58), “seven hundred pounds” (I.i.57) of dowry.
This just-bordering-on-bawdy talk of dowries is interrupted by the arrival of Page who also promises to mediate the conflict, but when Falstaff enters with his trio of cronies, Pistol, Bardolph, and Nym, Falstaff taunts Shallow, who laundry-lists the insults he’s endured under the old fat man: “Knight, you have beaten my men, killed my deer, and broke open my lodge” (I.i.104-105). Falstaff admits to nothing.
The wives of the title, as well as young Anne, then come and go (with Falstaff giving Mistress Ford a kiss). Once they and Master Ford depart, Evans questions young Slender on his romantic intentions with Anne (“But can you affection the ‘oman?” [I.i.209]). The youth is bold enough to say that he “will do a greater thing than (marriage)” (I.i.222), but when Anne re-enters to invite the men in to dinner, Slender is clumsily polite, waiting until after she enters to go back in. His kinsman Shallow, however, is a bit creepier on the dirty-ol-man scale: “Would I were young for your sake, Mistress Anne!” (I.i.238-239). Slender remains the polite subservient.
The short Act One, Scene Two brings with it the introduction of the idea of Mistress Quickly, not as the hostess of a tavern or bawdy-house, but rather as the maid or dry-nurse to a Doctor Caius. Hugh Evans gives Simple, the servant of Slender, a letter to Quickly, asking that she use her “acquaintance” (I.ii. 8) with Anne Page to advocate for Slender’s suit to Anne.
Act One, Scene Three takes us to the Garter Inn, where Falstaff and his entourage are talking with the Host of the Garter. After Falstaff complains that he may need to turn away his comrades because they have become too expensive, the Host gives them jobs in the bar. Then, like a villain, Falstaff tells his followers of his intentions: “I do mean to make love to Ford’s wife: I spy entertainment in her” (I.iii.41-42), and to make that happen he has written her a letter. But Falstaff being Falstaff, a man of immense appetites, Mistress Ford is not enough–he orders his followers to take “another to Page’s wife” (I.iii.56). When the old fat man leaves, however, Pistol and Nym plan a practical joke (think Hal’s joke on Falstaff in The First Part, only more dangerous). They are going to tell the husbands about the letters.
Let the wackiness ensue.
The last scene of Act One takes us the home of the French doctor Caius, with Mistress Quickly and manservant John Rugby. Simple arrives with the appeal to Quickly to back Slender’s suit for Anne Page. When Caius arrives and learns of Simple’s mission (and who sent him on it–Hugh Evans), he writes a challenge (“a shallenge” [I.iv.101]) to Evans… and why? Because as the Frenchman says, “By gar, I will myself have Anne Page” (I.iv.110-111). When Caius exits, we find yet another suitor: Fenton. Quickly tells him that “(Anne) loves (him)” (I.iv.135), but once he leaves, Quickly tells us, “Anne loves him not; for I know Anne’s mind as well as another does,” of course, she may not be trustworthy as the next words out of her mouth are: “Out upon’t! what have I forgot?” (I.iv.152-154).