With the beginnings of Act Three of The Merry Wives of Windsor, we find Hugh Evans and Simple (Slender’s servant). Evans is ready to duel with Caius, when the trio of Page, Shallow and Slender arrive. They talk to him about the upcoming duel… not that the lover Slender has much to say, save his repeated asides of “Ah sweet Anne Page” (III.i.38, 64, and 105). Later, Caius arrives with the Host of the Garter, and it quickly becomes obvious to both combatants that they’ve fallen victim to the Host’s machinations, and he has “deceived (them) both” (III.i.98). He leaves them, with the trio of Windsor men in tow, and they–like just about every other character in the play–vows revenge.
Act Three, Scene Two takes us to a street in Windsor, where Mistress Page and Falstaff’s young page Robin are heading to see her friend Mistress Ford, and are accosted by her friend’s jealous husband. Ford immediately (and suspiciously) asks who the boy’s master is, and when he learns it’s Falstaff, he is dumbfounded. As she leaves with the boy, Ford tells us his plan for Falstaff:
He’s quickly joined on-stage by the ever-growing band of Windsor men (Page, Shallow, Slender, Host, Evans and Caius), as they head for dinner with Anne. We learn from Page that “Master Slender, I stand wholly for you. But my wife, Master Doctor, is for you altogether” (III.ii.55-56). When the Host asks about Fenton, Page is quick to dismiss him because he has “kept company with the wild prince and Poins” (III.ii.64-65). Prince Hal? Must be. Regardless, Page announces that if she picks Fenton, she’ll wed without a dowry.
Act Three, Scene Three is set at the Ford home, where Mistresses Ford and Page await the arrival of the fat knight Falstaff. Mistress Ford prepares her servants to do something with a large laundry basket:
Anyone with even a passing knowledge of slapstick knows where this is going.
What’s worse, for Falstaff at least, is that his page Robin knows about the joke but is in on it as well. Mistress Ford then bids Mistress Page to prepare for her role n all this.
Falstaff arrives and begins to make verbal love to Ford’s wife. She teases, leads him on, but never quite consents to anything. In the midst of their duet, in comes Robin, announcing the arrival of Mistress Page, “looking wildly” (III.iii.79). Falstaff, realizing that if he is found with Mistress Ford, any shot at having Mistress Page goes out the window, hides behind the curtain.
Mistress Page then comes in and announces that Ford is coming home
Mistress Ford admits to having a man there, and says that she fears for his safety. What are they to do? Mistress Page comes up with an idea: they could put him in the laundry basket and send it out with servants. There’s only one problem according to Ford’s wife: “He’s too big to go in there” (III.iii.120). Falstaff pops out from behind the curtain and decides that’s the best course of action. When Page’s wife, in a staged aside, accuses him of sending her the same letter as Ford’s wife, Falstaff says to her in an aside, “I love thee. Help me away” (III.iii.126). Even in the midst of all this, Falstaff is still trying to work the angles.
They put him in the basket and the servants take him away, just as the jealous Ford arrives, and starts a search of the home. Despite the possibility that this could put her in trouble, Mistress Ford is not upset: “I know not which pleases me better, that my husband is deceived, or Sir John” (III.iii.158-159). When the search is done, Ford begs the pardon of his wife and friends.
In the third scene, Fenton attempts to woo Anne, who does nothing to discourage him, even telling him to “seek (her) father’s love” (III.iv.19). Mistress Quickly brings Shallow and Slender in, hoping to allow Slender to woo. Uncle and nephew attempt to engage her, but their attempts are clumsy (when she asks Slender what’s his will, he misinterprets the question as to pertaining to his last will and testament). Page and wife arrive, and while he is happy to see Slender, they are both displeased to see Fenton there. Page leaves to discuss the wooing with Shallow and Slender. Fenton attempts to win the approval of Mistress Page (who, remember, supports Caius), and he is successful enough to have Mistress Ford announce that she “will not be (his) friend, nor enemy” (III.iv.87). Instead, she will ask Anne who she loves. By the time the scene’s over, even Quickly is beginning to see Fenton as a good choice for Anne.
In Act Three, Scene Five, Falstaff drinks in the Garter Inn. Quickly arrives from Mistress Ford, and at first Falstaff wants nothing to do with her:
Marry, sir, I come to your worship from Mistress Ford.
Mistress Ford! I have had ford enough; I was thrown into the ford; I have my belly full of ford.
Alas the day! good heart, that was not her fault: she does so take on with her men; they mistook their erection.
So did I mine, to build upon a foolish woman’s promise.
Nothing like a little “ford” / “water” humor mixed in with a little bawdy “erection” pun. Quickly tells Falstaff that Mistress Ford wants to meet him the next morning. After he agrees and she leaves, Master Brook (Ford in disguise) comes in to see how Falstaff is progressing with Mistress Ford. Falstaff tells Brook that he had “embraced (and) kissed” (III.v.68) Mistress Ford before her jealous husband came in. Falstaff then tells Brook of his escape by “buck basket” (III.v.80). Brook implores Falstaff to continue his attempts, and the fat knight tells Brook of his next appointment with Mistress Ford… and the scene is set for the next act’s next wacky farcical situation.