Acknowledgement: This work has been summarized using The Complete Works of Shakespeare Updated Fourth Ed., Longman Addison-Wesley, ed. David Bevington, 1997. Quotations are for the most part taken from that work, as are paraphrases of his commentary.
Overall Impression: This is a funny and charming play.
Per Bevington: A comedy of humors depicting variously comically obsessed types and a mildly satiric celebration of bourgeois life. The Falstaff depicted here is not the richly developed and resourceful character found in the Henry IV plays but more a buffoon. Despite the identical name, Mistress Quickly is no longer the widowed London tavern keeper called the Hostess in the Henry IV and V plays but an unmarried housekeeper in Windsor.
Windsor, before Master George Page's house. Robert Shallow, a country justice of the peace, speaking to his nephew Abraham Slender and Sir Hugh Evans (a Welsh parson), berates the absent Sir John Falstaff for insulting and abusing him. Evans offers to mediate. They have come to make a match between Page's daughter Anne Page and Slender. Page emerges and offers them venison that Falstaff has poached. They are annoyed to learn that Falstaff is already within. When he appears, they lay out their accusations to Falstaff—beating Shallow's men, killing his deer, and breaking in to his lodge—Falstaff cheerfully confesses that he or his men have done all these things. Falstaff's followers Bardolph, Pistol, and Nym defend themselves variously against the charges: they have picked Slender's purse while he was drunk at The Garter Inn, etc. Anne and Mistress Page appear offering wine, and all but Shallow, Slender, and Evans exit inside. Slender's servant Peter Simple arrives and the men further discuss Slender's uninspired pursuit of Anne. Anne invites them to dinner, but Slender initially declines for lack of hunger and talks of bear baiting, finally reluctantly enters.
Same. Dinner is over. Evans wants Simple to take a letter to Mistress Quickly, Dr. Caius' all-purpose servant and housekeeper, asking her to serve as a go-between in Slender's bid for Anne.
The Garter Inn. Falstaff has overspent and overconsumed his resources and announces that he must reduce his payroll. Bardolph agrees to become the Inn's tapster—Falstaff tells his other men that Bardolph's thefts have become too open. He is at least 2 yards in circumference. He announces his plan to woo Frank Ford's and George Page's wives (primarily for their wealth), both of whom he believes have given him inviting looks. He has written letters to each. Pistol and Nym refuse to deliver them for him, and he brusquely discharges them from his service. Falstaff asks his page Robin to deliver the letters, and Pistol and Nym (aside) vow to themselves to get vengeance on Falstaff: Pistol will tell Master Ford of the plan on his wife and Nym will tell Master Page.
At Doctor Caius' house. Simple has come to Mistress Quickly. She has the other servant, John Rugby, stand watch for the master while they meet. She agrees to do what she can for Slender. Doctor Caius arrives and Simple is placed in the closet, but is soon found by Caius. Quickly tell Caius he came on an errand from Parson Hugh regarding Slender. Hugh angrily writes a letter to Hugh, since he is also a suitor to Anne, challenging him to a duel. Quickly reassures Caius that Anne loves him, and he threatens to turn her out if he is unsuccessful winning her, then leaves. Fenton, another suitor to Anne, arrives and Quickly also reassures him that she will champion his suit, taking the money he offers [thus now championing all three suitors].
Before Page's house. Mistress (i.e., Mrs.) Page reads the "love" letter from Falstaff and is aghast that he has seen flirtatiousness in her behavior. She swears to avenge herself on him. Mrs. Ford arrives to ask for advice, mockingly saying she could be knighted if she goes along with Falstaff's letter to her. They compare their identical letters and plot to arrange a secret meeting with him, though Mrs. Ford fears giving cause to her husband's severe jealousy. They exit and Masters Page and Ford appear with "Corporal" Nym and Pistol. The husbands are told of the plot, Page taking it humorously and sensibly, trusting his wife's integrity, but Ford is angry with jealousy and less confident in his wife's virtue. The wives appear, and Ford is moody. They spot Mistress Quickly (coming on behalf of the various suitors) and the wives resolve to talk to her to serve as their go-between with Falstaff. The Host arrives with Shallow, and informs them that there is to be a fray between Hugh and Caius, but Shallow indicates that the Host has arranged for the duelists to be foiled by going to different places.
The Garter Inn. Falstaff refuses to loan Pistol money and berates their dishonesty, but Pistol counters that he shared in the proceeds of Pistol and Nym's thefts. Pistol relents apparently and agrees to do Falstaff's bidding again. Quickly arrives and informs Falstaff that Mistress Ford is beside herself with excitement at the idea of meeting with him and that he should come between 10 and 11 when her husband will be absent. She also says Mistress Page wants to meet with him eventually when her husband is away. Falstaff wonders if the women know about each other's interest in him, but Quickly assures him they do not. She also asks that he allow his page Robin to return with her to Mistress Page [why?]. Pistol makes a cynical aside at Falstaff's gloating. Bardolph arrives to inform Falstaff that a Master Brook would like to meet with him (he is Master Ford in disguise). Brook butters up Falstaff and informs him that he himself wishes to woo Mistress Ford and offers Falstaff money to break down her honesty and moral resistance to make this possible for him. Falstaff informs him that he has already arranged to be with her between 10 and 11, mocks her husband's cuckoldry, and suggests they meet again some night so he can report on his success. Ford, left alone, lambasts his wife's infidelity.
A field near Windsor. Caius shows up with Rugby for the duel, but rails because Sir Hugh is not there. Master Page, Shallow, Slender, and Host arrive and want to take Caius home, though mocking his broken English. He agrees to go with the Host to a farmhouse where Anne is.
A field near Frogmore. Evans and Simple await Caius. Page, Shallow, and Slender arrive, then Host, Caius, Rugby. They want to fight but are restrained and Evans offers to make amends. The Host makes peace with them and concedes he has misled them to prevent the duel. The two former combatants vow revenge on the Host.
A street in Windsor. Mrs. Page enters with Robin walking in front. Mr. Ford arrives and wonders what she is doing with the young man. She claims her husband and Falstaff are good friends and this riles up Ford, suspecting her of infidelity. Shallow, Slender, Evans, Caius, Page, Host, and Rugby arrive saying they go to see Anne. Slender solicits the support of Mr. Page for Anne's hand, while Page refuses the Host's solicitation on behalf of Fenton (saying he is of too high a social station). Ford asks Caius, Page, and Evans to accompany him to his house to see the liaison scheduled there.
Ford's home. Mistresses Page and Ford have the servants bring in a large basket and instruct them in what to do. Robin arrives to announce Falstaff and agrees to not let him know that Mrs. Page or anyone else is there. He enters and woos her. She accuses him of loving Mrs. Page, which he vehemently denies. Robin announces the arrival of Mistress Page, who tells Mrs. Ford that Ford is on his way and to get the man she suspects she has concealed out of there. Mrs. Ford confesses, Falstaff appears, Mrs. Page expresses surprise that he is there—he quietly reassures her of his love—and the wives arrange for him to get in the basket. The servants haul the basket away as Ford and the men arrive. They search the house but find nothing and leave for the moment. The wives gloat on their success. They plot to send Mistress Quickly to Falstaff to talk him into another intrigue. The men return and castigate Ford for his distrust of his wife, for which he asks their pardon. Evans and Caius plot their revenge on the Host.
Before Page's house. Fenton and Anne lament that they cannot get her father's permission to wed. He was initially attracted to her money but learned to love her for her own value more. She says he should still seek her father's love. They stand aside as Shallow, Slender, and Mistress Quickly arrive. She speaks to Anne about Slender's interest in her, then draws Fenton aside to let Slender and Shallow converse with Anne. She insists that he woo for himself without his uncle's help, and Slender is again hopelessly inadequate in his appeal to her. Mr. Page arrives and is dismayed to find Fenton there, asking him to leave his daughter and them alone. Fenton appeals to Mrs. Page, who does not dismiss him outright. Fenton gives Mistress Quickly some money and a ring for her troubles [not realizing that she is aiding Caius and Slender as well in their suit—she is equally supportive of each.]
The Garter Inn. Falstaff calls for sack from Bardolph, to help him recover from the indignities he suffered in being unceremoniously thrown into the Thames and nearly drowning. Quickly arrives telling him of Mistress Ford's apologies and her desire to meet him between 8 and 9, to which Falstaff agrees. Mr. Brook [Ford] arrives and hears of Falstaff's narrow escape, in a buck basket, from discovery by Ford —he also learns that a new tryst has been arranged. He concludes by planning once again to entrap his apparently unfaithful wife.
A street in Windsor. Mrs. Page learns from Quickly that Falstaff is going to Mrs. Ford's. She is taking her son William to school, but Evans arrives to say that Slender has dismissed school. Evans grills William on his studies, Latin lessons, etc., though Quickly misinterprets the meaning of the language.
Ford's house. Falstaff woos Mrs. Ford momentarily, then she hears a sound and has him step into a chamber. Mistress Page arrives to warn that Ford is coming with others. Falstaff emerges in terror, and they debate how to conceal him, deciding finally to send him out disguised as her maid's fat aunt (of Brentford). Ford arrives and is annoyed to find the woman there whom he detests, beating her as she leaves. Evans notes that she has a great beard but Ford is too intent on continuing the search to notice the comment. The wives discuss the beating Falstaff took and debate whether he has been punished enough, decide to tell their husbands, and to plan another encounter.
The Garter Inn. Bardolph tells the Host that three Germans desire 3 of his horses, which the Host agrees to.
Ford's house. Ford has been told about Falstaff by the wives, and apologizes to his wife for his suspicions. Page suggests they have one last round of fun with Falstaff. They arrange that Falstaff will meet Mrs. Ford at the oak tree in Windsor Forest dressed as Herne the hunter, with antlers on his head, and where he will be attacked by fairies. Meanwhile, Page and Mistress Page plot to have Anne elope with their favored suitors, respectively. Ford plans to return to Falstaff as Brook.
The Garter Inn. Simple comes to the Host to talk to Falstaff after the fat "wise" woman he heard was there leaves. He asks if she could foretell whether Nym had stolen Slender's chain, and Falstaff informs him that the wise woman told him that Nym had done so. Falstaff also tells him ambiguously that the woman foretold that Slender would receive Anne, and the Host asks him later if the woman was really there. Bardolph arrives to inform the Host that his horses are stolen by the Germans [Caius and Evans?] Evans arrives to warn the Host that Germans are stealing horses and Caius arrives to announce of an [imposter] German duke's arrival. The Host knows he has been robbed of his horses. Falstaff contemplates repentance for his misdeeds. Quickly presents Falstaff a letter.
The Garter Inn. The Host laments his loss, but Fenton offers to compensate him and tells him of the planned entertainment in Windsor Park. He asks the Host to obtain the vicar so that he and Anne can secretly marry during the confusion.
The Garter Inn. Falstaff gives his agreement to Quickly to meet in the park, and she will provide him with horns and chains. Ford as Brook arrives and Falstaff encourages him to be in the park at midnight, so that Falstaff can deliver Ford's wife to him.
Windsor Park. Page, Shallow, and Slender hide in the ditch.
Same. Mrs. Page plots with Caius about winning Anne, saying she will be dressed in green.
Same. Evans enters dressed as a satyr and children enter as fairies.
Same. Falstaff enters in guise of Herne with a buck's head, eagerly anticipating the tryst. Mrs. Ford beckons to him, they embrace, Mrs. Page joins him lovingly, then Mrs. Page hears a noise and the wives flee. Evans enters as a satyr, Quickly as the Fairy Queen, Anne and the children as fairies, Pistol as a hobgoblin, and they carry out various rituals. Falstaff fears for his life in seeing fairies and lies face down. Quickly blesses and plans good luck for Windsor Castle and its occupants and for the chairs of the Garter knights in Saint George's chapel, citing their motto "Honi soit qui mal y pense". They smell Falstaff (a "man of middle-earth"), then discover him. Quickly plans a trial-fire to test his chastity, burning his fingers with candles, then the fairies pinch him relentlessly. Caius steals away with a fairy in green, while Slender steals away with one in white, while Fenton makes off with the true Anne. Hunters arrive, actually Page, Ford, and the wives, and the fairies scatter away. Page asks how Falstaff likes the Windsor wives and Falstaff realizes at last that he has been made an ass. Evans advises Falstaff to serve God and leave off his desires, to which Falstaff consents, and also tells Ford to leave off his jealousies. They all have jokes at Falstaff's expense. The gracious Master Page invites him and all the others to dinner to celebrate the marriage of Anne to Slender. But Slender arrives to say the fairy he ran off with turned out to be a boy, even though he knew the right password and was wearing the planned color. Caius also angrily enters lamenting that he ended up with a boy. Then Fenton and Anne arrive, newly married, and the Pages are reconciled to the marriage. Ford commends Falstaff's success, that tonight Master Brook shall indeed lie with Mistress Ford.