The play's sources are racy fabliaux, of both the Italian and Chaucerian type. It's exceptional in that the setting is England -- this is a small-town comedy rather than a romantic one, focusing on the middle class. It is "the only Shake-speare play removed from de Vere's familiar world of court and castle" (Anderson 40). One should think, if one were a Stratfordian, that most of Shakespeare's plays, at least the comedies, would resemble this one. But Shakespeare depicts the English middle class as he does the Italian merchant class: as prosperous but basely materialistic, morally complacent morons. Despite one reference to Prince Hal, this is "Shakespeare's only here-and-now play, the only one whose events take place in Shakespeare's own time and own place" (Asimov 421), "with no aristocrats in the cast list" (Wells 185). Whither "write what you know"? In any case, Ankerwicke, where Edward de Vere was tutored by Sir Thomas Smith, overlooked the Thames close to Windsor (Anderson 6). In 1570 an ill Oxford was lodged in a room in Windsor (Anderson 40).
If there's any truth behind the early 18th-century dubious legend that The Merry Wives of Windsor was written in fourteen days at the prompting of Queen Elizabeth who wanted to see Falstaff in love (e.g., Wells 187), then it may be that a very early play was revised as a vehicle for the popular Falstaff character. The play has more prose than any other Shakespeare work -- "by far the least poetic play" (Asimov 421). The two key sources seem to have been collections: Il Pecorone, used also for The Merchant of Venice and whose Siennese story was not translated into English during Shakespeare's time, and Le Piacevoli Notti (Farina 30).
The relationship of this with the Henry plays is baffling. Shallow, Pistol, and Nim appear here. The play contains a reference to Fenton having kept company with Prince Hal and Poins, as Falstaff did. But Mistress Quickly and Falstaff are not previously acquainted here, and she's a servant to a French doctor. So, setting aside the anachronism of early 15th-century characters in this context, which of the Falstaff plays is supposed to have come first? One popular but strained theory is that Shakespeare interrupted progress on Henry IV, Part 2 for this change of pace. But I suspect this one comes later than the others, after the characters become beloved of audiences. Shakespeare killed off Falstaff as Conan Doyle did Holmes, only to revive him later because of popular demand. Some critics suspect that given the crudity of the comedy, this is a very early play of Shakespeare's, revised to accommodate the familiar characters. This would account for the rumor that it was finished so quickly.
The more disturbing problem is that we have what Harold Bloom calls a "pseudo-Falstaff," "a nameless imposter masquerading as the great Sir John Falstaff" (Bloom 315; cf. Goddard, I 175, Ogburn and Ogburn 738), operating out of necessity and survival instead of being the force of anarchy and fun. And "from early in the nineteenth century the idea of a single Falstaff character drawn, sometimes romaniticized, from the history plays has been used as a yardstick with which to beat the Falstaff of The Merry Wives of Windsor" (Wells 187). "Glutton, drunkard, coward, liar, lecher, boaster, cheat, thief, rogue, ruffian, villain are a few of the terms that have been used to describe a man whom others find the very incarnation of charm, one of the great liberators of the human spirit, the greatest comic figure in the history of literature" (Goddard, I 175). At his best in the Henry IV plays, Falstaff is "Imagination conquering matter, spirit subduing flesh" (Goddard, I 178). But here there's no cheeky rebellion; instead we have his attempt to win a place within this bourgeois society, which, because it's all about property (possession of women, fear of theft), makes the play somewhat unpopular. It's a "sadomasochistic" (Bloom 317) carnival of "bear-baiting" (Bloom 318) and Falstaff's three humiliations: being dumped in the Thames with laundry, beaten in drag, and tormented into confession. Wit and eloquence have left Falstaff, and he is "baffled, duped, treated like dirty linen, beaten, burnt, pricked, mocked, insulted, and, worst of all, repentent and didactic. It is horrible" (A.C. Bradley, qtd. in Bloom 317; cf. Wells 188).
The play appeared in print first as a "bad quarto" in 1602, and one theory suggests that this emerged from the revision for the public stage of an earlier version for a court performance -- the one we have in the First Folio. But the play seems quite early; "its topical references and concerns [are] those of the 1580s, with some 1590s references added to a later revival" (Brazil 117). Ogburn Jr. says it's early 1570s, I think convincingly. The elder Ogburns suggest an early masque by Oxford at the root, used in Lyly's Endymion in which Oxford is Endymion and Elizabeth is Cynthia (Ogburn and Ogburn 739). Dowden referred to an old play on Anne Page, now lost, called Wily Beguiled, pre-1571 (?) -- and the Wily name would connect well with Philip Sidney, with the third suitor of Anne Cecil being the Earl of Rutland (Ogburn and Ogburn 739).
Clark thinks Falstaff was based on Captain Nicholas Dawtry who was in the Queen's service in Ireland in the 1580s (Clark 706). He was apparently obese and a "prolific letter-writer" (Ogburn and Ogburn 740). Clark would like to think that the vaguely named An Antick play and comodye played at court in February 1584/5 was another earlier version of this play (Clark 706; Ogburn and Ogburn 738). Shallow and Evans could then be Sir Henry Wallop and Adam Loftus, also involved in Irish politics (Clark 709; Ogburn and Ogburn 741), Sir Hugh Evans ending up composite with traces of Henry Evans who trained "Oxford's Boys" (Clark 718; Farina 31). Bardolph, Pistol, and Nym may be Captain Barkley, Robert Pistor, and Thomas Mynne (Clark 710; Ogburn and Ogburn 741) -- perhaps composites of the University Wits in the later 1592 version (Ogburn and Ogburn 743). A Captain Geoffrey Fenton until he was forty was involved in literature, then served in Ireland (Clark 715). Fenton probably was involved in Burghley's espionage (Ogburn and Ogburn 741), and he dedicated his Golden Epistles to the Countess of Oxford (Farina 33).
The play may have been revised again in 1592 for a festival of the Garter, long before the killing off of Falstaff in Henry V (Ogburn and Ogburn 738).The work was very likely revised again for a performance at the installation ceremony for the Knights of the Garter in April 1597 (Farina 30). For a detailed and more vivid Oxfordian reading of the play, see Robert Brazil, "Unpacking The Merry Wives. The Oxfordian 2 (1999): 117-137.
Justice Shallow is whining "with his superannuated bravery" (Asimov 422) to the Welsh parson, Sir Hugh Evans, that he, "a gentleman born" (I.i.8-9), has been ill-used by the obese reveller Sir John Falstaff. Evans, though, who tends to use p's in the place of b's and to favor the noun forms of words where other parts of speech would be more appropriate, is more interested in making a marriage between Shallow's nephew Abraham Slender, a trite idiot, with the young Anne Page, who has many would-be suitors. Somehow, this will be profitable for all. Slender is "equally fatuous" as Sir Andrew from Twelfth Night (Garber 364) -- an apt comparison if both are indeed based on and lampooning Philip Sidney (Anderson xxxii, 192; Farina 33). Shallow, then, is a caricature of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, the Queen's on-again off-again favorite and uncle of Sidney (Anderson xxxii-xxxiii, 38-39). The heraldry talk about "luces" (I.i.16ff) also connects to the Leicester faction and former Northumberland title: "12 luces were featured on the forfeited coat of arms for John Dudley," Leicester's father (Farina 32; cf. Brazil 129); thus twelve luces are indeed "an old coat" (I.i.17). That Shallow is a "country justice" reflects Elizabeth's having made Leicester "Chief Justice in Eyre" in 1587 (Ogburn and Ogburn 743). The elder Ogburns speculate that Shallow's threatening to bring his complaint to the Star-Chamber may be due to Leicester's rage at being depicted as Claudius in Hamlet (Ogburn and Ogburn 742).
They go to the Page home. At £700 (I.i.50), Anne Page's and Anne Cecil's inheritances are identical (Anderson 38-39). Shallow meets Falstaff, who brashly admits to the offenses: "he is unrepentant, and insolently admits that he has committed various offenses against Shallow. (It is done without wit. The real Falstaff would have managed to turn it all into a laugh and have inveigled Shallow into apologizing)" (Asimov 423). Falstaff's cohorts -- Bardolph, Pistol, and Nym -- deny getting Shallow drunk and robbing him. Shallow's "by yea and no" (I.i.87) is a Puritan oath. Slender's "By these gloves" (I.i.165) is simply cheesy.
Slender at one point wishes he had with him his copy of the Book of Songes and Sonnets (I.i.198-199), an important book in the development of English poetry, usually called Tottel's Miscellany (1557), containing poems mostly written by de Vere's uncle, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (c.1517-1547). The book was often reprinted from 1559 to 1587, but not afterwards.
"After 181 lines of the first scene of the play, Shakespeare wearies of trying to make it a play about Falstaff and his latter-day merry men, and drops the whole thing. The quarrel between Shallow and Slender on one side and Falstaff and his men on the other is never referred to again in the rest of the play" (Asimov 425). Instead, the "primary subtext of Merry Wives is a nostalgic review of the rivalry for the hand of young Anne Cecil" (Brazil 125). The monetary figures match the payments in the marriage negotiations historically.
Sir Hugh Evans with his heavy Welsh accent is seen as "a transparent representation of the Earl of Oxford's theater manager, Henry Evans, a Welshman who taught the Children of Paul's troupe. In Merry Wives, it is Sir Hugh who rehearses the children in the Fairy masque which ends the play" (Brazil 120; Farina 31).
Mistress Page, Anne, and Mistress Ford invite all to dinner. Shallow and Evans urge the semi-functional Slender to pursue Anne. Slender clearly lacks motivation for the match and he can speak only of dogs and bears. "I am not a-hungry," he claims (I.i.270), apparently revealing a Philip Sidney verbal idiosyncrasy occurring also in Twelfth Night from Sir Andrew (I.i.264), another Sidney lampooning (Ogburn and Ogburn 275, 704, 741). "I keep but three men and a boy yet" (I.i.274) -- the forced "boy-yet" reference connecting to Love's Labor's Lost (Ogburn and Ogburn 745) and perhaps to the tennis-court incident involving Oxford's calling Sidney a "puppy." In any case, Shallow makes an ass of himself before joining the dinner.
Evans sends Slender's servant Simple (who certainly is) with a letter to Mistress Quickly, a servant to the local doctor. She is a confidant of Anne's, and Evans hopes she'll put in a good word for Slender.
At the Garter Inn, Falstaff has written love letters to Mistress Ford, who reportedly handles finances in that household, and to Mistress Page. Nym, who is obsessed with the word "humor," and Pistol are to deliver these letters, but they conspire to sabotage Falstaff's plans by ratting him out to the husbands.
Simple describes Slender to Mistress Quickly, who has a habit of malapropisms, but she shoves him into a closet when the rage-aholic Doctor Caius, who like so many others in this play has no command over the English language, returns home. (Crazy intolerance leads to clandestine ruses.) Caius, whose limited Tourette's Syndrome has him shouting "by gar!" regularly, discovers Simple and his errand and has a fit because he wants to woo Anne Page himself. He sends with Simple a letter of challenge to Evans. Finally, a young man named Fenton elicits a promise from Quickly that she'll help him woo Anne too. In a play with little poetry, most of it involves Fenton and Ford -- two aspects of Oxford (Ogburn and Ogburn 745).
Though at one stage Oxford may have intended a caricature of Sir John Perrot, Lord Deputy in 1584 (Ogburn and Ogburn 741), Dr. John Caius (d. 1573) was a court physician; Caius is also the alias adopted by Kent in King Lear (Anderson 9-10). Despite his being an old Galenist, Caius is obsessed with his "simples" -- chemical distillations of the Paracelsian paradigm (Anderson 74).