Tradition has it that this work was composed in two weeks after a request from Queen Elizabeth, who wished to see a play about Falstaff in love. It is the only comedy of Shakespeare set in an English setting, here Windsor, and it is his only portrait of contemporary, middle-class English life. More important, it is his only pure farce and consequently has less character development than any of his other plays. Yet even as farce the play poses problems. Its charm comes from its generally sunny tone. But for many audiences, that lightness, in combination with the two-dimensional characters, robs the play of interest. Still, the story, which has no known literary source, is sufficiently involving and attractive that it has been adapted successfully into opera, notably by Verdi as Falstaff and by Vaughan Williams as Sir John in Love.
The key element of the play, and for some the key difficulty, is the character of Falstaff. He is a far cry from the great knight of Henry IV. That figure is a brilliant wit, a worthy companion to a future king, and, above all, a man of dignity. His intellect is sharper than any other on stage, and when characters laugh at him, Falstaff is always aware of the joke and able to take it steps further. In sum, whatever his points of vulnerability, such as his girth, capacity for drink, cowardice, and general lecherousness, the Falstaff of the history plays is a man of substance, greater than his world.
In The Merry Wives of Windsor that Falstaff is no longer present. His weight remains enormous and he does enjoy a good jest, but his stature has faded. In addition, many of Falstaff's companions from the history plays, including Bardolph, Pistol, and Nym, appear here as fun-loving but essentially harmless rogues. And their sanitizing, as it were, takes away part of the threat in this play. Even in farce, no matter how light, someone must pose a danger to someone else. The audience needs to feel substantial pressure or conflict. In this play that threat is so mild that we are kept at a distance, watching rather than worrying.
For instance, at the start we learn that Justice Shallow, another figure from the history plays, has a grievance against Falstaff and wants him punished (I, i, 1-4). This claim brings to mind the fat knight's adventures in Henry IV, but