Falstaff entered the room and said, “Have I caught you, my heavenly jewel? Why, now let me die because I have lived long enough. This is the achievement of my ambition. Oh, blessed hour!”
Mrs. Ford replied, “Oh, sweet Sir John!”
“Mrs. Ford, I cannot fawn,” Falstaff said. “I cannot prate, Mrs. Ford. Now I shall sin by making this wish: I wish that your husband were dead. I’ll swear it before the best lord; if your husband were dead, I would make you my lady.”
“I your lady, Sir John!” Mrs. Ford said. “Alas, I should be a pitiful lady!”
“Let the court of France show me such another lady as you,” Falstaff said. “I see how your eye would emulate the diamond; you have the right arched beauty of the brow that becomes the ship-tire, the tire-valiant, or any tire of Venetian admittance. You can look good wearing any headdress: a headdress that is shaped like a ship, a headdress that is fanciful, or any headdress that comes from the city of fashion: Venice.”
“I wear a plain kerchief, Sir John,” Mrs. Ford said. “My brows become nothing else; nor look that well on their own.”
“By the Lord, you are a traitor to yourself to say so,” Falstaff said. “You would make a perfect courtier; and the firm placing of your foot would give an excellent motion to your turning and walking in a half-hooped petticoat. I see what you would be, if Fortune (your foe) were — not Nature — your friend. Nature is your friend and has made you beautiful, but Fortune is your foe and has made you a middle-class wife rather than a great lady. Come, you cannot deny it.”
“Believe me, there are no such qualities in me,” Mrs. Ford said.
“What made me love you?” Falstaff said. “Those qualities that you deny having. Let that persuade you there’s something extraordinary in you. Come, I cannot fawn and say you are this and that, like a many of these lisping hawthorn-buds, who come like women in men’s apparel, and smell like Bucklersbury Street in London when it is filled with sweet-smelling herbs for sale. I cannot fawn, but I love you; I love no one but you; and you deserve my love.”
“Do not betray me, sir,” Mrs. Ford said. “I am afraid that you love Mrs. Page.”
“You might as well say that I love to walk by the gate of the Counter, a prison for debtors. The Counter is famous for its reeking stink, and it is as hateful to me as the reek of a lime-kiln.”
“Well, Heaven knows how I love you,” Mrs. Ford said, “and you shall one day find out how much I love you.”
“Keep in that mind,” Falstaff said. “I’ll deserve it.”
“I must tell you that you deserve to find out how much I love you, or else I could not be in that particular frame of mind.”
Robin entered the room and said, “Mrs. Ford, Mrs. Ford! Mrs. Page is at the door, sweating and puffing and looking wildly, and she wants to speak with you right away.”
“She must not see me,” Falstaff said. “I will hide behind this wall hanging.”
“Please, do that,” Mrs. Ford said. “She is a very tattling woman. If she sees you, she will tell everyone that she saw you here.”
Mrs. Page came into the room.
Mrs. Ford said, “What’s the matter?”
“Oh, Mrs. Ford, what have you done? You’re shamed!” Mrs. Page replied. “You’re overthrown! You’re undone for ever! You’re ruined!”
“What’s the matter, good Mrs. Page?”
“How could you, Mrs. Ford! You have an honest man as your husband, and you are giving him such cause to suspect you!”
“What cause is that?”
“What cause to suspect you! You know what cause! I have been much mistaken about you!”
“Why, what’s the matter?” Mrs. Ford asked.
“Your husband is coming here, woman, with all the officers in Windsor,” Mrs. Page said, “to search for a gentleman who he says is here now in the house by your consent, to take an ill advantage of his absence. Your reputation will be ruined.”
“You are wrong, I hope,” Mrs. Ford replied.
“I pray to Heaven that it is not true that you have such a man here! But it is very certain that your husband is coming here with half of the citizens of Windsor at his heels to search for such a man,” Mrs. Page said. “I have come ahead of him to warn you. If you know that you are innocent, why, I am glad of it; but if you have a lover here, get him out — and quickly. Be not so amazed that it paralyzes you so that you can do nothing; call all your senses to you; defend your reputation, or bid farewell to your good life for ever.”
“What shall I do?” Mrs. Ford said. “There is a gentleman here. He is my dear friend; and I fear not my own shame as much as I fear his peril. I would rather have him out of the house than for me to possess a thousand pounds.”
“For shame!” Mrs. Page said. “Don’t waste time engaging in wishful thinking. Your husband is almost here, so think of some way to get your gentleman friend out of your house. You cannot hide him inside. Oh, how you have deceived me! Look, here is a buck-basket. If your gentleman friend is of any reasonable size, he may hide in the buck-basket, and we can throw dirty linen over him to hide him. Then you can send your two male servants to take the buck-basket to Datchet Meadow as if the linen were going to be washed or whitened.”
“He’s too big to hide in the buck-basket,” Mrs. Ford said. “What shall I do?”
Falstaff came out from his hiding place and said, “Let me see it! Let me see it! Oh, let me see it! I’ll fit! I’ll fit! Follow your friend’s advice! I’ll fit!”
Mrs. Page took Falstaff’s love letter to her out of her pocket and said, “Sir John Falstaff! Is this your letter, knight?”
She was pretending to wonder why Falstaff was with Mrs. Ford; after all, he had sent a love letter to her: Mrs. Page.
Falstaff whispered to her, “I love you. Help me get away. Let me hide in the buck-basket. I’ll never —”
He got in the buck-basket, and the two women started to cover him with dirty linen.
Mrs. Page said to Robin, “Help to cover your master, boy.”
She then said, “Call your male servants, Mrs. Ford.”
Finally, she said to Falstaff, “You lying knight!”
Mrs. Ford called, “John! Robert!”
The servants entered the room.
She told them, “Go and pick up these clothes here quickly. Where’s the cowl-staff — the pole you use to carry the buck-basket?”
One of the servants found the cowl-staff, but he was working too slowly for Mrs. Ford, who told him, “How you dawdle! Carry the clothes to the laundress in Datchet Meadow. Quickly! Quickly!”
Mr. Ford, Mr. Page, Doctor Caius, and Sir Hugh entered the room.
Robin took the opportunity to exit, unnoticed.
Mr. Ford said to his wife, “Please, come near to me. If I suspect you without cause, why then you can make fun of me. Then I will be your laughingstock; I will deserve it.”
He said to the servants, “What are you doing? Where are you carrying this buck-basket?”
A servant replied, “To the laundress.”
Mrs. Ford said, “Why, what have you to do with where they carry it? Are you now in charge of laundry in this house? Are you now in charge of the buck-basket?”
“Buck! I would I could wash myself of the buck!” Mr. Ford said. He was thinking of a horned deer and the horns of a cuckold. He said, “Buck! Buck! Buck! Yes, buck; I promise you, buck; and of the season, too, it shall appear.”
By season, he meant the rutting season, when a buck’s antlers were at their largest.
The servants left, carrying Falstaff away in the buck-basket.
Mr. Ford said, “Gentlemen, I dreamed last night; I’ll tell you my dream. Here, here, here are my keys. Ascend to my chambers; search, seek, find out. I’ll bet that we’ll unkennel the fox. Let me stop this exit first.”
He locked the door and said, “That’s done. Let’s see an escape now.”
Mr. Page said, “Good Mr. Ford, stay calm. You are growing overexcited. You wrong yourself too much.”
“It is true that I am perturbed, Mr. Page,” Mr. Ford said. “Up, gentlemen. You shall see some entertainment soon. Follow me, gentlemen.”
He left the room.
Sir Hugh said, “This is fery [very] fantastical humors [moods] and jealousies.”
“By gar, this is no [not] the fashion of France; it is not jealous [no jealousy is] in France,” Doctor Caius said.
“Let us follow Mr. Ford, gentlemen,” Mr. Page said. “We will see the result of his search.”
Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce
Note: This is an excerpt from my book William Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor: A Retelling in Prose, which is available here: