The central character, Falstaff, originally appeared in one of Shakespeare's earlier plays, Henry IV, part 1, and it is often claimed that he was persuaded to revive the character by the Queen herself, who had so much enjoyed the comedic episodes in the earlier work.
Critics have universally declared that this is not one of the Bard's best plays, and the Falstaff of Merry Wives is much inferior to the Falstaff of the two Henry IV plays. That Shakespeare would so stumble with one of his greatest creations is puzzling, and a satisfactory reason for this remains to be found. One suggestion is that this play is, in fact, nothing more than a revision of an older play by another hand, and that Shakespeare left many of the older mediocre lines in the revised play.
The play concerns the efforts of Sir John Falstaff to obtain financial advantage by courting two wealthy married women, Mistress Ford and Mistress Page. The "merry wives" are not interested in the ageing, overweight Falstaff as a suitor, but for the sake of their own amusement pretend to respond to his proposals. At one point Falstaff is forced by a jealous husband to hide in a laundry basket and is thrown into the river. Eventually his scheme is revealed and he is held up to ridicule, but the play does end happily, with the marriage of Mistress Page's daughter.
Giuseppe Verdi's last opera, Falstaff, with libretto by Arrigo Boito, is based on the play, although, as with most operas adapted from the theater, there are significant differences as to characters and plot.