Act I Scene 1-2
The Merry Wives of Windsor begins with Justice Shallow complaining to Sir Hugh Evans that he has been abused by Falstaff. Shallow's cousin Slender backs him up, and Evans agrees to take up the matter on Shallow's behalf.
Evans then changes the subject, and mentions Anne Page, a girl of marriageable age. Anne has inherited, or will inherit, a sizable amount of money, which makes her a desirable bride. Evans wants to arrange a match between Anne and Slender.
They go the house of George Page, Anne's father. Falstaff is inside, and Shallow tells Page that Falstaff has wronged him. Page replies that Falstaff has admitted as much.
Falstaff enters with his cronies, Bardolph, Nym and Pistol. Shallow accuses Falstaff of beating his men, killing his deer and breaking into his lodge. Falstaff admits it, but when Shallow says he will take the matter to the Council, Falstaff tells him he will be laughed at. Slender then says that Bardolph, Nym and Pistol carried him to the tavern, got him drunk, and then picked his pocket.
Evans replies that he, Page, and the Host of the Garter Inn should arbitrate the matter. Questioned by Falstaff, Pistol denies that he robbed Slender. Bardolph claims that Slender was too drunk to know what was happening and has drawn the wrong conclusion, while Slender vows that in future, he will only get drunk in the company of righteous people, not drunken rogues.
Anne Page enters with her mother, and Mrs. Ford. Page invites all the company to have dinner with them, and everyone exits except Shallow, Slender and Evans. Evans and Shallow want to know whether Slender thinks he would be able to love Anne Page. Slender agrees to do whatever is expected of him, including marrying the girl. He expresses no great enthusiasm for the prospect, though.
Anne Page enters and invites them to the dinner table. Shallow and Evans exit, leaving Anne alone with Slender. She tries to persuade him to come to dinner, but Slender says he is not hungry. He is only persuaded when Page returns and summons him, but even then he insists that Anne go in first.
In scene 2, Evans gives Simple, Slender's servant, a letter to deliver to Mistress Quickly. The letter asks Quickly to inform Anne of the nature of Slender's interest in her.
The first scene sets the first plot, the courting of Anne Page, in motion. It makes clear that the motivation, at least as far as Evans is concerned, is money. This introduces the theme of the play, which contrasts the lure of money, as well as the match-making attempts of parents and others, with true love.
This scene also highlights the fact that intermediaries (in this case, Shallow and Evans) are employed to set up the match. Using intermediaries to arrange a marriage was a common practice in Elizabethan England. As Ann Jenalie Cook explains in Making a Match: Courtship in Shakespeare and His Society, "Especially in the upper social echelons families sought assistance in locating suitable marriage prospects. And, when located, a prospect still might require investigation by trusted friends or persuasion by powerful allies. A crucial decision like marriage could not be left to chance" (p. 104). Shakespeare will have some fun satirizing the practice in this play.
The first scene also accomplishes some characterization: Slender as an ineffectual yes-man who merely does what he is told; Shallow as a querulous old man who can no longer wield the authority he once enjoyed; Falstaff as something of a villain who is very much in charge of the situation at this point as he mocks Shallow's attempt to remonstrate with him. By showing Falstaff full of confidence, still the lord of his world, Shakespeare sets him up for his fall.