Justice Shallow enters a city street with Master Slender and Sir Hugh Evans. Shallow is angry at Sir John Falstaff and says he will bring him before the court. Evans, a man of the church, misunderstands and thinks he can help bring Falstaff before a church council.
Evans suggests that they focus their attentions on trying to arrange a marriage between Slender and Anne Page. They approach Master Page's house, and Page enters. He thanks Shallow for his gift of venison. Shallow asks if Falstaff is at Page's house, and Page says he is. Shallow says Falstaff wronged him, and Page reports that Falstaff admits it.
Falstaff enters with his entourage of Bardolph, Nim, and Pistol. Shallow accuses Falstaff of having beaten his men and killed his deer. Falstaff admits it. Slender accuses Falstaff of having beaten him. Evans says that Slender's wallet was stolen and that he believes Falstaff's men took it. The men deny it, saying Slender was too drunk to know what happened to his wallet. Slender says he'll never again drink with any men who are not good and honest.
Anne Page enters to serve the men wine, but Page says they'll all go inside. Mistress Page and Mistress Ford enter, greet Falstaff, and go inside with the others to dine. Slender sits alone, wishing for his book of love poems. His servant Simple enters, and Slender asks him where his book is. Shallow and Evans emerge from Page's house, and Evans suggests he has made a kind of marriage proposal in Slender's name to Page, asking for Anne's hand. Shallow asks if Slender can love her and if he would be willing to marry her, to which Slender replies positively. Even if there's no great love at the beginning, he says, it will grow once we get to know each other.
Anne enters to call the men to dinner. The others go in, but Slender hesitates. Anne says the others await him, but he insists he's not hungry and won't go in. He tries to make conversation with her but fails miserably. Page enters and encourages Slender to come inside. Slender repeats that he isn't hungry, but goes inside, after a debate about who should enter the door first.
Evans exits dinner with Simple. He sends Simple to Doctor Caius's house to ask for Mistress Quickly, Caius's servant. He gives Simple a letter for Mistress Quickly, asking for her help in convincing Anne Page to marry Slender.
This play's mostly middle-class characters are introduced in their small-town milieu, and immediately we are introduced to the main struggles of this comedy. The main thrust of Elizabethan comedy is usually marriage, and the possible marriage of Anne Page and Slender is the early goal of Shallow and Evans. But the relationship between couples who are already married is also a focus, namely the pairs of Ford and Page and their wives.
Meanwhile, Falstaff and his mischievous drinking buddies make their entrance, having already been up to no good before this scene. Falstaff is a knight, thus of a higher rank than most of Windsor's natives, and he takes advantage of his position to torment the locals. Falstaff appeared first in Shakespeare's Henry IV, part 1 and Henry IV, part 2, and his sidekicks continue on into Henry V. This scene-stealing drunken jokester, pal of the young Prince Henry, is said to have so impressed Queen Elizabeth that she asked Shakespeare to write another play for Falstaff, which became Merry Wives of Windsor. Falstaff receives no better treatment in this play, being mocked and tricked at every turn while he tries to seduce Mistresses Page and Ford.
Shallow, Evans, and later Caius form a second maligned group; they are the mocked public figures. Evans is a Welsh clergyman, and he speaks with an accent that the other English characters can't bear. Caius is a Frenchman who speaks in fragments of English and French. And Shallow is an incompetent man of the law.
Mistresses Page and Ford and their husbands form the third group. The two women are inseparable and irrepressible; they are the "merry wives" of the title. Their project to humiliate Falstaff overlaps with their aim to educate their husbands that wives can be both merry and honorable.