Sir John Falstaff, staying in Windsor and down on his luck, decides to restore his fortunes by seducing the wives of two wealthy citizens. He sends Mistress Page and Mistress Ford identical love letters, but they discover his double dealing and set about turning the tables, arranging an assignation at Mistress Ford's house. The jealous Frank Ford has heard of Falstaff's plan and decides to test his wife's fidelity. Pretending to be Master Broom, he pays Falstaff to seduce his wife on his behalf, twice almost catching them together. The Pages' daughter Anne is pursued by three suitors. The French physician Doctor Caius is her mother's choice, whilst her father favours Slender, Justice Shallow's kinsman. Anne herself is in love with Fenton. Mistress Quickly is being paid by all three suitors to advance their cause. A duel between Doctor Caius and Parson Evans is averted when the Host of the Garter Inn plays a trick on them, and they in turn pay him back. In Windsor Great Park at night, Falstaff is set up for his final punishment - and one of Anne Page's suitors is successful.
In the play, Fenton originally loved "sweet Anne Page". In an autobiographical sense, de Vere may be stating that he originally loved Anne Cecil.
The play mocks Ford (who is at one point labeled "Ox" - as in Oxford) for mistreating his innocent and cunning wife In one scene, Ford's English friend Page, his Welsh colleague Evans and his French doctor Caius are amazed at Ford's inability to recognize his jealous and unfounded accusations against his wife.
Thomas Smith - de Vere's tutor as a young man and one of the leading intellects of the time - practiced Paracelsian medicine - an empirical approach using chemical distillations and essences to cure medical problems. This medicine anticipated the pharmaceutical industry. While this practice was considered quackery in de Vere's time, de Vere was a patron. In the play, the French doctor Caius keeps "simples" in his closet. "Simples" were the chemical distillations.
Dr. John Caius was a doctor of medicine who had studied anatomy at the University of Padua in the Republic of Venice. He taught at Cambridge in the 1550s, where de Vere attended as an eight year old. He was later appointed physician to Queen Elizabeth.
Prior to marrying de Vere, Anne Cecil's father William Cecil and Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester and uncle of Philip Sidney, negotiated a marriage contract between Anne Cecil and Philip Sidney that would take effect when they reached the age of consent. A marriage alliance with the Cecils would enhance the power of the Earl of Leicester. The contract details the financial details, including Sidney's modest income, the increase that he would receive on the death of his father, and the further increase when his mother passed away, plus an additional boost of £300 annually if the marriage occurs. It also notes that Anne has a £700 inheritance. De Vere, whose inheritance had been stolen by Leicester, used the play to mock Leicester, not least by calling him "Shallow". Shallow wants his nephew Slender to marry Anne Page, who has a £700 inheritance. Anne is not interested in Slender. Slender confesses that he is a poor gentleman until his mother dies. Anne Page later states:
ANNE PAGE: (aside) This is my father's choice.
O, what a world of vile, ill favor'd faults
Looks handsome in three hundred pounds a year!
Sidney was indifferent to a marriage with Anne. In the play, Slender tells Anne Page: "I would little or nothing of you. Your father and my uncle hath made [the] motions."
In the play, the young and valiant groom Fenton woos the lovely Anne Page, to the consternation of her parents. They wed in secret and live happily ever after. The marriage between Anne Cecil was not the first choice for Anne's parents. William Cecil had attempted to have Anne marry Philip Sidney, and de Vere was not a favourite of Cecil's wife.
In his youth prior to the death of his father in 1561, de Vere was moved out of Castle Hedingham and into the household of Sir Thomas Smith, former Secretary of State to King Edward, protestant friend of the family, and a formidable educator and scholar. Smith lived at Ankerwicke near Windsor overlooking the Thames. In 1570, de Vere was ill and hired a room in Windsor during his recovery. Windsor, and the neighbouring areas of Datchet Mead and Frogmore form the background to the play. In nearby Datchet Mead, a hunter Herne hanged himself on a big oak tree, and his ghost haunted the local woods. This story appears in the play.