A Character Analysis of Shakespeare's Mistress Quickly

Color painting showing Mistress Quickly with other Shakespearean characters.

Philip Francis Stephanoff  (–1860) / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Mistress Quickly, like Sir John Falstaff, appears in several of Shakespeare’s plays. She is of Falstaff’s world and provides comic relief in the same way as Falstaff.

She appears in both "Henry IV" plays, "Henry V," and "The Merry Wives of Windsor."

In the "Henry" plays, she is an innkeeper who runs the Boar’s Tavern frequented by Falstaff and his disreputable friends. Mistress Quickly has links to the criminal underworld but is preoccupied with keeping a respectable reputation.

Bawdy Humor

Mistress Quickly, whose nickname is Nell, is prone to mishearing conversations and misinterpreting them with innuendo. Her knack for double entendres let her aspirations for respectability down. Her character is most fully rounded in "Henry IV Part 2," where her bawdy language lets her down in pursuit of gentility. She is said to be married in "Part 1" but by "Part 2," she has been widowed.

She is friendly with a local prostitute called Doll Tearsheet and defends her against aggressive men.

Her name itself has sexual connotations — “quick lay” or “quick” was then associated with being lively, which could also be interpreted sexually.

Mistress Quickly in 'Henry IV'

In "Henry IV Part 1," she takes part in a parody version of a court scene where Falstaff pretends to be King.

In "Henry IV Part 2," she asks for Falstaff to be arrested for running up debts and for making a proposal to her. At the end of the play, she and prostitute friend Doll Tearsheet are arrested in connection with a man’s death.

Mistress Quickly in 'The Merry Wives of Windsor'

In "The Merry Wives of Windsor," Mistress Quickly works for Doctor Caius. She is a messenger in the play, delivering notes between the characters. In the end, she pretends to be the Queen of the fairies as part of a practical joke on Falstaff.

Mistress Quickly in 'Henry V'

Described as Nell Quickly in "Henry V," she is at Falstaff’s deathbed and delivers the message that he has died to his former friends. She marries Falstaff’s ensign Ancient Pistol, who was believed to be involved in the man’s death she was arrested for in "Henry IV Part 2."

Apart from the name being the same, there are some discrepancies between the Mistress Quickly of the History plays compared to the Mistress Quickly in "The Merry Wives." She is no longer an innkeeper in "The Merry Wives" and is now serving the Doctor. There is also no evidence that she already knows Falstaff.

The only hint that she becomes a widow is that in "Henry IV Part 2," Falstaff promises to marry her. But there is evidence that she is past childbearing age in that she is described as “pistol proof.” She has also known Falstaff for 29 years, so we know she is of ripe age!

Comic Relief

It is interesting that both Mistress Quickly and Falstaff feature in several plays, suggesting that they were both very popular characters. Both these characters are flawed and have aspirations for greatness — and therefore, understandably appeal to the audience (who would also be aspiring for better things for themselves).

Both characters provide comic relief through their dubious reputations. Mistress Quickly is used as a vehicle by Shakespeare for delivering bawdy language and exploring the seedier side of life. For example, this passage from "Henry IV Part 2, Act 2, Scene 4:"

Tilly-fally, Sir John, ne’er tell me. Your ensign-swaggerer comes not in my doors. I was before Master Tisick the deputy the other day, and, as he said to me ‘twas no longer ago than Wedn’sday last, i’ good faith — ‘Neighbour Quickly’ says he, ‘receive those that are civil, for’, said he, ‘you are in an ill name.’ Now a said so, I can tell whereupon. ‘For’, says he, ‘ you are an honest woman, and well thought on; therefore take heed what guests you receive. ‘Receive’ says he, ‘ no swaggering companions.’ There comes none here. You would bless you to hear what he said. No, I’ll no swaggerers.

Source

Shakespeare, William. "Henry IV, Part II." Folger Shakespeare Library, Dr. Barbara A. Mowat (Editor), Paul Werstine Ph.D. (Editor), annotated edition edition, Simon & Schuster, January 1, 2006.