Matthew Williams Peters was trained in the Dublin Society Schools under Robert West (d. 1770) and his early talent is shown by the high quality of an exquisite drawing of himself and Robert West, now in the National Portrait Gallery, London. After leaving the Schools, Peters moved to London where he studied under Thomas Hudson (1701-1779), however he retained strong ties with Ireland as it was the generosity of the 2nd Earl of Lanesborough through the Dublin Society Schools, which allowed him to travel to Italy from 1761-65. During this visit, Peters extended his training, working under Pompeo Batoni (1708-87) and copying the works of old masters including Rubens and Titian. Although he returned to Dublin in 1765, Peters was back in London in 1768. He returned to Italy for a further five years from 1771, returning via Paris on the way home. Peters first exhibited at the R.A. in 1769, becoming an Associate in 1777, although he resigned in 1788.
This picture was commissioned as part of an unusual and highly important series, initiated by John Boydell (1719-1804), print publisher and Lord Mayor of London. This was a series of prints illustrating subjects from the works of Shakespeare, after pictures painted by English artists which resulted in a vast number of commissions to many of the most important artists of the day, including Peters, Reynolds, Romney, Fuseli, West and Hamilton. These works were on display in Boydell's Shakespeare Gallery in Pall Mall. This work is one of at least five that are known to have been painted by Peters for this series. It is interesting to note that around this time, he was also painting works for an Irish Shakespeare Gallery, including The Suicide of Juliet.
The Merry Wives of Windsor follows the adventures of Sir John Falstaff who had previously appeared in Shakespeare's Henry IV. Falstaff determines to raise his fortunes by seducing Mistress Ford and Mistress Page in an attempt to get at their husbands' money. However, the two ladies discover his intentions, pretend to return his affections but take their revenge through a series of pranks, such as the one shown here, where Falstaff is hidden in a basket of laundry and cast into the Thames. The women finally explain to their husbands what they have been doing and obtain their help in humiliating Falstaff one last time. They arrange for the local children to be dressed up as fairies and to attack the Knight as he waits in the woods for Mistresses Ford and Page. Eventually, all is explained and forgiven.