Act II opens with a scene of low life which shows ordinary poeple who are largely unaffected by politics except when the price of oats rises. Yet there is talk of hanging which, even in jest, adds a sombre note. Scene ii, the Gad’s Hill robbery, is one that we have been waiting for as most audiences look forward to the return of Falstaff to the stage. He reveals his fatherly affection for Hal: “If the rascal have not given me medicines to make me love him, I’ll be hanged.” His weight and cumbersome body are stressed: it is possible to laugh at him and so he tries to ensure that we laugh with him. The travellers are shadowy figures as the incident is for humour rather than crime and we note that Falstaff does exactly as expected and leaves behind the booty for the disguised Prince and Poins without more than a couple of blows. Hal is aware of his companion’s ridiculous side and mocks him easily showing that their relationship is not equal:
… Falstaff sweats to death,
And lards the lean earth as he walks along.
Were’t not for laughing I should pity him.
In Scene iii Hotspur is reading a letter from a nameless writer who is fearful of joining the rebllion. Hotspur, in his confidence and arrogance, ignores the danger signals from the ” shallow cowardly hind” and claims that “out of this nettle, danger, we pluck this flower, safety” when he means that he will acquire honour. He does run over the plan in his mind, adding up the supporters and is interrupted by his wife, Mortimer’s sister. The role of women in the play is small but crucial: she reveals how Hotspur’s obsession has kept him from her bed and how he talks in his sleep of battles, sweating and contorting his face as he does so. He cannot combine private and public life and his quest for honour appears comic in this context. Women in the histories are minor whereas in the comedies they are often leaders and in the tragedies they are frequently central. Yet Lady Percy’s relationship with her husband is strong: they can tease and dispute and end in unwilling accord. Their discussion is in blank verse which changes the register from the reading of the letter and allows for a declaration of emotion. She is lively and strong-minded, a fit match for him but he is thinking of his horse, not her and love-making. He will not reveal his purposes since she “cannot utter” what she does not know.
Act II iv is one of the major set-pieces in the play and one which the audience has been waiting for, to hear how Falstaff will talk his way out of the shameful fashion in which he ran away from the robbery. We long to be entertained by his lies and wit and are so amused that moral criticisms fade into the background. Yet Shakespeare has even more fun for us to come. Hal has been making friends with the workers in the cellar but in scornful mode, as is shown by the trick they play on Francis: the Prince engages him in conversation whilst Poins calls to him to attend on him, a rather pointless and facile foolery of which the Prince grows weary. Hal’s opinion of Hotspur is sharply satirical and accurate, allowing for exaggeration: “he that kills me some six or seven dozen of a Scots at a breakfast, washes his hands and says to his wife, ‘Fie upon this quiet life, I want work.'” Hal has placed Hotspur in the order of things and is his superior mentally. The play is full of opinions given by one character about another: all is relative.
Falstaff waits for a drink before reaching his point about the cowardice of others: Hal is paying for his copious intake in return for entertainment. His account is all that the plotters hoped for, over-blown and with the numbers of attackers growing in every sentence. The language is vigorous, the prose in this play being as rich as the verse: “if I fought not with fifty of them I am a bunch of radish.” When it comes to his being attacked, he starts with two opponents and reaches eleven, a technique so blatant that we wonder if he is manipulating Hal, not vice versa. Hal stresses the unpleasant side of his size: “thou whoreson obscene greasy tallow-catch” and catches him in the trap of claiming he could see colours in darkness. Falstaff neatly escapes from this by refusing to give reasons “on compulsion” and returning Hal’s insults with worse: “you starveling, you eel-skin, you dried neat’s tongue, you bull’s pizzle, you stock-fish …” only pausing because he is out of breath. His position depends always on going one better than the opposition: if not successful he would appear as simply a hugely fat, old sponger.
At l.249 Hal gives the true account and there seems no way that Falstaff can escape from the humiliation of the revelation of his cowardice and fibs. But he has charm, charisma and wit and will find a way. We know that is what Hal wants when he says: “What trick, what device, what starting-hole [bolt-hole] canst thou now find out, to hide thee from this open and apparent shame.” This is also a summary of how Falstaff lives. Quickly Falstaff delivers a marvellously confident rebuttal: that his instinct saved him from attacking a Prince, even in disguise. The main thing is the money to him. He can always go one better than the opposition but his position is precarious: he depends on the Prince without whose means his life would become merely sordid, though at the moment he is loved by the audience, by Hal and by his comrades for his humanity and humour.
After this engagement of frivolity and inebriation, serious matters intrude. Falstaff goes to answer the messengers whilst Bardolph and Peto reveal how he faked the after-effects of a fight: Bardolph’s red face is seen as the portent of choler, meaning anger, but also a pun on the word for the hangman’s noose, a motif which runs through the play. On re-entry, Falstaff jokes about how slim he was in his youth with the preposterous claim that grief has blown him up but he does deliver the serious news of the rebellion, albeit jocularly and managing to make the powerful opponents seem ridiculous: “Douglas, that rides a-horseback up a hill perpendicular”. Yet he is aware of the enormity of the threat of war to himself and to the country: he will have to fight and now “you may buy land as cheap as stinking mackerel.” Civil war is a dire calamity. Hal can follow Falstaff in wit but he rarely leads, though here he turns back to humour as a distraction. His duty has caught up with him early and he wants a respite from fear and solemnity.
They decide on a play-acting exercise, firstly with Falstaff as King as Hal as himself. The scene is satirical using a cushion as a crown and so on, but does not represent Shakespeare’s total view of kingship and statescraft: it is one version and the play stresses relativity throughout. They would all like to stay in the tavern but the country must be governed. The roles tell us much about the characters and themes though the Hostess takes it merely as a joke to make her laugh till she cries and it is so successful that the theatre audience can also lose itself in mirth but is more likely to realise the underlying harshness at the same time. In this drama there is no one appropriate reaction at any one time: all is ambivalence. With Falstaff as King, he can question Hal about his reputation and choice of company (with passing side-swipes at Hal’s legitimacy and drooping lip) saying much what Henry would say in more elevated language. The heir to the throne is a truant, a “micher” and the company is like pitch which will taint his honour. There is a more serious yet selfish plea for himself as Falstaff pretends that the King would call him a “virtuous man … a goodly portly man” much younger than his actual age, presumably. He accepts that the rest must be abandoned but is, in fact, begging for his own survival.
In this play-within-a-play there is now a change of roles: Falstaff plays Hal and Hal his own father, thus giving himself a chance to insult Falstaff’s size in grotesque language in which “that stuffed cloak-bag of guts” is only one of the robust terms of abuse. Falstaff’s belly is so often referred to in the play that it beomes symbolic of riot, misrule and the subversiveness of the ordinary man in contrast to Hal’s thin figure representing the call of duty. Falstaff pretends not to know whom he means but defends his age, his corpulence, his drinking and his merriment in ringing prose, praising and inventing good qualities as he goes. The repetition towards the end remains in our mind for its self-concern and its sincerity: the words “banish not” are drummed home with energy and there is truth in the final: “Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.” Dismissing Falstaff from his life is the Prince’s inevitable duty but it signifies abandoning merriment, living for the moment and humanity for the coldly political life of the court. Hal leaves Falstaff in no doubt that he must cut him off eventually: “I do, I will” could not be clearer. The Sheriff arrives for the villains of the highway robbery, Falstaff hides and his tavern bill is found showing huge amounts of ale and small amounts of bread. This typifies what would happen to the country if he had influence: it would run to fat. Meanwhile Hal saves him by covering up and planning to obtain for him a position in charge of infantry in the war to come where Falstaff, who can barely walk because of his size, will be in difficulty. The money will be repaid with interest: no real harm was done. Hal shows himself capable of responsible action when the moment comes and yet we wait to see what kind of leader Falstaff will make.
This long scene is comedy at its best: Falsataff is funny yet representative of humanity; it is played against a background of civil strife which gives it urgency and edge; many sides of an issue are given when the rebels appear threatening yet absurd; the language is vibrant and vivacious; the relationship between Falstaff and Hal is warm and real. There is affection in it and everyone loves Falstaff on stage and in the theatre audience. Comedy is richest when set against a darker possibility and Falstaff states what we would all like to say and feel about war and statescraft. His is not the final view, however: the truth is mixed.
By juxtaposition Shakespeare makes the audience realise fully the nature of the threat to the crown: the rebels meet to discuss mainly – and prematurely – how the country will be divided between them after their assumed victory. A note of comedy intrudes when Hotspur, who has already been seen to be forgetful, exclaims: “A plague upon it!/I have forgot the map.” He shows himself to be even more seriously irresponsible later in picking a quarrel with Glendower who starts by calming and flattering him, saying that Henry pales at his name. The superstitious Glendower states openly that he would not tolerate such treatment from most men, tries to keep patient but cannot resist telling Hotspur of the miracles that attended his birth. This conflict between romanticism and rationalism (although Hotspur is no rationalist when honour is in question) is summarised by the interchange:
Glend: I can call spirits from the vasty deep.
Hot. Why, so can I, or so can any man,
But will they come when you do call for them?
This irrelevant and divisive difference underlines clearly that the rebels are far from united: they are also over-confident when discussing the war and its aftermath. Hotspur again is hotheaded and impulsive to the point of absurdity when he suggests changing the course of the Trent to make his share fairer. Now it is Glendower who is rational: “Not wind? It shall, it must — you see it doth.” The simplicity of diction here (as with the forgetting of the map) leaves us in no doubt that their procedures are close to the ridiculous and yet they are dangerous to the stability of the country. Hotspur is determined to argue with and insult Glendower who tries to keep the peace by offering to alter the river but Hotspur will not now accept his compromise.
After Glendower has left, two views of him are shown as is the case so often with various characters in the play: Hotspur’s intolerant and single-minded opinion is that he is an infuriating and superstitious braggart; Mortimer’s is that his father-in-law is learned, brave, generous and patient. Both descriptions are true and we suspect that Hotspur is the more angry because Glendower is perceived as courageous and therefore his rival. Worcester’s rebuke to Hotspur allows both sides of the young man’s nature to be realised but he is too “wilful-blame” [open to criticism for too much self-will.] The list of defects starts with “harsh rage” and finishes with “disdain” adding up to the judgement that Hotspur is not a true nobleman. At last Hotspur is silenced, if not convinced, and the scene changes in register to the domestic with the arrival of the women and music. This end to Act III i is atmospheric with song and chat but in the background the map is being divided between these unsuitable people. Hotspur and his wife tease with sexual undertones about lying down whereas Mortimer and his Welsh wife, Glendower’s daughter, cannot converse as she speaks only Welsh. There is comedy in Hotspur’s encouraging Kate to swear properly and then sing but she is a match for him and refuses.
In the next scene is the reality of the mock tavern encounter between Hal and his father, an inevitable confrontation, dramtically necessary at this point (though the patch-up presents problems in the next play.) The interview is full of feeling but is largely controlled in measured blank verse and is never ridiculous as is the meeting of the rebels. Henry is the more angry because of his own sense of guilt and his fear that Hal’s behaviour will repeat that of Richard, who also kept bad company. By dramatic irony Shakespeare has him explain his own tactics of keeping quiet and then appearing in public, comparing himself to the sun, an image that Hal used in his soliloquy. The audience knows that Hal’s plan is similar but the King does not. He points out with apparent emotion that there is irony in the situation where he would like to see more of Hal whereas everyone else sees too much of him (l l. 89-91)
It is difficult to tell if this is craft or true tenderness. Up to now in the play Hal has spoken mostly prose and up to now in the scene he has been brief but the mention of Hotspur rouses him to a firm reply in blank verse, the more resonant in that mode. He is probably angry at the comparison with “this all-praised knight” and promises to “redeem all this on Percy’s head”, the word “redeem” taking us back to that early soliloquy. His speech is rhetorical as he claims that Hotspur is merely his “factor” [agent] and that he will take on his reputation: both are cunning men but Henry has no choice but to give Hal command (though his younger brother John has been promoted in his absence.) Quick and efficient battle plans are announced: everything is clear as regards places and dates and the scene ends with the expression “feeds him fat”, a reminder that the lax world of the huge Falstaff is threatened by reality. Our affection is with the fat man and we long to see how he will comment and behave, perhaps more than we need to know the process and outcome of the war, which would have been familiar to a contemporary audience.
Although Falstaff is joking at the start of sc. iii that he is dwindling in size, there is a point to his laments: time is taking its toll and the war to come is not an “action” like the robbery. In a virtuoso speech on Bardolph’s red face he shows that he still has his capacity to enthral with words but it is deeds that will soon count. With the entry of the Hostess, we have a foretaste of the Falstaff of Part ii, a man who will not pay his bills and leads a sordid life of sponging and lies. Rudely and without conscience he claims that his new shirts were of “filthy dowlas” [coarse linen] and that his pockets were picked in the inn. Yet he must go to war: as Hal says, “The land is burning, Percy stands on high,” but the human voice of the reluctant fighter has the last word: “O, I could wish this tavern were my drum”. Even in Henry V, the soldiers are not enthusiastic.
In this Act the humour has been sharpened by the approaching dark civil war, so poignantly described at the start of the play that it has cast its shadow throughout; the merriment of the ale-house or the music with the women have been only a respite. Alternative attitudes to honour and authority have been demonstrated and yet we still do not know exactly how Falstaff will emerge, though we feel sure he will triumph somehow because of his quick wits and because we now feel the King’s side is stronger and that Hal will protect him if possible. His role up to now has been similar to that of the licensed buffoon or court jester who can speak subversively and yet not give offence: he is also the apolitical comman man who is our spokesperson in his satirical view which is, nevertheless, partial and not the overall tenor of the play.