The action now shifts to the prince's apartment in London, and the participants are Prince Hal himself, Sir John Falstaff, and Poins. Prince Hal, far from engaging enemies of the Crown in armed combat, is amusing himself in witty verbal exchange with Falstaff. The subject of this discourse ranges from drinking to purse-snatching. The two vie with each other in trading amusing insults. Falstaff shows little deference for the prince, twitting him about his lack of grace and his devil-may-care attitude and behavior. Hal, whose initial speech provides a full-length portrait of the knight as a glutton and lecher who is too "fat-witted" to be concerned about the time of day, proves to be a rather worthy opponent in this combat of wits. But Falstaff matches him in rebuttal; indeed, some critics argue that the fat knight excels him.
Since the subject of robbery has been introduced prior to the arrival of Poins, the way has been prepared for details about the Gadshill enterprise in which Hal and Falstaff are asked to participate. Hal amuses himself at Falstaff's expense. First he refuses to go along with the others even "for recreation sake"; then, after listening to Falstaff's denunciation of him, he changes his mind; and finally he refuses once more to be one of the thieves at Gadshill. After Falstaff has departed, the prince learns from Poins that the robbery will provide a wonderful opportunity to gull Falstaff. Let Sir John, Bardolph, and Peto rob the travelers; then Hal and Poins, disguised, will rob the robbers. The great sport will be to expose Falstaff as a coward and liar. Prince Hal cannot resist such a good chance to trick his old companion; he will take part in the robbery at Gadshill.
All the dialogue so far has been in prose. Left alone, the prince now soliloquizes in blank verse. He makes it clear that he is fully aware of the character of his chosen companions, likening them to "contagious [poisonous] clouds." He states that he chooses for a time to remain in their riotous company for recreation's sake but will, at the right moment, surprise and gratify the world by standing forth in his true character.
Appropriately, prose is the medium used in this first scene of the broadly comic subplot wherein matters of state have no immediate place. But one should note that, colloquial though it is predominantly, it is the prose of upper-class, sophisticated speakers. Occasional vulgarisms in the man-to-man exchange between Falstaff and Hal should not mislead the reader. Sir John here, and throughout the play, is a speaker of superior prose, prose marked by a vivacity, brilliance, and finish evidenced from the very beginning in his first two speeches with their balance, antitheses, and allusive elements. Hal, and even Poins, uses the same general style, which provides a significant contrast to that used, for example, by the lowly carriers in Act II, Scene 1.
But most important in this scene are the characters of Falstaff and Prince Hal. What is learned about Falstaff as he exchanges spontaneous, good-natured insults with the prince? He is, to be sure, a knight of the realm, apparently a not unfitting associate of the prince, whom he meets now, not in a disreputable tavern but in the prince's London apartment. If, for the moment, we take literally what Hal says about him in his first speech (213), Falstaff emerges as one devoid of any sense of responsibility. Time, a symbol of the ordered life as used here, could not possibly concern one whose hours are spent largely in drinking sack (a strong sherry-type wine, especially popular in the days before gin and whiskey), overeating, and wasting half the day in sleep induced by gluttony. Add to all this Falstaff's alleged interest in bawds and houses of prostitution. Quite an indictment, and one which Falstaff does not refute: "Indeed, you come near me now, Hal," he replies (14). Yet he is anything but embarrassed. Is his way of life unknightly, ignoring as he does noblesse oblige, the obligations of rank? Well, let Hal remember that Falstaff "takes purses by moonlight" and thus does not follow "Phoebus, he, 'that wand'ring knight so fair'" (16-17). Here, demonstrating for the first of many times his upper-class learning, he provides a brilliant rhetorical commentary on gross reality and, as always, is fully aware of what he is doing. Moreover, only a superior wit could accomplish all this in such an adroit way, effectively answering what may well be a serious indictment of his character. Cheerfully, he adds to his offenses: he is one who engages in robbery by night and thus goes "by the moon," not by Phoebus the sun. The figurative language here admits to interesting interpretation relevant in a play, the main theme of which is rebellion.
Traditionally, the sun is a common symbol of royalty; in this instance, it represents the king, who stands for law and order. Rhetorically and poetically, the moon may represent more than one thing; here it is unmistakably a symbol of instability, not only because it does not remain the same size to one's eyes as time passes, but because (as Hal points out) it governs the tides of the sea, which ebb and flow. One of the leaders of the Northern rebels of 1569, a later Earl of Northumberland, was denounced by loyalists as "the wavering moon." As a knight who follows the moon, then, Falstaff is a rebel (though a comic one) against law and order. And this conclusion finds support in his witty, elegant circumlocutions and epithets: When Hal becomes king — and Falstaff is always aware of Hal's status as heir apparent — let robbers be honored; let them be called "squires of the night's body," not "thieves of the day's beauty" (27-28). The opposition of day and night is that of order and disorder. "Diana's foresters, gentlemen of the shade, minions [favorites, darlings] of the moon," which is described as "noble [and] chaste," are other refined terms used by Falstaff to describe criminal activity.
When Hal's reply makes this very point, Sir John is quick to change the subject, or to try to do so. But the reference to the gallows and hanging, the usual punishment for robbery in Shakespeare's England, has been introduced by the young prince, who will not, for the moment, let his lively companion ignore it, thus the reference to the "buff jerkin" worn by sheriffs officers and to "durance," meaning not only "long lasting" but "imprisonment" (48-49). The culmination of Falstaff's rejection of law and order comes in his comic plea to the prince, urging him to have nothing to do with "old father antic [buffoon] the law" and to honor thieves, who are admirable men of "resolution" (65-70).
Hal obviously enjoys this repartee with Falstaff, who indeed is, as he will say later, not only witty in himself but the cause of wit in others. The young prince lays a verbal trap for the knight: As king, he will not hang malefactors; Falstaff shall. Immediately Falstaff pictures himself as a learned judge — and then is told that, far from being elevated to the bench, he will function as the common hangman. Wit rescues him from this ignominious position, as he makes a play upon the word suits (petitions or solicitations made at court; suits of clothing). This is grim humor, appropriately like a jest on the gallows itself, for in Elizabethan times the hangman received the clothes of his victims and therefore was referred to ironically as the best-dressed man in England.
Wit or no wit, the subject of hanging is not a pleasant one, and Falstaff changes the subject and mood. He is "as melancholy as a gib cat or a lugg'd bear." And Hal matches him simile for simile. Falstaff's reply, "Thou hast the most unsavoury similes and art indeed the most comparative, rascalliest, sweet young Prince" (89-91), underscores at once his favored position as a kind of privileged jester and, surely, a genuine affection for the prince.
This by no means exhausts the facets of his complex character. Earlier (54-60), it was made clear that Falstaff willingly let the prince foot all the bills at the tavern. Now, having been matched by Hal in the combat of wits, he adopts another role. For the moment he becomes the penitent old sinner, acknowledging that he is "little better than one of the wicked." The style he adopts is that of the pulpit, biblical in its simple parallelisms and repetitions (95-98). How serious, how repentant he really is becomes clear at once. In mock sorrow, he, this white-bearded old man, attributes his moral downfall to young Prince Hal, whose use of biblical paraphrase in reply reveals his continued awareness of Falstaff's comic tricks.
But once more Sir John's ludicrous statement has made him vulnerable. When Hal suddenly asks, "Where shall we take a purse tomorrow, Jack ?" (111), Falstaff responds with enthusiasm: "'Zounds, where thou wilt, lad; I'll make one." And yet once more his wit saves him when Hal dryly comments on this sudden shift from "praying to purse-taking": Thieving is Falstaff's profession; is it not proverbial that the wise man should follow his own vocation?
When Poins arrives with the details relating to the proposed robbery, we learn more about Sir John. He declares that, if Hal does not join in the enterprise, Hal lacks honesty, manhood, and good fellowship; and that, in retaliation, Falstaff himself will be a traitor when the prince rules England. Ostensibly finding such virtue in thieves, Falstaff sustains the force of his earlier reference to robbers as "squires," "gentlemen," and "Diana's foresters." If one chooses to analyze this amusing reversal of values closely, it becomes apparent that Falstaff and all who willfully engage in robbery as a vocation are rebels against the Crown. Thus, much of the action in this comic subplot stands as a parody of the serious, public action in the main plot; moreover, the theme of rebellion is common to both. "Comic relief" will not suffice to describe the action in the subplot; there is much more.
Finally, as regards Falstaff, there is the question of cowardice, one much debated by commentators early and late in view of the knight's behavior later in the play. From Poins' remark made to Hal alone in order to persuade him to join in tricking Falstaff, one may conclude properly that cowards are not all of one piece. Peto and Bardolph are "true-bred cowards"; but Falstaff is a coward on principle, a practical realist, as it were, who will fight no longer than he sees reason (207-8). Nor will he prove to be an ordinary liar; he will tell the most "incomprehensible lies" about his experience at Gadshill.
How does Prince Hal appear in this scene? In popular tradition he is connected with various escapades including robbery; thus the early introduction of the theme of robbery would be immediately understood by Shakespeare's audiences. But the dramatist handles this subject carefully as far as the prince is concerned. It is Hal who is rather insistent in reminding Falstaff that thieves end up on the gallows. When asked to participate in the Gadshill robbery, the prince asks: "Who, I rob? I a thief? Not by my faith" (154). And we are to understand that he goes along only for the sake of duping Falstaff.
So amusing is Sir John that there is danger of underestimating Hal's wit. Falstaff indeed is the cause of wit in others, but time and again it is a remark made by the prince which provides Falstaff with the opportunity to scintillate. Surely one of the reasons that these two enjoy each other's company so much is that they share in the exhibition of verbal wit. For example, when Falstaff expresses his willingness to be hangman rather than judge because it "jumps with [his] humour as well as waiting in the court" (77-78), Hal gets the point immediately. "For obtaining of suits?" he asks. His last words addressed to the fat knight in this scene are brilliant: "Farewell, thou latter spring! Farewell. All-hallown summer!"
Prince Hal's final soliloquy has disturbed many readers. Some find it "priggish and hypocritical," and one may well conclude that it leaves the reader with an unflattering impression of Hal. Perhaps it is best here to remember that Shakespeare is dealing with a beloved, honored historical character whose youthful escapades and subsequent reformation had become part of treasured tradition. In a sense, the speaker is not Hal, Falstaff's "sweet wag," but Henry, Prince of Wales, who one day will lead English troops to victory over the traditional enemy, France. Here he functions as a kind of chorus. But once he gets beyond the indictment of his unprincipled associates as "contagious clouds" and "foul and ugly mists," his charm and breadth come through:
If all the year were playing holidays,
To sport would be as tedious as to work. (227-28)
These lines rescue him from the charge of calculation or hypocrisy.