At the Boar's-Head Tavern, Prince Hal and Poins are entertaining themselves. Hal tells his companion that he has won much honor by being accepted as "sworn brother" to the lowly tavern servants. He engages Francis, one of them, in a bewildering game with Poins' help. First the prince, then Poins, calls for poor Francis, who, striving to please both, runs up and down stairs in a ridiculous manner, answering each call with "Anon [at once], sir." Hal makes the newly-arrived Falstaff and the rest of the thieves wait at the door while he comments on the significance of Francis' behavior, curiously shifting to a comparison of himself with "the Hotspur of the North."
Falstaff and his companions enter, the fat knight complaining bitterly about the prevalence of cowardice and calling for sack. He then tells how courageously he fought at Gadshill against enemies who, first said to number one hundred, are successively reduced to six or seven; and, as he testifies, two particular ones in buckram suits become successively four, seven, nine, and finally eleven. Hal and Falstaff exchange derogatory epithets. At last the prince gives the true account of what happened and challenges Falstaff to explain away the fact that he has proved himself to be a coward and liar. Falstaff, in his special way, does exactly that. Valiant though he is, never would he be one to kill the heir-apparent, whom he recognized immediately by instinct. His spirits are uplifted, for he now knows that Hal has the money taken from the travelers. Let all be merry, he exclaims and suggests a "play extempore" — a bit of amateur play acting — as a source of amusement.
A messenger from the king is announced. At Hal's request, Falstaff leaves to "send him packing." During Sir John's absence, Bardolph and Peto tell how the old knight coached them to back up his preposterous story. When Falstaff returns with news of the revolt of the Percies, the prince seems almost totally unconcerned. The names of renowned Hotspur ("that same mad fellow of the North," as Falstaff calls him), Mortimer, Douglas, and "that devil Glendower" leave him unperturbed; unlike Sir John, he cannot be a coward.
But Hal must appear before his royal father, and this provides the subject for the play extempore, a kind of rehearsal, in which the prince and Falstaff play alternate roles.
The arrival of the sheriff and "all the watch" at the tavern door interrupts this merriment. At Hal's request, Falstaff hides behind the arras and the others go upstairs, leaving the prince with Peto to face the law. The carrier who accompanies the sheriff into the tavern identifies one of the thieves as a gross fat man — "as fat as butter." Hal assures them that the man is not present and that he will answer personally for any charges made.
After the sheriff and the carrier have left, Falstaff is discovered fast asleep and snoring behind the arras. "Search his pockets," says Hal to Peto, who finds only a tavern bill for a bit of food and vast quantities of sack. On inspiration, Hal decides to pester Falstaff by giving him a command of foot troops which he will have to lead against the rebels. Hal himself will report to his father in the morning and will see that the stolen money is returned.
This scene of broad comedy is at once one of the most hilarious in all literature and also one of the most significant in this play. No reader will want to miss any part of the fun; but no careful reader should be so carried away by Falstaff's superb performance as to miss the ideas relating to the theme and to the characterizations.
First to be explained is the import of Hal's remarks about his relationship with the tavern tapsters and apprentices, to whom he refers as "loggerheads" (blockheads) and "a leash (a pack, as of leashed animals) of drawers." To many, this episode hardly reflects favorably upon the character of Prince Hal, particularly the trick played upon the lowly Francis. Perhaps Hal's exploits with the drawers may be considered "miserable attempts at mirth" introduced "to show the quality of the prince's wit when unsustained by Falstaff's," the whole comprising "a very strange incoherent rhapsody" best explained by the prince's volatile nature and by the fact that he has "spent several hours drinking with the drawers." This is the view taken by an early commentator (New Variorum). More recent Shakespearean critics have taken a far different view and have found coherence and relevance in this episode.
With the prevailing tendency to create Shakespeare in our own image, it is easy to go astray here. For one thing, contemporary sources tell us that the gallants in Renaissance England took a sort of pride in being on quite familiar terms with drawers and that only favored guests were invited to the cellar to sample the wine in the hogsheads. Democratic sentiments must not mislead us. The prince of Shakespeare's Henry IV is at the highest rung of the ladder in a hierarchical society; in contrast, the drawers, worthy subjects of the Crown, are at the lowest rung. Yet Hal has won their admiration and affection, and they compare him favorably to Falstaff, that "proud Jack." In so conducting himself, he has "sounded the very base string of humility." This could well be the best way to prepare for the day when he will rule all the people of England, all levels of society. In a word, in the first part of this comic scene, we are given an insight into the education of the prince, one who will lead an English army to France and be able to move freely among his soldiers on the eve of the decisive battle of Harfleur, listening to and understanding their conversation. From this point of view, Prince Hal has won a certain kind of victory. In 2 Henry IV, the Earl of Warwick, seeking to console the dying King Henry IV, who again has great reason to worry about his son's behavior, has this to say:
My gracious lord, you look beyond him quite.
The Prince but studies his companions
Like a strange tongue, wherein, to gain the language,
'Tis needful that the most modest word
Be looked upon and learned. (IV.iv.67-71)
As Hal explains to Poins, the trick played on Francis is a "precedent" (36), or example, one in which he has proved himself to be a man of "all humours." That is to say, he is willing to indulge himself in all the varieties of life, including the present kind of merriment. His devastating burlesque of Hotspur (114-25) logically follows. Young Percy, according to Hal, is like Francis in his concentration on one narrow field of human activity, for Hotspur is obsessed by thoughts of carnage in battle — with "crack'd crowns and bloody noses." Indeed, there is much special pleading here; Hal has been and still is a truant from noble exercises. He has yet to prove himself and to make good the promise he made at the end of Act I, Scene 2. Virtue must manifest itself in positive action.
To compare Hal's wit with that of Falstaff in this scene, or elsewhere in the play for that matter, is wholly irrelevant. Whatever Falstaff's limitations may be, no one can deny him preeminence in the realm of wit.
Falstaff is in rare form as he enters, denouncing Hal and Poins as cowards and identifying himself as one endowed with true "manhood," as one of the few "good" men left in a bad world. He manifests again his constant awareness of Hal's status as heir-apparent and his own status as privileged jester by declaring his intent to beat Hal out of his kingdom with a wooden dagger and drive Hal's subjects before him like a flock of geese-including, to be sure, the lowly ones whom Hal has just been winning over.
When Sir John brazenly denies that he has had a single drink, although we have seen him quaff a cup of sack almost as soon as he entered the tavern, the way is prepared for his gargantuan lies concerning the number of assailants at Gadshill. His immediate reply to Hal, who points out that Falstaff's lips are still wet with wine (170), provides a key to the old knight's tall stories: "All's one for that" (What difference does it make?). Surely it is futile to waste one's time debating whether or not Falstaff expects Hal and Poins to believe him. He remains the great wit at his calling; exaggeration, as is apparent here, can be wonderfully amusing.
And so when, with assumed solemnity, he justifies his conduct at Gadshill, having been exposed as a liar and coward. As Hal knows, he is "as valiant as Hercules; but beware instinct: the lion will not touch the true prince." In identifying himself with the great exemplar of strength and courage in classical mythology, and with the lion (a symbol here, not of royalty, but of courage and ferocity in the animal kingdom), Falstaff illustrates another aspect of his complex character. Here he is the braggart warrior, a well-known type character in classical comedy, long since naturalized in Renaissance European drama, including English. But let us give Falstaff credit; he is aware of the full import of his words.
The nobleman at the door, an emissary from the king, is dismissed by Falstaff as "Old Gravity"; the elderly, white-bearded knight in whose life seriousness has no place is glad to "send him packing" (328). The epithet Falstaff uses here is at one with "old father antic," which he used earlier to describe the law. The implication is the same: He has no use for responsibility, for law, for order. They interfere with life conceived as a perpetual holiday.
There follows an exchange between Hal and Bardolph and then between the prince and Falstaff; these have some special interest in the realm of the comedy of physical appearances (340-60) and also have some thematic relevance. Bardolph's flaming nose invites Hal's witty comment; it provides a constant glow which should have served Bardolph as well as his sword during the Gadshill robbery, and yet Bardolph ran away. Perhaps, in contrast to Falstaff's undisturbed good humor, there is rancor in Bardolph's reply: "My lord, do you see these meteors? Do you behold these exhalations?" (351-52). But Shakespeare is making a typical play on words here. On one level, meteors and exhalations stand for drunkenness and poverty; on a second level, not to be ignored in a play about rebellion, they stand for violation of law and order.
In the comedy of physical appearances, Falstaff's enormous girth, which invites Hal's merciless comments (35761), provides much fun. "Bare-bone" Falstaff, Hal suggests, has been blown up by bombast, implying that the old man is devoid of real substance. There is, perhaps, pathos to be found in Sir John's reply: If he has not been able to see his own knees since he was a youth of Hal's age, once, long ago, he was becomingly slender. And, to be sure, he has his own explanation for his corpulence — "a plague of sighing and grief" has blown him up "like a bladder." We are not allowed to sentimentalize; Falstaff's wit drives away sentimentality.
The subsequent dialogue relating to the fearful opponents of Henry IV is especially revealing of Hal's character. Despite all that Falstaff says to undermine the courage of the young prince, Hal remains nonchalant and (thanks probably to the presence of Falstaff) quite witty. What should come through, especially since Hotspur dominated the previous scene and his character has had an important part in the present one, is that Prince Hal finds no occasion to become voluble and boastful about what he intends to do. News of impending conflict does not drive him beyond the bounds of patience. Deeds, not words, are called for, certainly not advertisement of one's self.
The "play extempore," culminating in Falstaff's brilliant defense of himself and his way of life, is a comic masterpiece. Sir John's genius is fully revealed here as he throws his considerable self into the role of an irate father and king reproving an errant son and heir. He is especially appreciated by the hostess of this disreputable tavern, whom he calls, in lines of heroic verse, his "sweet . . . tristeful queen." Earlier, attention has been called to Falstaff's rather wide range of knowledge, to the fact that his discourse reflects an education appropriate to a knight of the realm. This aspect of his character is again shown, as when he speaks of "King Cambyses' vein," a reference to the ranting style used by Thomas Preston in the widely popular tragedy Cambyses, written some twenty-eight years before King Henry IV, Part 1. More emphatically, it is shown by Falstaff's matchless burlesque of euphuism, the highly contrived style used in the even more widely popular and influential prose romance Euphues (1579), by John Lyly. That style, which for a time was widely imitated, is marked by interminable parallelisms and antitheses, rhetorical questions, maxims, and curious allusions and similes which derive from the Natural History of Pliny, classical mythology, and the bestiaries of the Middle Ages. All these stylistic devices Falstaff makes use of in his speech, which includes insulting and even scandalous comments on the royal family. He concludes with words of highest praise for "a virtuous man" with whom the prince keeps company. Ah, yes — now he remembers the name. It is Falstaff. Let Hal "him keep with," the rest banish.
When Hal asks that they exchange roles, Falstaff asks, "Depose me?" And he challenges the prince to match him in gravity and majesty. At this point some will be reminded of Hal's solemn promise to break "through the foul and ugly mists / Of vapours that did seem to strangle him" (I.ii.225-26). If he is to do so, this king of jesters must be deposed.
Actually, Prince Hal, in the role of his father, makes no attempt to rival Falstaff; he makes use of this change to berate the fat knight as (among other things) "that grey iniquity, . . . that villainous abominable misleader of youth, Falstaff, that old white-bearded Satan" (449-509). Then Falstaff, suddenly serious and dutiful in tone as he plays the role of the young heir to the throne, makes his memorable reply, one that is so eloquent, so appealing that generations of theatergoers and readers have taken Falstaff to their hearts — and uncritically have kept him there, whatever his actions have been or will be. Here indeed is verbal brilliance if any is to be found anywhere in literature, dramatic or nondramatic.
There is fine irony in his first statement: He sees no more harm in Falstaff than he sees in himself. He follows this with an appeal for charity. Falstaff is old, he is white-haired; but let no one say he is a whoremaster! It is the strait-laced Puritan who is tacitly denounced in the reference to sack and sugar, fondness for which Falstaff does not deny. Here one of several biblical references used by the knight in the course of the two Henry IV plays serves his purpose. Are Pharaoh's lean kine to be loved? And then the incremental refrain on "Jack Falstaff" serves as the peroration. Banish all the other hangers-on at the Boar's-Head Tavern, but banish not Falstaff — the sweet, the kind, the true, the valiant, if old, Jack Falstaff from the prince's company. "Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world."
The commentator who dares to say a word against Sir John at this point of the action risks the charge of lacking a sense of humor (perhaps the most damning charge that can be made against an individual), with the resultant misunderstanding of Falstaff's worth. And yet he has been established as a glutton, one who is devoted largely to the pleasures of the flesh. As Shakespeare has occasion to say elsewhere, wine, used wisely, is a good companion (Othello, II.iii.313). In this play, the evidence is complete: Falstaff uses wine in great excess. Nor are all the references to his grey hairs and white beard necessarily intended to invoke pity. Shakespeare's generation believed that age should bring wisdom and a sense of decorum. Carefree escapades may be amusing, even excusable in youth; but in an older person, one who is a ranking member in a hierarchical society, they cannot be laughed away, despite the fact that the rebel latent in many people applauds Falstaff's defiance of the establishment and the sheer brilliance of his defense.
It is with all this in mind that one must evaluate Hal's one-line response after Falstaff has said, "Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world." Says the prince: "I do, I will." Thus, playing the role of king in this play extempore, the heir-apparent embraces law and order; not for long can life be no more than a holiday for him; he has a sacred obligation to fulfill, one that affects the lives of all Englishmen.
Little explication needs to be added. Understandably Falstaff hopes that Hal will not permit the sheriff to enter his tavern sanctuary. His reply to Hal, who once more accuses him of being "a natural coward," is worth brief comment. "I deny your major," he says (544). Falstaff thus spontaneously uses the vocabulary of formal logic, again displaying the range of his knowledge. Moreover, he is not a natural coward, as are Bardolph and Peto; he is a coward on principle, that is, when self-interest and self-preservation are involved. He falls asleep behind the arras, confident that the prince will take care of troublesome people like the sheriff.
There is no need to belabor the point relating to the "intolerable deal of sack" consumed by Falstaff — and still not paid for. By the end of this comic scene, preparations are being made for another enterprise involving Hal and his tavern companions, one that will offer a marked contrast to the Gadshill affair. And we learn that Hal, who had told Falstaff that he would not be a thief (I.ii.154) yet had gone along with the rest, will return the money with interest to the travelers.