Summary and Analysis
Act II: Scene 2
Prince Hal and Poins appear together on the highway near Gadshill. Poins has succeeded in depriving Falstaff of his horse, and the fat knight himself arrives calling for Poins, who has withdrawn into the darkness. Hal offers to find Poins, and Falstaff is left alone to complain about Poins' perfidy. When the prince returns, Sir John is no less voluble in his denunciation of anyone who would so "colt" (fool) him. When Hal refuses to serve as Falstaff's groom — that is, get his horse for him — the knight unrestrainedly and wittily excoriates him.
Gadshill, Bardolph, and Peto enter. The victims of these robbers are now coming down the hill; all must put on their masks and be ready for them. Prince Hal instructs all but Poins to confront the travelers in the narrow lane, while he and Poins wait farther down the hill, ready to waylay their victims if they escape the first encounter. Falstaff has a moment of trepidation but agrees to stand fast. Hal and Poins leave to put on the disguises which will serve their purpose later.
Rendered helpless, perhaps chiefly by the verbal explosions of Falstaff, the travelers are quickly robbed and bound. The thieves are about to share the loot when the disguised Hal and Poins set upon them. Bardolph and Peto take to their heels at once; Falstaff remains only to strike a blow or two and then runs off, leaving the loot. The thought of the corpulent Falstaff footing it all the way to London delights Hal and Poins.
One may wonder how it happens that the travelers, including the well-heeled franklin, are not mounted and proceed afoot. Obviously, Shakespeare, actor and shareholder in his company, was the practical man of the theater; stage entries on horseback were impractical. Not only does he deprive the travelers of horses but capitalizes on this necessity by having Hal and Poins deprive Falstaff of his horse.
In this scene, farcical action, the broadest type of comedy, is dominant: Falstaff is the victim of Prince Hal, aided by Poins, and is paying the price for his enormous girth and brave words, but Shakespeare does not permit him to become the object of derisive laughter. Again his lines are superb of their kind. Here especially he is the master of witty paradox. He will be "accurs'd to rob in that thief's company" (10); hourly during the past twenty-two years he has vowed never to endure Poins' company again. Yet he cannot bring himself to forego "the rogue's company." He calls down a plague upon all thieves who cannot be true men. Paradox is carried even further. This corpulent old man, for whom twenty-four feet up hilly ground is the equivalent of seventy miles for any one of his companions, is the personification of vitality when he confronts the travelers. His best line is "What, ye knaves! young men must live" (95-96); here is the Falstaff who, despite his advanced years and white beard, is the very spirit of carefree youth.
From one point of view, Hal and Poins function as the wits who so manipulate events that folly is exposed-specifically, the folly of Sir John. But a serious crime has been committed, and it is not easy to dismiss all this as no more than an escapade in which the prince amuses himself prior to his promised reformation. For the time being, however, judgment must await the outcome of the gulling of Falstaff.
Some readers may be disturbed by Hal's refusal to show any pity for Falstaff, who "sweats to death, / And lards the earth as he walks along" ( 115-16). But that would be sheer sentimentality; there is no occasion to conclude that Sir John is in great discomfort. He is enduring comic punishment, as it were, for his sin of gluttony.