Summary and Analysis
The Earl of Worcester and Sir Richard Vernon arrive as emissaries at the king's camp near Shrewsbury. Present are the king himself, the Prince of Wales, John of Lancaster, the Earl of Westmoreland, Sir Walter Blunt, and Falstaff. As Hotspur did earlier in his reply to the king's emissary (IV.iii.), Worcester voices at some length the grievances of the Percies, chief of which is Henry's alleged perfidy when, returning from exile, he assured them that he sought no more than the restoration of confiscated Lancastrian estates. The king does not deign to answer this charge; instead he dismisses it as no more than a pretext for rebellion against the Crown. He refuses to permit the Prince of Wales to settle the dispute in single combat with Hotspur. Instead, he offers the rebels free pardon if they will lay down their arms. After Worcester and Vernon leave, the prince states that both Hotspur and Douglas, supremely confident and proven warriors, will reject the offer. The king agrees and orders all officers to their posts.
Falstaff shows little desire to risk his life in any kind of conflict. He asks Hal to keep an eye on him and to help him if necessary. Alone, he soliloquizes on the subject of honor and finds no profit in being a dead hero.
The opening lines help establish the mood of this scene, the action of which takes place not long before the battle starts. There is rather obvious irony in the speeches of both Worcester and the king. The former makes much of Henry's violation of an oath to the effect that he sought only redress of grievances and not the throne of England, implying that the Percies had no intention of becoming traitors to Richard II. But the reader will recall Hotspur's words spoken early in the play. Northumberland and Worcester "wear the detested blot / Of murderous subornation . . . Being the agents or base second means, / The cords, the ladder, or the hangman rather" who made possible the crowning of Henry (I.iii.162 ff.). His solicitude for the fallen Richard, coming so tardily, does not conceal the basic selfish motives of the House of Percy.
It is no less evident that Henry, not content with retrieving the confiscated Lancastrian estates, was strongly motivated by self-interest, specifically, with ambitions toward the throne. But the overwhelming fact now is that he is England's king and has not been guilty of gross misrule as was his predecessor. He is in the process of suppressing "pell mell havoc and confusion"; he seeks to restore law and order in England. If one keeps in mind the view that, in the larger sense, the State is the greater protagonist in the chronicle-history plays, there is a logic here.
Some commentators see calculation in the king's refusal to let his son meet Hotspur in single combat, arguing that Henry is too adroit to take a risk of this sort when he has numerical superiority. Certainly such a conjecture is admissible, but there is also the fact that the demands of recorded history weigh upon the playwright: a Battle of Shrewsbury must be fought.
Prince Hal's demeanor is admirable. His offer to meet the renowned Hotspur in single combat is motivated not by a desire to win personal glory but the wish to save lives. His gracious, magnanimous praise of young Percy (85-93) is in the best chivalric tradition, and there is not a hint of false modesty in the deprecatory remarks he makes about himself. Calmly he accepts the fact that death is a constant of armed conflict; he knows that he, like all mortals, "owest God a death," and he will not seek to postpone payment.
Not so Falstaff. Yet his soliloquy on honor, as he conceives it, is a thought-provoking piece in which he develops his theme with such telling particulars that one's immediate reaction may be to endorse his view wholeheartedly. As much as any of his speeches, this one illustrates his wit and verbal skill. Nor can one logically deny the major premise upon which his argument is based. For at the personal level, the utter pathos, even futility, of all armed conflict is exposed. But note that it is the strictly personal, the individual, which concerns Falstaff. Thus, this gifted comic presents at best a half-truth, and perhaps not even that if one recalls this same knight's bland unconcern about the lives of the poor wretches whom he recruited to fight for king and country.
There have been many references to honor in this play: Hotspur's concept of honor to be won and held largely in warfare; Hal's concept, not explicitly defined, but implicit in his burlesque of Hotspur (II.iv.), and in the restrained way in which he vowed to make young Percy his "factor" (III.ii.). Now Falstaff, who in the comic scenes found occasions to speak of his valor, has given us his concept of honor, one based on self-interest to the exclusion of all else.