Hostess Quickly and Fang, a London officer, prepare to confront Falstaff. Falstaff owes Hostess Quickly a considerable sum of money. He has also promised to marry the Hostess, and has never made good on his word. Falstaff enters with Bardolph (not to be confused with Lord Bardolph, the nobleman in rebellion against King Henry) and a page. Fang tries to arrest Falstaff, and a verbal bout ensues. Amidst the commotion, the Lord Chief Justice enters. He demands to hear both sides of the story, and Hostess Quickly tells him that Falstaff owes her money and himself (in marriage); she lent him the money after he promised to marry her. Falstaff accuses the woman of madness, but the Lord Chief Justice knows Falstaff well enough to know that the woman is telling the truth. He tells Falstaff that he should pay the money and offer apologies. Falstaff refuses, and takes the woman aside for a private word.
Master Gower, a messenger, enters. The King and Prince Hal are near; Gower gives the chief justice a document with the rest of the news. Meanwhile, Falstaff is convincing poor Hostess Quickly to drop the charges and lend him another ten pounds. After the matter with Quickly is resolved, Falstaff asks the Chief Justice to tell him what is apace. The King is going against Northumberland and the Archbishop of York with fifteen hundred foot and five hundred horse. Falstaff invites Gower and then the Chief Justice to dinner. Both men decline, the Chief Justice reminding Falstaff that he should not be loitering. Falstaff is supposed to be recruiting men in all the counties on the way to his destination. Falstaff makes no apologies for his way of life.
Enter Poins and Prince Hal. Hal admits that he is tired and wants beer; they have a playful conversation about the distance between nobility and the needs of the body. We learn that King Henry is very sick; on that subject, Hal says at first that he is not sad. A moment later, he says that he is very sad. But he does not weep; he asks Poins to confess what he would think if Hal did weep. Poins says he would think the prince a hypocrite; he has been roguish and attached to Falstaff. He has been a disobedient son all his father's life, and tears now would be hypocritical. For fear of looking a hypocrite, the prince hides his sorrow. The prince makes this confession lightly, half-joking and half-serious.
Bardolph enters with Falstaff's page. They bring a letter to Hal from Falstaff; the letter is written in a casual, familiar, and irreverent style. Hal and Poins laugh disapprovingly at Falstaff's presumptions. On learning that Falstaff is dining at Eastcheap, they decide to steal upon him and observe him covertly. Poins suggests that they disguise themselves as waiters.
Northumberland, his wife, and Harry Percy's widow discuss the upcoming war. Hotspur's widow begs the earl to remain at home and not commit his forces; before, he failed to commit forces to help his own son. She reasons that if there was no reason before for committing troops, then there is no reason now. She praises her dead husband's virtues, speaking of how he was model and inspiration to all his troops. If he failed to help his son, Northumberland should not help now. Northumberland insists he must get involved, but his wife also thinks that they should take refuge in Scotland until a more advantageous time. Hotspur's widow suggests waiting to see which way the tide turns. Northumberland is persuaded.
As Sir John Falstaff complains about the food, one waiter tells the other that Prince Hal and Poins are going to take their clothes so they can observe Falstaff covertly. Hostess Quickly and Doll Tearsheet enter, and Falstaff and Doll Tearsheet almost immediately begin to insult each other. But after Quickly's intercession, Doll Tearsheet suggests a truce since Falstaff will soon be going off to war. A drawer enters and announces that Pistol has come calling on Sir John, and over Quickly's objections Falstaff has the drawer let Pistol in. After his arrival, Pistol almost immediately insults Doll Tearsheet. Doll Tearsheet's replies infuriate Pistol, who draws his sword. The situation escalates, different people trying to intercede, until Pistol and Falstaff fight. Bardolph takes Pistol to throw him outside; when he returns he reports that Pistol has been wounded. Doll Tearsheet is impressed by Falstaff's actions, and she praises and pampers him. She asks Falstaff when he will be allowed to stop fighting, so he can take care of his old, tired body.
Hal and Poins enter behind them, disguised as waiters. Doll Tearsheet asks about Prince Hal and Poins, and Falstaff says horrible things about both of them. Hal and Poins, watching, quietly mock Falstaff and become increasingly angry. As Sir John prepares to go to bed with Doll Tearsheet, Hal and Poins confont him. He immediately becomes ingratiating. Falstaff says that he defamed the Prince and Poins in the presence of the wicked so that the wicked would not seek to be near the Prince; in this way, he has protected Hal from bad company. Hal and Poins trap Falstaff, asking if everyone in the room (Quickly, Bardolph, Doll Tearsheet, the Page) is wicked. Falstaff says that they are. Messengers arrive suddenly: Prince Hal and Falstaff are summoned to war. The men exit, as the women bid tearful farewells. At the last minute, Bardolph calls back for Doll Tearsheet to come to Falstaff for a quick, last-minute meeting.
Act II Analysis:
Act Two opens with another confrontation between the Lord Chief Justice and Falstaff. The two men are rivals in a number of ways: the contrast between their ethics and lifestyles is very clear. Falstaff embodies irresponsibility, irreverence, gluttony, thievery, mischief. The Chief Justice embodies responsibility, respect for chain-of-command, restraint, law, order. Falstaff represents everything the Lord Chief Justice despises and seeks to control; the Lord Chief Justice represents everything Falstaff tries to evade. The two men are paired off against each other as a symbolic echo of the choice Prince Hal will make in this play. These men see themselves as being in competition for the prince, although their motives are different. The Lord Chief Justice wants to see Hal grow up and take on the responsibilities of a king, and he sees Falstaff as an obstacle to that goal. Falstaff wants Hal to honor their friendship, but overall his motives are more selfish. Falstaff hopes that Hal's favors will make Falstaff a rich and well-cared-for man. But Hal is moving from the world of Falstaff to the world of the Lord Chief Justice, and, from the point of view of the audience, it is never really in doubt that Hal will betray Falstaff in the end. The theme of fathers and sons runs through this rivalry: Hal will choose a new father after Henry IV is dead. This theme is made explicit when Hal, following Henry IV's death, asks the Chief Justice to act as father to Hal's youth.
There are many parallel episodes in 1 Henry IV and 2 Henry IV. At the beginning of this play, one cannot help but feel that we are somehow back where we started. Rebels are preparing for another attempt to overthrow the king; Hal seems to be continuing his balancing act between Falstaff's carefree world and duty. In both plays Hal comes up with a plan to humiliate Falstaff in 2.2. In both plays, the plan is carried out in 2.4. A.R. Braunmuller points out that expectation and fulfillment are a necessary part of history plays: as with Greek tragedies, which were based on well-known myths, the audience of a history play all ready knows how the play will end (303-4). In this case, expectation and fulfillment are reinforced by the parallel structure of 1 Henry IV and 2 Henry IV. But Braunmuller also points out the challenges for a writer of such a play: since suspense is dampened by the known ending, the writer must find other ways to surprise and delight his audience.
Although this play is in some ways modeled on its predecessors, the differences are as striking as the parallels. As stated before, 2 Henry IV is a much darker play than 1 Henry IV. There are parallels, but by the end of the play the parallels end. And even the parallel episodes show differences: on the whole, the episodes in this play are more unsettling than their counterparts in 1 Henry IV. In Act Two of both plays, Hal plays a trick of disguise and humiliation on Falstaff. But while Falstaff's lies are funny in 1 Henry IV, there is little that is amusing about Falstaff's humiliation here. He reveals himself as a hypocrite, insulting his friends behind their backs and immediately becoming a fawning dog when Prince Hal appears. Nor is Hal's reaction kind: rather than laugh and let the matter drop, he traps Falstaff and forces him to insult all the people present.
Hal is more difficult to know in this play, and certainly more difficult to like. In his conversation with Poins in 2.2, his true feelings are difficult to know. In 1 Henry IV, Hal revealed himself directly to us in soliloquy. Although his outward actions did not match his intent, the audience had easy access to what that intent was. Hal's soliloquies are absent from 2 Henry IV. In this play, Hal's conversation with Poins about hypocrisy and sadness for his father's death leaves much hidden. Does Hal feel sorrow for his father's impending death? He jokes and drinks with the Eastcheap crowd as before. He speaks of his fear of being thought a hypocrite if he weeps now, but in the context of a playful conversation that leaves us uncertain of whether Hal is playing or revealing some sincere emotion, or both. But while his soliloquies in the last play made us see him as a young man for whom Falstaff's world and responsibility and kingship could be part of the same project, Hal's balancing act in this play becomes much uglier. Relationships between fathers and sons constitute a central theme for both of the Henry IV plays: Northumberlund and Hotspur, Hal and Henry IV, Hal and Falstaff. Hal's behavior is so much more difficult to take in this play because in a sense he betrays both of his fathers. His behavior towards Falstaff becomes increasingly cruel, climaxing in the terrible betrayal at play's end, and his reconciliation with Henry IV is far too late to prevent a touch of bitterness in the old king's last moments. Still, Hal is destined to be a great king; the play never argues that a man needs to be likable to be a great ruler.