King Henry sends a page to summon the Earls of Warwick and Surrey; before they come, they are to read documents carefully and consider the information found there. The king addresses Sleep, personified, bemoaning that it comes to the poor but not to the great. Surrey Warwick, and Sir John Blunt enter. The monarch speaks to them of all the troubles currently facing the kingdom. He recalls the words of the deposed Richard II; Northumberland aided Henry in overthrowing the king, and the unfortunate monarch promised Henry that Northumberland would be just as faithless to him as he had been to Richard. Warwick says that by examining the past a man may predict the present; this must have been Richard II's method for prophesying Northumberland's future betrayal of King Henry IV. The king fears for the future. Rumor has it that Northumberland and the Bishop are fifty thousand strong. Warwick tells the king that Rumor exaggerates; he advises the king to go to bed. And there is good news: Glendower, one of the rebel leaders from 1 Henry IV, is dead. King Henry says he will follow Warwick's advice, and he bemoans the civil wars that have plagued his reign. They have cut off the possibility of his great dream to lead a Crusade into the Holy Land.
We are in Gloucestershire. Enter Justice Silence and Justice Shallow. Shallow asks questions about Silence's family; these lead to Shallow reminiscing about the days of his youth, when he was an unruly law student. He was friends with John Falstaff, then just a young boy and page in the service of Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk. They continue to reminisce, and Shallow thinks about how many of his old friends are now dead. Throughout this conversation about the deaths of old friends, Shallow asks questions about livestock prices.
Bardolph enters, to extend greetings to Justice Shallow on Falstaff's behalf. Falstaff then enters, and the two old friends greet each other warmly. The Justice was charged with picking about a half-dozen men for Falstaff to recruit into the army. Shallow calls the names of the men, and they come out one-by-one for Falstaff's inspection. They are Mouldy, Shadow, Feeble, Wart, and Bullcalf. After the inspection, Falstaff and Shallow begin to talk about old times again. They exit, leaving behind Bardolph with the men. Mouldy and Bullcalf bribe Bardolph so that they will not be enlisted. Witnessing these bribes, Feeble reacts with these memorable lines: "A man can die but once. We owe God a death. I'll ne'er bear a base mind. An t be my destiny, so; an t be not, so. No man's too good to serve s prince, and let it go which way it will, he that dies this year is quit for the next."
When Falstaff and the Justices return, Bardolph tells Sir John about the bribe. Falstaff lets Mouldy and Bullcalf go. Shallow questions Falstaff's choice; clearly, Mouldy and Bullcalf are the too fittest and strongest men there. Falstaff comes up with ridiculous, comic reasons why the other three men would make the best soldiers. The Justices exit, Shallow wishing Falstaff good luck. Bardolph and the men exit. Falstaff breaks out into an uncharacteristically bitter soliloquy. He speaks of how Justice Shallow was no true ruffian in his youth, but in fact a skinny weakling. He speaks with intense jealousy about Shallow's current wealth and connections. Sir John resolves that the next time he is in Gloucestershire, he will find some way to steal from Shallow.
Act III Analysis:
The burden of leadership is one of the themes of this play. We saw something of it in the first scene, in which Northumberland's advisors remind him that too many depend on the Earl for him to behave hastily. We saw it again in the scene with Northumberland and his wife and daughter-in-law, in which he faces the difficult decision of risking all and siding with the rebels or escaping to Scotland. Here, we see an ill, aged Henry IV unable to sleep and in need of counsel. The last time we saw this king in 1 Henry IV, he was assured and commanding. Now, he is uncertain, anxious, and frail.
The theme of prophecy or expectation is also here: the king reminds Warwick of Richard II's promise that Northumberland would be as disloyal to the new king as he was to the old. Here, prophecy and fulfillment stretch out over the course of many history plays, tying the events of this play to a larger portrait of British history.
The themes of aging and time run through this scene. The king is old and fragile. And in his memories of Richard II, he is asking us to remember some of the last words of the dead. Richard II's ghost haunts the scene, as do other phantoms. News of Glendower's death is meant to comfort the king, but it only reminds the audience of mortality; Glendower's death is just another character passing away, and we do not even hear about how he died. There are other ghosts: most notably, there is the unfulfilled dream of a Crusade to Jerusalem. This Crusade that will never be haunts Henry IV's last days: it is the great dream that was made impossible by insurrection after insurrection. His time has run out. Dreams prove as fragile as mortal bodies; time, with indifference, destroys them all.
Scene Two, though considerably lighter in tone, also dwells on the theme of aging and time. Justice Shallow, even while talking about prices of livestock, keeps thinking about the fact that so many of his friends are now dead. Shakespeare juxtaposes the living world of commercial transactions with the passage of time; we see Shallow's lively interest in wealth and worldly concerns, but in spite of one's performance in this world the same end meets all. The second time commercial transaction and death are juxtaposed in the scene, this idea is worked through more fully and explicitly: Bullcalf and Mouldy bribe their way out of the army, but Feeble sees their action as futile. In his memorable line, he reminds the men that death waits for all of them. He likens death to a debt that must be paid; he who pays it sooner gets it over with.
In Falstaff's bitter soliloquy, we see a very different side of him. He has been a loudmouth, a liar, a braggart, and a coward, but he has never been full of bitter hatred for anyone. He accuses Shallow of being a terrible liar, enlarging on the exploits of his youth, but Falstaff himself is an accomplished liar and exaggerator. Clearly, he is terribly jealous of his old friend's success and wealth. This soliloquy finishes the scene, and darkens the scene's tone considerably. We have never seen Falstaff angry about his station in life. He has whined and complained, but he has never seemed unhappy with his decisions about how to live. His deep jealousy of Shallow suggests unhappiness with his own choices. With a very limited number of years left for the two old men, Falstaff seems to be feeling something like regret and self-loathing. In indicting Shallow for lying/exaggerating about his past exploits, he indicts himself for the same faults. In his intense jealousy for the Justice, he shows dissatisfaction with his own life. For Falstaff's foolery to be funny, he must be at peace with his own faults and position. Now, he is appearing vulnerable, more pathetic than comic.