Prince Hal and Poins meet in a room in the Boarshead Tavern in Eastcheap. Poins asks where Hal has been and the prince merrily explains that he’s been having a good time drinking with some commoners who he’s gotten to know on a first-name basis and befriended. They think him “no proud Jack, like Falstaff….but a lad of mettle.” Prince Hal boasts that he’s such a good, perceptive observer of character that he can “drink with any tinker in his own language” within fifteen minutes of meeting him. He tells Poins that Poins has “lost much honor” in missing out on the experience he just had.
King Henry would surely think it was dishonorable for his son the prince to be associating with common men at the tavern. But Prince Hal sees his behavior as a demonstration of power and a point of honor: he is such a skilled speaker that he can use language to relate to every kind of person, regardless of social position. Indeed, King Henry would be incapable of such adaptability and verbal skill.
Prince Hal sends Poins to the next room so they can play a trick on the slow-witted tavern boy, Francis, by demanding his presence in both rooms and confusing him to the point that he answers every question Hal asks with “Anon” (when he really only means to say ‘anon’ as an assurance that he’ll soon go to the other room from which Poins is calling for him).
Mere moments after bragging about his honorable use of language, Hal uses his verbal dexterity for far less honorable ends. Here he makes fun of poor Francis, who is no match for Prince Hal’s eloquence and wit.
Vintner enters and announces that Falstaff and others are at the door. Prince Hal and Poins are giddy in anticipation. Falstaff, Gadshill, Bardolph, and Peto enter with Francis, pouring more wine. Falstaff blusters on about Prince Hal and Poins being cowards for not watching out for their friends—instead of “backing” them, they have shown their “backs” by running away. Prince Hal feigns ignorance and urges Falstaff to elaborate.
Falstaff accuses Poins and Prince Hal of dishonorable cowardice, but he has yet to realize just how dishonorable they have actually been. Falstaff’s language continues to be rich in wordplay, punning cleverly on the word “back.”
Falstaff describes being ambushed by thieves and robbed of the loot they’d stolen from the travelers that morning. As Falstaff recounts the tale, he keeps embellishing it, multiplying the number of ambushing thieves from two all the way up to eleven. He recounts how he fought them long and bravely on his own. Prince Hal and Poins let him go on for a long time before Hal interrupts and explains that it was all part of his and Poins’ trick.
As predicted, Falstaff affects an appearance of honor courage (when he has actually behaved cowardly) and cannot resist exaggerating that appearance with increasingly expansive language.
Prince Hal gleefully declares Falstaff a shameful coward, but Falstaff immediately retorts that the truth of the story only further proves his bravery. He is, he insists, “as valiant as Hercules,” but his instinct guided him not to harm “the true prince.”
Prince Hal exposes Falstaff’s dishonorable cowardice, but Falstaff still manages to have the last word. His quick thinking and well-worded argument rescues his pride.
Hostess Quickly enters and tells Prince Hal that a nobleman sent by King Henry has arrived to speak with him. Falstaff volunteers to get rid of the man and exits.
By sending his drunken friend off to speak with the royal messenger, Hal shows just how little respect he has for the king.
Prince Hal gets Bardolph and Peto to detail the elaborate fakery Falstaff coordinated to make them all look as if they bravely fought thieves: they’ve hacked up their swords, given themselves nosebleeds, and sullied their clothes. When Hal asks what excuse they have for such cowardice, Bardolph points to the portentous meteors which, he says, foreshadow angry times.
Hal is amused to hear about the elaborate lengths Falstaff has gone to in order to put on an appearance of courage. Bardolph’s belief in the prophetic power of meteors introduces the symbol of celestial signs.
Falstaff reenters and tells Prince Hal that King Henry has requested his presence at court next morning because a plot by Hotspur, Glendower, Mortimer, Northumberland, and Douglas is afoot. Worcester has run off and King Henry is terrified. Falstaff thinks Hal must be afraid too, but Hal insists he isn’t.
Prince Hal may not have pursued honor on the battlefield the way Hotspur has, but his cool reaction to his father’s news suggests he would be just as brave a warrior.
Falstaff suggests they practice Prince Hal’s impending meeting with King Henry. Falstaff pretends to be the king, taking a chair for a throne, a dagger for scepter, and a cushion for his crown. He delivers a long prose speech as King Henry, chastising Hal for wasting his youth and defiling himself with disgraceful company, of which Falstaff is the only “virtuous” exception.
Act II’s second virtuosic play on appearances. Falstaff’s props make him seem a ridiculous King Henry. Yet this scene’s poignancy derives from the truth that Falstaff is much closer to Prince Hal at this point than the prince is to his biological father. Falstaff can’t resist according himself honor.
Prince Hal demands they change places on the grounds that Falstaff doesn’t sound like King Henry. Playing the king, the prince sternly berates Falstaff. Playing Prince Hal, Falstaff defends Falstaff, trying to turn Hal’s insults into compliments.
Prince Hal is right: Falstaff’s speech as the king was spoken in prose, rather than in the royal verse King Henry actually speaks in.
Vintner enters with the news that the Sheriff is at the door demanding to search the tavern. Prince Hal sends everyone into hiding. The Sheriff comes in looking for Falstaff in association with the theft of the 300 gold marks that morning. Prince Hal explains that he’s just sent Falstaff off on an errand but, acting cooperative, says that he’ll turn him over to the Sheriff the next day. The Sheriff is cordial and defers to Prince Hal without suspicion.
Prince Hal is, as he’s boasted, able to adapt his language to suit his situation. Talking with the sheriff, he sounds perfectly mature and responsible. The sheriff’s trust proves that Hal’s speech is convincing.
As son as the Sheriff leaves, Prince Hal calls out for his friends. Falstaff has fallen asleep in his hiding place and snores loudly. Hal and Peto go through Falstaff’s pockets and find numerous receipts for food and (mostly) wine. Hal tells Peto that they’ll have to go to war soon but that he’ll make sure to secure his friends good positions in the army.
Prince Hal seems to feel warfare is just another frolicsome adventure, and plans to take his friends along for the ride without worrying about whether or not they’ll be assets to the army.