Elsewhere in the London palace, Prince Hal and Falstaff banter in one of the prince’s rooms. Falstaff asks the time and the prince protests that “fat-witted” Falstaff, who spends all his time drinking “sack” (fortified wine) and sleeping, has no business asking after the time of day. Indeed, Falstaff agrees, he and Hal are men of night and “gentlemen of the shade” who thieve under the moon. He tells Hal not to let “squires of the night’s body be called thieves of the day’s beauty” when Hal is king. “Do not thou,” Falstaff urges, “when thou art king, hang a thief.” The prince jokes that he’ll put Falstaff in charge of all hangings. Falstaff is delighted.
From their first introduction on stage, Prince Hal and Falstaff prove themselves to be dazzlingly virtuosic speakers, using language with a dexterous agility unlike any other characters in the play. Much of this dexterity comes from their prodigious knack for metaphor and simile, describing and re-describing appearances until they appear to turn into their opposites. Still, despite his powers of speech, Hal’s jokiness seems incompatible with conventional royal dignity and grandeur.
Falstaff calls Prince Hal “the most comparative, rascalliest, sweet young prince.” Then he declares he wishes he and Hal knew where to buy “good names,” because a Council lord stopped Falstaff in the street the other day to berate Prince Hal and, though the lord spoke “very wisely,” Falstaff ignored his words. Prince Hal compliments Falstaff’s behavior, “for wisdom cries out in the streets, and no man regards it.” Falstaff laments (jokingly) that Hal has corrupted him.
Falstaff’s anecdote confirms the tension between Hal’s appearance and his position in the royal family: onlookers are unimpressed by Prince Hal’s appearance and think he acts despicably. Falstaff’s quip about buying “good names” implies (somewhat jokingly) that honor can be procured without having to perform difficult, courageous acts.
Prince Hal and Falstaff discuss stealing a purse the next day. Ned Poins enters and he and Falstaff berate each other. Poins proposes that they plan to steal the offerings and money from a group of Canterbury-bound pilgrims and London-bound traders the next morning at 4 a.m. Prince Hal pretends to be baffled by the suggestion “Who, I rob? I a thief?” he asks. Falstaff says Prince Hal lacks “honesty, manhood, [and] good fellowship” unless he agrees to steal. Poins tells Falstaff he’ll convince the prince himself and sends Falstaff off. Falstaff leaves for Eastcheap.
As will often happen in the conversations at Boarshead Tavern, conventional truths and values are inverted by Hal and Falstaff’s language: Falstaff’s pretend bafflement adopts the appearance of an honest man (when he is really a thief) and his criticism of Hal absurdly implies that honorable qualities (like ‘honesty’ and ‘manhood’) are earned by thieving.
As soon as Falstaff exits, Points lets Prince Hal in on his real plan: he and Prince Hal will put on disguises and, after Falstaff, Bardolph, Peto, and Gadshill commit the robbery, he and Prince Hal will rob their friends. Poins is sure that their friends, “true-bred cowards,” will immediately surrender. Later, when Falstaff inevitably lies about his own courage in recounting the incident to Poins and Prince Hal, they can catch him in his lies and make fun of him. Prince Hal agrees to the plot and plans to meet Poins in Eastcheap later. Poins exits.
Poins’ plot proposes an elaborate play on appearances: he and Prince Hal will disguise their own appearances in order to make Falstaff’s dishonorable cowardice apparent and expose the falseness of their friend’s efforts to project an honorably courageous appearance at the same time.
Alone on stage, Prince Hal delivers a speech explaining that, though he acts corrupt, his behavior has nothing to do with his true nature. He compares himself to a personified sun who may “permit the base contagious clouds” to dull “his beauty” but who, “when he please again to be himself,” can burn those clouds away and shine as bright as ever. Likewise, Prince Hal says he will eventually abandon his mischievous ways and, when he does, his old bad behavior will provide the contrast to make his new good behavior seem even better and more admirable. Hal explains, “my reformation….shall show more goodly and attract more eyes than that which hath no foil to set it off.”
Prince Hal’s speech presents another complex play on appearances: his irresponsible and dishonorable appearance is, he confides, just a tool to emphasize his true honorable appearance, which he will eventually reveal and will seem all the more impressive for being so opposed to the ignoble appearance he’s shown the world thus far.