At the tavern in Eastcheap, Doll Tearsheet, Mistress Quickly, and Falstaff enter completely drunk and Falstaff makes fun of the women for being diseased prostitutes while the women make fun of Falstaff for being fat and a thief. Pistol enters with Bardolph and Falstaff’s page. After lewdly insulting Doll Tearsheet, Pistol draws everyone into a messy brawl. Bardolph throws Pistol out and the women coo fawningly over Falstaff, sitting on his lap and promising to sleep with him later.
The scene is a pageant of vice and moral corruption (i.e. diseased spirits), but it’s also a lot of fun. Again, the play presents a complex vision of immorality: it may be wrong, but it’s certainly appealing. Falstaff, the most immoral character in the play, is also its most delightful.
Prince Hal and Poins enter, disguised as waiters. Not realizing that the prince and Poins are in the room, Falstaff starts ranting insults against the two of them, calling them stupid and shallow. Prince Hal says aside to Poins that they should beat Falstaff up in front of his beloved Doll Tearsheet. Doll Tearsheet and Falstaff nuzzle affectionately and she says she prefers him to all young men.
Falstaff’s insults have some truth to them—Prince Hal and Poins do act rather foolishly and shallowly—but Falstaff will only utter this truth while he thinks the two men are out of earshot.
Prince Hal and Poins emerge, no longer in disguise, and Hal calls Falstaff out for having just insulted him in front of “this honest, virtuous, civil gentlewoman” Doll Tearsheet. Mistress Quickly chimes in earnestly that Doll Tearsheet is just as virtuous as Hal says. Hal says he’s going to force Falstaff to confess to slandering the prince.
Hal accuses Falstaff of slanderous lies even as he himself performs a kind of inverse slander: by praising the immoral prostitute Doll Tearsheet for being “virtuous,” he is in fact only mocking her. Mistress Quickly, though, is too slow-witted to get the joke.
Falstaff insists that he wasn’t slandering Prince Hal at all, that he only “dispraised [Hal] before the wicked, that the wicked might not fall in love with thee; in which doing, I have done the part of a careful friend and a true subject.” Well, Hal retorts, now Falstaff is slandering all his friends and companions just to save his case with the prince. Falstaff continues to elaborate insults for Bardolph, his page, Mistress Quickly, and Doll Tearsheet.
Falstaff’s virtuosic eloquence makes him as good as ever at talking his way out of a pinch: here he uses perverse logic to demonstrate his innocence. Hal, nearly as witty as Falstaff, won’t let his friend off the hook so easily and shifts his accusation to match Falstaff’s shifted slanders.
Peto, a drinking buddy of Falstaff and Hal, enters and tells everyone that King Henry IV is in Westminster and that a dozen army captains are out looking for Falstaff. Prince Hal exclaims that he feels terrible for wasting “precious time” given the conflict developing in England and exits with Poins, Peto, and Bardolph, who enjoins Falstaff to leave with them, as all the army captains are looking for him. Falstaff tells the women to observe “how men of merit are sought after” while “the undeserver” can rest. Mistress Quickly and Doll Tearsheet tearfully bid Falstaff goodbye as he exits. From offstage, Bardolph calls Doll Tearsheet over to Falstaff. All exit.
Prince Hal’s sudden remorse further demonstrates his conflicted royal identity: even as he obviously enjoys fooling around at the tavern, part of him feels he should be engaged in more serious matters. Falstaff, meanwhile, is incorrigible, and keeps on propagating the false image of himself as a worthy, noble warrior.