Act I, Scene I
The play opens one year after the death of Richard II, and King Henry is making plans for a crusade to the Holy Land to cleanse himself of the guilt he feels over the usurpation of Richard’s crown. But the crusade must be postponed when Henry learns that Welsh rebels, led by Owen Glendower, have defeated and captured Mortimer. Although the brave Henry Percy, nicknamed Hotspur, has quashed much of the uprising, there is still much trouble in Scotland. King Henry has a deep admiration for Hotspur and he longs for his own son, Prince Hal, to display some of Hotspur’s noble qualities. Hal is more comfortable in a tavern than on the battlefield, and he spends his days carousing with riff-raff in London. But King Henry also has his problems with the headstrong Hotspur, who refuses to turn over his prisoners to the state as he has been so ordered. Westmoreland tells King Henry that Hotspur has many of the traits of his uncle, Thomas Percy, the Earl of Worcester, and defying authority runs in the family.
Act I, Scene II
The scene shifts to Prince Hal in London, who is with Falstaff, his rotund and pontificating drinking companion. They joke about the petty crimes they have committed, and reminisce about their alcoholic binges and the many women that they have wooed. Poins enters the tavern and tells them of a plan to commit highway robbery. Prince Hal is reluctant until Poins, after Falstaff leaves, suggests that they use the robbery to play a joke on Falstaff. They will agree to meet with Falstaff as planned, but when they arrive they will refuse to take part in the crime. Then, after Falstaff has by himself stolen the goods, Hal will steal them from Falstaff. Poins bids Hal farewell and when alone, the Prince makes clear in a soliloquy the true motivation behind his ignoble behaviour:
So, when this loose behaviour I throw off And pay the debt I never promised, By how much better than my word I am, By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes; And like bright metal on a sullen ground, My reformation, glittering o’er my fault, Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes Than that which hath no foil to set it off. I’ll so offend, to make offence a skill; Redeeming time when men think least I will. (I.ii.195-205)
Through this life of debauchery Hal prepares for his future as the next ruler of England. Falstaff and the others are teaching him about the common man — a valuable lesson that he will remember well throughout his reign as Henry V.
Act I, Scene III
Back at King Henry’s palace, Hotspur has returned to report on his prisoners. He tells the King that he had not refused to hand them over to the state, as Henry accuses, but that he simply responded foolishly to the King’s messenger. It was just as the battle came to a close when the messenger approached the bloody and exhausted Hotspur, and he so enraged Hotspur with his idle chatter that Hotspur refused to answer him directly, and this was taken to mean the refusal of an order from Henry. The King does accept Hotspur’s answer, but then he and Hotspur begin to fight over the matter of Mortimer, the Earl of March. Hotspur wants Henry to ransom Mortimer, who has been captured by the Welsh rebel, Owen Glendower. The King thinks that Mortimer, who has married Glendower’s daughter, has defected to the Welsh, and, not only does he refuse the request to ransom him, he chides Hotspur for taking Mortimer’s side in the matter. Hotspur is livid, and defends both himself and Mortimer, only to have the King silence him: “sirrah, henceforth/Let me not hear you speak of Mortimer.” Any reconciliation that may have been in progress is ruined, and the King demands Hotspur hand over his prisoners immediately. The King exits in a rage, and Hotspur screams: “An if the devil come and roar for them/I will not send them.” Hotspur discusses with the Percy family the King’s ungrateful attitude, and his uncle, Worcester, tells him to release his captured rebels and enlist them in his own army against King Henry. Worcester outlines a plan which would unite Glendower, Mortimer, Douglas, and the Archbishop of York with the Percys and together they will overthrow King Henry. Thus, the troublesome reign of King Henry the usurper receives another blow, just as King Richard predicted.
Act II, Scene I
In an inn-yard in Rochester, two carriers prepare to load their horses with the bacon, ginger, and turkeys they are taking to the market in London. They are commenting on the poor condition of the inn when Gadshill, a highwayman, arrives and asks the men when they plan to reach their destination. They are not specific, but they do mention that they will be joined by some men carrying a valuable booty. The carriers leave and Gadshill calls for the chamberlain of the inn. The chamberlain tells Gadshill more about these men, who carry hundreds of marks in gold. Gadshill promises the chamberlain a share in the profits in exchange for his information and remarks that he has a powerful accomplice that will ensure their freedom if they accidentally get caught.
Act II, Scene II
The scene shifts to the road where the robbery is actually to take place. Prince Hal and Poins arrive, and hide Falstaff’s horse. Hal prepares for the ambush and he and Poins take their positions further down the road, under the pretense that they are Falstaff’s backup. This gives Hal and Poins time to put on the disguises they will wear when robbing their friends. The travelers appear and are attacked by Falstaff and his men, who rob them, tie them up, and push them off the stage. When the thieves return to examine their booty, Hal and Poins jump out of the shadows and demand their goods. Falstaff and his men run away without a thought and Hal and Poins laugh at the ease with which they robbed the robbers. The scene ends with the words of Poins, who is in hysterics: “How the fat rogue roar’d!” (II.ii.110)
Act II, Scene III
While Hal engages in his childish antics, Hotspur, in his castle in Northumberland, is organizing the rebellion against King Henry. But things are not going well for Hotspur. He has just received a letter from one of the noblemen that he has asked to join his side. The nobleman writes that he will not fight for Hotspur because the purpose he undertakes is dangerous and the men he has so far collected are not completely trustworthy. He adds to his list of problems that “your whole plot [is] too light for the counterpoise of so great an opposition” (II.iii.12-4). Hotspur agrees that his plot is dangerous, but that is no excuse to behave in so cowardly a fashion. He tells himself that he was foolish to try to recruit the nobleman, who is but “a dish of skim milk”, sorely lacking honour and virtue. Lady Percy enters, and Hotspur informs her that he must leave within two hours. Anxious, Lady Percy asks Hotspur what has troubled him over the last few weeks and, in a wonderful speech, describes his strange behaviour:
In thy faint slumbers I by thee have watch’d, And heard thee murmur tales of iron wars; Speak terms of manage to thy bounding steed; Cry ‘Courage! to the field!’…
But Hotspur will not tell her anything, and a lovingly playful argument ensues:
Hotspur: Away, Away, you trifler! Love! I love thee not, I care not for thee, Kate: this is no world To play with mammets and to tilt with lips: We must have bloody noses and crack’d crowns, And pass them current too. God’s me, my horse! What say’st thou, Kate? what would’st thou have with me? Lady Percy: Do you not love me? do you not, indeed? Well, do not then; for since you love me not, I will not love myself. Do you not love me? Nay, tell me if you speak in jest or no. Hotspur: Come, wilt thou see me ride? And when I am on horseback, I will swear I love thee infinitely… (II.iii.93-107)
Act II, Scene IV
Meanwhile, back at Eastcheap, Prince Hal teases Francis, one of the serving boys in the tavern. Falstaff arrives and tells an elaborate lie about his encounter with the highway robbers who stole his money. He says that he put up a most valiant struggle against at least one hundred attackers. Hal plays along and adds witty comments like “Pray God you have not murdered some of them.” But Falstaff begins to trip over his own lies and Hal finally admits that he and Poins were the robbers. Falstaff pretends to have known all along and tells Hal that he ran away only to ensure that no harm came to the future king of England. Mistress Quickly, the hostess of the tavern, announces that a nobleman has arrived with word from the King that Hal must return to the royal palace by morning, for there is news of a rebellion led by Hotspur and others in the Percy clan. Falstaff believes that the King will be angry at Hal and so he suggests that the Prince rehearse exactly what he will say to his father. Falstaff assumes the role of King Henry and chides Hal for his lack of morality and respect for his role as heir to the throne. He condemns Hal’s band of rabble-rousing friends, except, of course, for that wonderful chap Falstaff. Hal then suggests that they reverse roles and he acts the part of the King. He chastises ‘Hal’ for spending time with that “villainous abominable misleader of /youth, Falstaff, that old white-bearded Satan” (II.iv.467-8), and Falstaff, playing Hal, defends himself. Bardolph rushes in and interrupts the role-playing. He announces the arrival of the sheriff who has witnesses that can place Falstaff at the scene of the robbery. Hal tells Falstaff to hide behind the drapery and he assures the Sheriff that Falstaff is not on the premises. The Prince also promises to refund any stolen money and goods to the victims. The Sheriff leaves satisfied, and Hal checks on Falstaff, only to find that he has fallen asleep behind the curtains. He searches Falstaff’s pockets and discovers a list of debts the large knight has incurred. The Prince insists that he will make Falstaff a soldier as punishment: “I’ll procure this fat rogue a charge of foot; and I know his death will be a march of twelvescore. The money shall be paid back again with advantage.” (II.iv.552-4)
Act III, Scene I