If sack and sugar be a fault, God help the wicked.
In the Boar’s Head Tavern in Eastcheap, London, Prince Harry is coming up out of the wine cellar. He has been drinking and making friends with the bartenders. He is clearly pleased that he has learned their names and their slang, like “dyeing scarlet,” for example, which refers to chugging a mug of wine (II.v.13). Harry announces that these men, who like him, have called him “the king of courtesy, and . . . a good boy” (II.v.8–13). Harry meets Poins upstairs, and together they tease a young apprentice bartender named Francis.
Falstaff and his friends arrive, and Falstaff launches into the tale of how he and his friends were robbed just after they had committed their own robbery early that morning. As Falstaff tells Harry and Poins the story, his lies become more and more outrageous. For example, he claims that a hundred men set upon him and that he himself fought a dozen.
Finally, Harry cannot stand it anymore and confronts Falstaff with the truth. He and Poins know that only two robbers attacked Falstaff and the others because those robbers were Harry and Poins themselves in disguise. Falstaff, with his usual quick-wittedness, promptly bluffs his way out and says that he recognized Harry immediately when he and Poins attacked the party and that he only ran away to avoid having to hurt Harry. But he is glad to hear that Harry and Poins have the money, since now they can pay for everyone to get drunk.
The tavern’s hostess, Mistress Quickly, comes in to tell Harry that his father has sent a nobleman to bring him a message. Falstaff goes to the door to get rid of the nobleman and returns with heavy news: civil war is brewing in England, and Harry must go to the court to see his father in the morning. The rebellious Percys and their many allies have all joined together to attack King Henry, and the king’s beard has “turned white” with worry (II.v.328).
Harry and Falstaff decide to engage in a role-playing game so that Harry can prepare for his interview with his father the following morning. Falstaff will pretend to be King Henry and scold Harry, who then can practice his answers. In the role of the king, Falstaff bombastically defends himself to Harry, suggesting that even if Harry drops all his other rascally companions, he should keep the virtuous old Falstaff around. Harry, objecting that his father would not speak in this manner, suggests that he and Falstaff switch places. Now playing the role of King Henry, Harry rebukes Falstaff, who now plays the role of Harry, for hanging around with such a disreputable old man. Falstaff tries to defend himself, but he has trouble against Harry’s sharp intelligence and regal bearing.
Harry and Falstaff’s role-playing is interrupted when the sheriff and his night watch arrive at the tavern: they are looking for Falstaff and the others, who, they have learned, robbed the travelers on the highway early this morning. Harry tells Falstaff to hide and misdirects the sheriff by swearing to him that Falstaff is not there and that he himself will be responsible for finding the thief and turning him over. As the sheriff leaves, Harry finds Falstaff asleep where he was hiding. After picking Falstaff’s pockets out of curiosity, Harry tells Peto that he will see his father in the morning and that all of them must go off to war. He adds that he will secure places in the army for all of his companions and place Falstaff in charge of a brigade of foot soldiers—a pointed joke, since Falstaff can hardly walk without running out of breath.
Harry’s interlude with the bartenders, which occurs offstage, humorously illustrates his project of self-education, as he appears at the beginning of the scene after drinking with the young tavern men in the cellar. Harry evidently believes that establishing a connection with the common people—in this case by getting drunk with bartenders and by speaking their slang—is part of a useful education for kingship, an idea that his father does not share. The men’s comment (as reported by Harry) that Harry is “but Prince of Wales yet … the king of courtesy” reflects how Harry’s royal birth does not preclude the commoners from taking him as their fellow (II.v.9).
Falstaff’s hilarious cascade of lies in recounting his encounter with the thieves who assaulted him is characteristic of his blustery, self-aggrandizing style. He clearly does not expect to be believed, since he changes his mind about the number of attackers at every other line; rather, he wants to entertain himself and his listeners. There are few better examples of Falstaff’s resourcefulness and wittiness than his reaction to Harry’s revelation that Harry and Poins were the only attackers. Without having to think about it for a moment, Falstaff responds with the brilliant response about not wanting to have to injure Harry that puts him in the right for having fled. His assertion that he recognized the pair allows him to praise himself along with Harry and to change the subject by ordering more wine.
The role-playing in which Falstaff and Harry engage at the end of the scene is both a spectacular display of wit and a complicated statement about the way the two think about each other and themselves. The style of Falstaff’s speech to Harry, as he plays the role of King Henry, derives from the over-the-top tragedies of Shakespeare’s day; when Falstaff speaks “in King Cambyses’ vein,” he mocks the bombastic style of monarchs in such plays (II.v.352). Unsurprisingly, Falstaff praises the virtues of the “goodly, portly man” with whom Harry keeps company—Falstaff himself (II.v.384). When Harry takes over as King Henry, however, his mode of addressing Falstaff (now Harry) is harsher. The joke turns somewhat ugly; when he insults Falstaff, he does it thoroughly and painfully, labeling him “[t]hat villainous, abominable misleader of youth, . . . that old white-bearded Satan” (II.v.421–422).
There is a charged, foreboding sincerity in Falstaff’s final plea to Harry in the role of the king. He begs Harry to banish the other ruffians “but for sweet Jack Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack -Falstaff, valiant Jack Falstaff . . . Banish not him thy Harry’s company, / Banish not him thy Harry’s company” (II.v.432–437). Falstaff’s description of himself as “sweet,” “kind,” “true,” and “valiant” rings hollow, since Falstaff is quite clearly a cowardly robber who loves to exaggerate. But the repetition of his entreaty that Harry not banish him seems to endow his plea with a degree of seriousness and even melancholy, as if he senses that he ultimately will be banished. Indeed, Harry’s brief, strange reply—“I do; I will”—has ominous overtones (II.v.439). This answer comes back to haunt Falstaff at the end of 1 Henry IV’s sequel, 2 Henry IV, when Harry does what seems unthinkable now: he does actually banish his dearest friend, along with the rest of the Eastcheap crowd.
Yet, in the conclusion of this tavern scene, Harry demonstrates an apparently spontaneous affection and goodwill toward Falstaff in lying outright to protect him from the sheriff. Falstaff, with typical casual ingratitude, has fallen asleep where he concealed himself. Harry’s response of emptying out Falstaff’s pockets—which contain nothing of value—seems a fair play among tavern regulars.
I think it should have been called Sir Jack, First Part, as Falstaff towers over everybody else in King Henry IV, Part 1. See my blog on the play:
Most Shakespeare plays have a jester, who is able to perceive certain things better than the "noble" person. There are other elements that make Falstaff more interesting, such as the juxtaposition of "fortune," class, or perhaps simply initiative.