On a London street, we find Sir John Falstaff and his page. Falstaff is a friend of Prince Hal, the heir to the throne; an old, fat, rowdy and witty scoundrel, he taught Hal the ways of the world during Hal's wild teenage years. Falstaff used to spend all his time rollicking in taverns and committing highway robberies, but he has gained fame and importance since the Battle of Shrewsbury by pretending that it was he who killed Hotspur, the courageous rebel leader. (Actually, the deed was done by Prince Hal, who willingly let Falstaff take credit for it.)
Falstaff now has a page boy to carry his sword, and we find him asking the page about a couple of very important matters: first, what the doctor had to say about a urine sample Falstaff recently gave him; and, second, what the merchant had to say about the fancy new suit he has ordered. The page admits that the doctor was not sure and that the merchant refused Falstaff's order because of his shady credit. Falstaff, in typical fashion, bursts into a stream of witty insults against the absent merchant.
The Lord Chief Justice, the top law official in the court of England, approaches Falstaff to speak with him about a criminal charge. It seems that Falstaff was ordered into court several weeks ago for investigation in connection with a highway robbery, but he managed to avoid going because he was suddenly called away to fight on the king's side in the recent civil war that culminated at the Battle of Shrewsbury. The Justice, who knows exactly what sort of person Falstaff is despite Falstaff's new rank and importance, is calm and self-assured enough to ignore Falstaff's insults. He tells Falstaff that he will be forgiving this time, since there is no need to reopen old wounds. We learn during their conversation that Falstaff is being called away to fight the Earl of Northumberland and the Archbishop of York, as part of an army led by Prince John, the younger son of King Henry. After the Justice leaves, Falstaff sends his page off with letters to the military leaders, and he goes to prepare to leave for the war.
Meanwhile, in the palace of the Archbishop of York, in the north of England, the Archbishop and three allies--Thomas Mowbray, the Earl Marshal; Lord Hastings; and Lord Bardolph--are planning their next move against King Henry's forces. The critical question is whether or not the Earl of Northumberland can be counted upon to support them: if he sends his army, the rebels will have enough men to stand a good chance against the king, but if he does not, their numbers may be too few. Hastings argues that Northumberland is sure to send his troops because he is angry about the death of his son Hotspur in the previous battle; Lord Bardolph and the Archbishop point out that Hotspur lost, in part, because his father backed out of sending his troops at the last minute (events covered in Henry IV, Part 1). Hastings, however, also reminds them that the King must now divide his forces into three separate parts--one to fight them, one to fight the guerrilla rebels in Wales led by Owen Glendower, and one to maintain the fight in a current dispute with the French. The three conspirators agree to move ahead with their showdown with the king, whether or not Northumberland supports them.
In I.ii, we are introduced to Falstaff, one of the play's most important characters. Falstaff is one of Shakespeare's most famous creations. The critic Harold Bloom, for instance, has ranked him second only to Hamlet as the character who provides the strongest evidence of Shakespeare's genius.
Why are critics so fascinated by Falstaff? He seems, at first, completely superficial. By the errands he sends his page on, we get an immediate glimpse of what is important to Falstaff: he is checking to make sure he does not have any sexually transmitted diseases (that is what the urine sample is for) and buying trendy new clothing with his new riches. Beyond that, we also learn that the merchants in town do not trust either him or his friends with a line of credit and that he has recently been implicated in a serious robbery.