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.
But Falstaff's appeal has nothing to do with upright morals. Falstaff is interesting because he is anarchic; his value system is clearly different from that which either the noblemen or the officers of law claim to follow. He ignores standard upper-class conventions of legality, honor, and propriety, and he seems to have an enormous amount of fun doing it. He is also extremely witty, as can be seen in his long monologues, which frequently start with an insult and take off from there. Falstaff is an inveterate punner, and nearly everything he says has two or more meanings. Often compared to the figures of "Vice" and "Gluttony" from the old medieval morality plays, his character also echoes the "Lord of Misrule," a figure from English folk festival tradition who represents anarchy, fun without rules, and turning order on its head.
Falstaff shows his anarchic nature when he cheerfully ignores and then insults the Lord Chief Justice, the most important law official in the nation. He turns the Justice's remarks on their heads with replies that are half nonsense and half serious: when the Justice rebukes him for claiming to be young when he is clearly old, Falstaff replies that he was born only this afternoon and had his white hair and a potbelly at birth. Falstaff's cleverness at adapting to a situation is encapsulated in his last line of the scene: "A good wit will make use of anything; I will turn diseases to commodity" (249-250).
In I.ii, the discussion of the four conspirators in the Archbishop's house provides an interesting sampling of some of the play's different approaches to the arts of war and strategy. Hastings shows himself to be confident and assertive, insisting that Northumberland will come through, that the king's forces will be divided, and that the rebels have nothing to worry about. Lord Bardolph, on the other hand, is cautious and realistic--perhaps having learned his lesson in I.i, when he too quickly brought Northumberland the over-optimistic news about the outcome of the battle at Shrewsbury. Lord Bardolph and the Archbishop make the point that it was overconfidence that helped to sink Hotspur at the Battle of Shrewsbury: counting on troops that never showed up, he "lin'd himself with hope, / Eating the air and promise of supply, / ...And so, with great imagination / ...winking leap'd into destruction" (27-33). Lord Bardolph's complicated architectural metaphor compares the rebels' planned attack to building a house: if everything is not planned carefully, then the house will never be finished and disaster will follow.
The Archbishop's closing speech in I.iii returns again, as in I.i, to events that occurred before the action of Henry IV, Part 2. Just as Morton indicated to Northumberland, the Archbishop is using the memory of the murdered Richard II to spur on the rebels against King Henry IV. Here, the Archbishop ruefully remembers how popular Henry (then called "Henry Bolingbroke") was when he first seized the crown from Richard. Being an intelligent and thoughtful man, the Archbishop realizes that there is a generalization to be made here: no matter how well things are going, people are always dissatisfied with the present moment--they remember the past as being better and look to the future for change. That is why they were so quick to overthrow Richard, he thinks. The Archbishop sums this up in his famous phrase: "O thoughts of men accurs'd! / Past and to come seem best; things present, worst" (107-8).