Near the Boar's Head Tavern in Eastcheap, London--Falstaff's favorite dive, in a seedy part of town--Mistress Quickly, the dim-witted but good-hearted Hostess of the tavern, is talking to two officers of the law whom she has called to arrest Falstaff for the large unpaid bar debt he owes her. The officers, Fang and Snare, try to arrest Falstaff when he walks in, but Falstaff, along with his page and his friend Bardolph, attacks the officers. A rather ludicrous fight ensues, which is broken up when the Lord Chief Justice unexpectedly enters with his men. Falstaff tries to wiggle out of the situation, as usual, but the Justice remains calm and eventually gets to the heart of the matter. He orders Falstaff to recompense the Hostess both for the money he owes her and for a false promise he has made to marry her--the first by paying her the money he owes, the second by apologizing. Falstaff, however, takes the Hostess aside and, with his usual facility, convinces her to pawn her silver plates and tapestries in order to lend him money. Falstaff also makes arrangements to have supper that night at the Boar's Head Tavern with a favorite prostitute named Doll Tearsheet.
Meanwhile, Gower, one of King Henry IV's courtiers, enters with messages for the Lord Chief Justice. We learn that the king is returning to London from his expedition to fight native rebels in Wales and that part of his forces have been sent to the north of England to face the rebelling Earl of Northumberland and Archbishop of York. After failing to convince Gower to come with him to dinner, Falstaff is sent off by the Justice with a sharp reminder that he ought to get on the road: he will have to draft men along the way in order to have a company of soldiers to command when he reaches the battle.
Elsewhere in London, Prince Hal has recently come back from the Battle of Shrewsbury. He is accompanied by Poins, one of the smarter, quieter, and more dangerous members of Falstaff's crowd with whom Hal has recently been spending a lot of time. Hal says he is feeling tired these days and could use some beer. But he will not drink any because he has started to have mixed feelings about the days when he used to drink and carouse with Falstaff, Poins, Bardolph, and the rest. He seems to regret it now, and he is subtly insulting to Poins. He also says that he feels terrible that his father, King Henry IV, is so very sick. Poins thinks Hal is being a hypocrite, but Hal swears he is not.
Bardolph comes in with Falstaff's page, who bears a letter to Hal from Falstaff. The letter is brief and ridiculous. In typical Falstaff style, it says nothing but hello and good-bye, but it does so in silly and high-flown language. Prince Hal, apparently either very bored or struck by a sudden inspiration, decides that this would be a good time to play a practical joke. Learning from Falstaff's page that Falstaff will be eating at the Boar's Head with Doll Tearsheet tonight, he decides that he and Poins should dress up as serving-men and spy upon him at the tavern. Poins agrees, Bardolph and the page agree to keep their mouths shut, and everyone heads off to get ready.
In II.i, we are treated to another round of Falstaff being Falstaff. He bluffs, he weasels, he fights, he insults people with great intelligence and flamboyance, he is cheerfully rude to the Lord Chief Justice, and he convinces Hostess Quickly not only to drop charges against him and to ignore his tavern bill but also to actually lend him more money. As the Lord Chief Justice--the only one, it seems, who can resist the blustery charm of Falstaff's "throng of words"--puts it: "Sir John, Sir John, I am well acquainted with your manner of wrenching the true cause the false way" (107-110).
It is worth noting that here, as in I.ii, the Justice is the only character who is able to keep a level head around Falstaff. The subdued conflict between the two of them is significant because it is the visible symbol for a major theme of the play. Until now, Falstaff has been acting as Hal's father figure, teaching him in the ways of the underworld. From here on in, however, and especially after King Henry IV's death, the Lord Chief Justice will increasingly take Falstaff's place as a father figure to Hal. The conflict between law and anarchy is represented in the repeated clashes between Falstaff and the Chief Justice, as is the struggle--between responsibility and hell-raising--raging within Prince Hal himself.
Hal's internal struggle is illustrated in II.ii. This scene marks our first view of Hal in Henry IV, Part 2 (he was the central character of Henry IV, Part 1). He already seems a changed person, in the process of retreating from his previous life. However, although the hell-raising of his youth no longer appeals to the maturing prince, he does not yet seem quite ready to abandon his old friends; thus, we see Hal hanging out with Poins even as he says to him, "What a disgrace is it to me to remember thy name!" (12-13).
Hal's identity confusion is well demonstrated by his piteous question, "Doth it not show vilely in me to desire small beer?" (5-6). Most of us would not suffer so much anguish over wanting a mug of beer ("small beer," by the way, was a thinned-out version, often used for hangovers--and, thus, perhaps, a decent cure for Hal's weariness). In his struggle to define himself, however, and to put his past behind him, Hal seems to perceive this simple desire as a personal weakness.
Hal's character development, here and later on, owes a great deal to the events of Henry IV, Part 1. There are three important things to know about that earlier play: First, in it, we see Hal taking part in the life of the tavern with Falstaff and his friends, to the enormous disappointment of his father and the court nobles. Second, Hal tells the audience that this is actually all part of a plan--he is trying to make himself look like a hopeless bum so that everyone will be very impressed when he suddenly reforms himself into a king, (Henry IV, Part 1, I.ii). Third, in the middle of that play, Hal makes a solemn promise to his father that he will reform and act like a true prince from now on (III.ii). In the current scene (Henry IV, Part 2, II.ii), Hal is clearly pondering this promise and trying to figure out what is the right thing to do next--and whether or not that is what he actually wants to do.
Hal's sudden decision to spy on Falstaff in the Boar's Head Tavern is a little unexpected, given his solemnity and his father's sickness. We might read it as an attempt to distract himself from his concern about King Henry's worsening health; or, perhaps, as a result of his conflicting desires to abandon his friends and to remain with them.