In the Earl of Northumberland's castle in northern England, Northumberland is talking with his wife, Lady Northumberland, and his daughter-in-law, Lady Percy--the widow of his son Hotspur, who has recently been killed at the Battle of Shrewsbury. Northumberland has been talking to his wife and Lady Percy about his plans for going back to war against the king, and they have both been trying to persuade him not to go. Lady Percy is particularly angry: she reminds Northumberland that his son--her husband--is dead largely because Northumberland refused to send his troops to help him at Shrewsbury, and argues that there is little point in going back to war now. Northumberland, wavering, decides that she is right and that he will leave the Archbishop of York and Mowbray, the Earl Marshal, to fight alone against the king.
Back at the Boar's Head Tavern in Eastcheap, London, Falstaff is having dinner with Bardolph, Mistress Quickly, and Doll Tearsheet, his favorite prostitute. An old acquaintance, Ancient Pistol--an ensign in the army who serves under Falstaff--pays a visit, but he is prone to fighting and nearly gets into a brawl with Doll Tearsheet. Falstaff and Bardolph drive him out, and Doll sits in Falstaff's lap while she and Falstaff flirt gently with one another. First musicians enter and play music and then the serving-men--actually Prince Hal and Poins, disguised as barmen in order to spy on Falstaff--enter to serve dinner. Doll questions Falstaff about his friends, and Falstaff insults Hal and Poins, though not with any great malice. Hal and Poins come forward and reveal themselves, and Hal angrily accuses Falstaff of hypocrisy. Falstaff is flustered, and they get into an argument.
Suddenly, Peto, another of Falstaff's men, enters, with military news. King Henry IV has returned to his castle outside London (i.e., Westminster Castle), and the officers of the army are seeking Falstaff. After Prince Hal and Poins leave for Westminster, there is a knocking at the door. Army captains have come, asking for Falstaff. The Hostess and Doll bid Falstaff a touching good-bye as he goes off to the war.
The short scene of II.iii serves to inform us that Northumberland cannot be counted on to bring his troops to the aid of the rebels. This bodes ill for the rebellion. The scene also brings us back to the events that have occurred before the beginning of the play. This time, the events are those leading up to the Battle of Shrewsbury--action that takes place in Henry IV, Part 1. Lady Percy's words to Northumberland, reminding him of his failure to bring in his troops to help his son, seem to be calculated to make him feel as much grief about Hotspur's death as she does: "The time was, father, that you broke your word . . . / When your own Percy, when my heart's dear Harry, / Threw many a northward look to see his father / Bring up his powers, but he did long in vain" (10-14). Out of remorse or a recurrence of simple cowardice, Northumberland lets himself be persuaded to stay home once again.
Act II, scene iv is one of the most lively and varied scenes in the play, and its action moves between many different moods--vulgar brawling, knock-down comedy, tender affection, and real anger. It is a good showcase for what so many people like about the "Henry" plays: the way they show the lives and emotions of "common" or vulgar people alongside those of the great noblemen, thus, demonstrating that human nature is similar in all walks of life.
Falstaff's tender moments with Doll Tearsheet show us a new side of his character. He seems to be genuinely fond of her, and she, perhaps, genuinely loves him. Their conversation also brings up the theme of mortality that grows stronger as the play progresses. Doll says to Falstaff, with her usual mix of insults and affection: "Thou whoreson tidy little Bartholomew boar-pig, when wilt thou leave fighting a-days, and foining a-nights, and begin to patch up thine old body for heaven?" (227-230). Falstaff's answer is "Peace, good Doll, do not speak like a death's-head, do not bid me remember mine end" (231-2). A "death's-head" was a skull, sometimes kept around during the Renaissance in order to make people think about their mortality. Falstaff asks Doll not to make him think about it, but, only a few lines later, he acknowledges his advanced age to Doll--something he jauntily denied when confronted with it by the Lord Chief Justice in I.ii. "I am old, I am old," Falstaff laments, and Doll, kissing him, promises, "I love thee better than I love e'er a scurvy young boy of them all" (268-70).
Ancient Pistol is a unique character and would most likely have struck Shakespeare's audience as hilarious. He is a braggart and "swaggerer" (as Doll and the Hostess call him (69-105))--that is, a brawler--but he also speaks in a bizarrely dramatic style consisting of references to classical literature and to contemporary melodramas, romances, and tragedies. Thus, when he draws his sword to attack Doll, he does not stop with saying, "I'll be revenged of her" (150), but continues by belting out, "I'll see her damned first! To Pluto's damned lake, by this hand, to th'infernal deep, with Erebus and tortures vile also! Hold hook and line, say I! Down, down, dogs! Down, faitors! Have we not Hiren here?" (153-157). Most of what he says is incomprehensible both to us and to the characters in the play.
However, Shakespeare's audiences would have been amused by Pistol for several reasons. For one thing, like many of the other minor characters in the play, he lives up to his name: in 1598, the pistol was a dangerous, noisy, and erratic weapon. But he also comes across as a ludicrous parody of the more melodramatic plays that were being acted on the stage in Shakespeare's time. Among other things, Pistol ridiculously mangles several lines from the flashy and violent plays of Christopher Marlowe, Shakespeare's most famous and gifted contemporary and rival.