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.