The three scenes in Act 3 suggest that there are really three worlds in the play — court, tavern, and rebels — rather than the two I suggested earlier. In this act, Hal migrates (although not completely) from the tavern to the court.
3.1. invites us to reconsider the merits of the rebels. It now appears that they are concerned not with installing the rightful king but with dividing up the spoils of victory.
Hasty Hotspur, who had forgotten a name in Act 1, has now forgotten the map. And he picks a quarrel with Glendower over the latter’s claims that he was destined at birth to greatness. (Glendower is still linked to the old world of magic and portents; Hotspur — and Hal, and Henry — are modern men who make their own fate.) And then he quarrels with his allies over the lines drawn on the map. But it turns out that he doesn’t really care about the spoils of war: it’s the principle, and he would cavil over the ninth part of a hair when honor’s at the stake. He’s more concerned with his own honor than with victory. This is taking “honor” too far. Hotspur even quarrels with his own wife, and walks out on her. Worcester points out Hotspur’s defects as a leader of men.
Meanwhile, while Hotspur is “on fire,” Mortimer is too soft, too reluctant to leave his wife. And while Hal can “drink with any tinker in his own language,” Mortimer has not learned Welsh and thus can’t speak to or understand his wife.
In 3.2 Henry and Hal are reconciled. Henry, who seems to feel some guilt about what he has done, though not much — he says “mistreadings” rather than “misdeeds” — and regrets that Hal is committing Richard’s errors. He suggests that Hotspur has a “more worthy interest” in the state and knows how to lead lords and bishops to battle, but we already are thinking that Hotspur is in fact not a good leader. Hal vows to “redeem” all, but it is not at all clear that he has repented or reformed: he seems to be promising to implement the plan he announced in his soliloquy in Act 1. (There is strong similarity between the language of that soliloquy and Henry’s account of how he won popular favor.)
Again we hear from poor old Sir Walter Blunt, who brings news that Henry tells him is five days old. (Same thing happened in the first scene of the play.) Henry must have other sources of intelligence.
In 3.3. we get one more scene in the tavern, and it serves as a kind of parody of what took place in 3.1 and 3.2. Falstaff again thinks about repenting (as did Hal in the previous scene). He picks a quarrel with the hostess just as Hotspur picked quarrels with Glendower and his other allies. (And when the hostess says “the tittle [i.e., the tenth art] of a hair was never lost in my house before,” she echoes Hotspur’s “ninth part of a hair. The “I know you . . . . No, I know you” exchange between Falstaff and the hostess recalls Hal’s “I know you all.” Is the subsequent reconciliation between Falstaff and the hostess a parody of the reconciliation between Henry and Hal?
I’m not sure what to make of Falstaff’s long exchange with Bardolph, with his vivid description of the fiery face of the “Knight of the Burning Lamp,” but it may be a reflection of Glendower’s speech about portents. Is there a kind of subterranean link between Falstaff and Glendower? Falstaff’s preposterous claim that his pocket has been picked — and we already know from 2.4 what was in his pocket — serves to reduce him in our eyes. In Act 2 his preposterous claims about fighting off men in buckram were evidence of his improvisatory wit. Here they seem shabby, as Hal sees and says. It serves as a measure of Hal’s gradual separation from Falstaff.
Falstaff may be down but he is not out. He shows his resilience and adaptability in the closing lines of 3.3, where he prepares to take command of a “charge of foot,” even though he would rather remain in the tavern.
There’s something darkly comic about Hotspur’s quarrelsomeness in the early scenes of Act 3, baiting Glendower, then fussing about the divisions in the map. We may be on his side in the teasing of the fantasies and boasting of Glendower, but it doesn’t bode well for his leadership, and when he’s finished with the map divisions, he indicates he doesn’t care anyway. But he’s already threatened to change the course of the Trent — does “charge” mean that he intends to blow up the river to change its course? But it’s just to irritate Glendower, as he does with the mocking of Welsh. His attitude toward the music and the singing is similarly both comic and disturbing. And again he quarrels comically with his wife. Sh. must have accessed a good Welsh singer among the boys he had for the women’s parts, and also the actor for Glendower.
Does Mortimer’s not understanding or speaking Welsh indicate something about the kingdom they are so eager to divvy up?
Henry’s speech to Hal does suggest the thinness of his legal claim to the throne; much of his description of the contrast of himself to Richard indicates the need for self-portrayal rather then legitimacy. As we’ve heard in his soliloquy in Act 1, Hal’s response similarly points to his desire to make his reformation a political achievement. He is his father’s son, but his course to the throne is simply the inversion of Henry’s.
Falstaff’s alleged dwindling seems a consequence of Hal’s emergence. Again, he’s going to repent, and the joke of course is that he’s been corrupted by “villainous company.” And his resolve is shown to be a wonderful sham. If Hal is malleable, Falstaff is consistent and unchanging. In his set-to with the hostess, he’s just as amusingly corrupt, and he spins circles around her in his comic claims and accusations. His departing “forgiveness” of the hostess and his moral words to her are quite wonderful. I guess I don’t find Falstaff shabby so much as entirely consistent with what we’ve come to see of him before. He cannot change; because he has more flesh, he must have more frailty. But “frailty” means something opposed to all morality; he must be the embodiment of all indecency. We can’t approve, but we can’t look away — or stop finding him preposterously amusing.