At the beginning of Act 4 is Hotspur flattering the Douglas even as he denies he could ever flatter anyone? I think we’re meant to wonder if Northumberland is really sick, or has decided the rebellion is just too risky. Hotspur is initially alarmed, says it’s a perilous gash, but then immediately reverses himself and finds it an opportunity, a sort of back-up. Douglas goes along with this and insists that in Scotland there’s no word for fear. Then in the account of the king’s forces comes a description of Hal’s brilliant appearance, which annoys Hotspur. And then news of Glendower’s inability to come on time, which discomfits even the Douglas. Again Hotspur turns the bad news into a spur of his desire for honor, even in death: “Die all; die merrily.”
Scene 2 must be both frank characterization of Falstaff, his self-admitted corrupt administration of his pressing soldiers and satire of the whole system. Falstaff’s description of the process he’s followed is so frank and thoroughly corrupt that I don’t think we hold him as anything more than a representation of the worst that’s possible. Put someone like Falstaff in charge of the press, and this is what you get. When Hal says he never saw such pitiful rascals, Falstaff’s response, “good enough to toss; food for powder . . . mortal men, mortal men,” seems to express the futility of the whole matter of warfare. They seem to represent the “poor, bare, forked animal” that was Poor Tom (in Lear), but here described in another register. Lear in Falstaff, but in an absurdist, comic key? It seems to reflect back on the whole matter of the warfare among the aristocrats. They jostle back and forth, and the result is the loss of these absurd “soldiers” of Falstaff’s company.
Scene 3 begins with more of Hotspur’s overly eager desire for battle. Let’s fight tonight, now, whatever the cost. Again the Douglas is all in favor of Hotspur’s whim, and again he’s talked out of it. But the offer Blount brings seems initially to offer hope of avoiding battle, but then Hotspur pulls back the curtain and indicates the reality behind the whole matter of Henry’s kingship. Obviously there’s no way of resolving any of this, and Hotspur’s only recourse seems to be the abdication of Henry. This is where he ends up, and the death of Richard and Henry’s usurpation seem to render the whole thing impossible of resolution. Is this what I take back? Blount asks. Well, no, Hotspur responds; we’ll talk it over, and let him know in the morning.
The final scene of the act seems to indicate the futility of any negotiation, as the Archbishop of York and what seems to be his chaplain consider it. Ten thousand men will fight in the ensuing battle at Shrewsbury, and the King seems to have the numerical superiority. The next step will be Henry’s turning to the complicit Archbishop, so the latter must plan his next move, which seems utterly uncertain.
You read Hotspur as “darkly comic.” By that maybe you mean reckless and dangerous. I think of him as bold and irrepressible, maybe boyishly exuberant, and ill-fitted for the “political” world of the play. Better-suited to an older world of personal “honor.”
You find Falstaff primarily comic too, but more amusingly so. We disapprove but we enjoy him. You suggested it had to do with his consistency. I suggested that he seems increasingly shabby as the play goes along, which maybe means that it is we who change. I can imagine a director and actor could collaborate to produce a Falstaff who is comically irresponsible and irrepressible, and in whom we delight, as have many quite sobersided critics from Johnson to Bloom. Taking a cue from Hal, I can also imagine a director and actor who produce a seedy over-the-hill Falstaff who is not as funny as he thinks. He too is ill-fitted for the “political” world, and maybe as a figure of “Vice” better suited to an older more festive world.
In 4.1 Hotspur is the “king of honor,” but that doesn’t count for much in a world where Northumberland and Glendower, his crucial allies, have withdrawn or withheld their forces. I take Hotspur’s praise of Douglas as genuine. (I don’t think Northumberland is sick.) Why, in this scene, do we get such fulsome praise of Prince Hal from Vernon (who will effusively praise Hal again in V.2)? Shakespeare wants us to think better of Hal, but why should Vernon be the one who praises him? When you hear Hotspur press on, and look forward to “Doomsday” (by which I think he means the “day of doom or judgement”), and calls out “Die all, die merrily,” you wonder whether Hotspur cares whether he wins or not, so long as he fights bravely.
In 4.2 I wonder how best to present Falstaff’s soliloquy about his ragtag recruits. I don’t think he should sound like Iago, or the old “Vice” figure. Should he laugh his way through the speech, boasting about what he has done? Should he be rueful?
In 4.3, Hotspur disregards advice/warning from his allies, continuing to indicate that he’s out of step. But he makes a very strong case against King Henry, and is given a very long speech (ll. 52-85, 90-105) to do it. I’m not sure why we have a separate scene in 4.4, but I guess it’s to suggest that the Archbishop is showing the caution that Hotspur lacks, and is wavering.