Act 2 is long, nearly 850 lines, including 600 lines in the tavern. In the first scene we find that Falstaff has been exploiting and abusing his friends. He has just tried to hit up the Chief Justice for a loan, and now we find he has has been borrowing money from Hostess Quickly and refusing to pay it back. She also sues him for oath-breaking: promising marriage presumably in exchange for sexual favors) but failing to perform the oath– and maybe failing to perform sexually too. But he is somehow able to charm her into withdrawing the suit. Meanwhile, the Chief Justice gets news of the war. Falstaff is interested, asking three times for “news,” but the Chief Justice ignores him, a clear sign that literally and figuratively Falstaff is being marginalized
2.2 suggests that Hal, who had presumably reformed, as he had promised his father, has now backslid: he’s back with his pal Poins, who at first thinks that Hal has attached himself to the “great” world but seems relieved to have his old friend back. I can’t quite work out Hal’s riff about stockings, shirts, and linen, but it may just be, as Poins suggests, idle talk. When the talk turns to Henry’s sickness and whether or not Hal should be sad, and should weep, Poins’ reply — “I would think thee a most princely hypocrite” — indicates that he assumes the Prince is still his playfellow. And when they plan to play a trick on Falstaff, by dressing in “leathern jerkins” (recalling the buff jerkins of Gad’s Hill), it seems to confirm that Hal is back in the “tavern world.”
The main business of 2.3 is to show that Northumberland will not join the rebellion, despite his furious words in 1.1, so the rebels’ chances are weakened. It’s odd that he is dissuaded by Hotspur’s widow, who urges him to “go not to these wars” but also blames him for not supporting his son (and her husband) at Shrewsbury. You might think she would urge him to fight this time, to make up for his previous failure to fight. Maybe her point is that since he failed his own son, he should not redouble the offense by “holding his honor more precise and nice/ With others than with him.” She reinforces the point, made in Act 1, that Hotspur was the mirror of chivalry, and that all his men sought to imitate him. Her praise of Hotspur, which makes him look even better than before, draws an implicit contrast with the Prince, who dallies in the tavern.
2.4 is one of the longest scenes in the play, some 400 lines, and appears to be a reprise of the tavern scene in the First Part, combined with another trick by Hal and Poins (in disguise) at the expense of Falstaff. It’s as if the military/political world has moved on but the Tavern is stuck in a time warp. I don’t know why the scene needs to go on so long. On the other hand, the scene in some respects is different from the tavern scenes in the First Part. The Hostess has acquired a strong tendency to malapropism that she did not show before. We have some new characters, including the fierce Capt. Pistol, one of Falstaff’s disreputable military colleagues, and Doll Tearsheet, a local prostitute and a bit of a termagant who meets her clients in rooms above the tavern. It’s not clear to me why the Hostess, Mrs. Quickly, who just three scenes ago was complaining that Falstaff had reneged on his promise to marry her, has now set him up with Doll. We also get more emphasis on Falstaff’s age. “I am old,” he says, and he seems to be thinking about “the end.” There are more suggestions that Falstaff is over the hill sexually: Poins notices that Falstaff’s desire outlives his performance, and Doll notices his “old body.” But once again, as in the First Part, a loud knocking at the door summons the Prince to court.
More broadly, 2.4 raises the once-oft-discussed question of whether 2 Henry 4 is a continuation of 1 Henry 4, or whether each is designed as a free-standing play. So far as I can tell, the main argument that the two plays should be thought of as one is that the “action” of the plays, Hal’s reform, his defeat of Hotspur, and his repudiation of Falstaff, is not “completed” by the end of 1 Henry 4, and is only completed by the end of 2 Henry 4. The unspoken assumption of that argument is that Shakespeare’s plays have an Aristotelian “action” and that there must be resolution at the end of the action. But nowadays we are readier to accept that the end of a play need not resolve everything, that it can leave the audience not with doubts about the outcome — it already know how things turned out in history– but with questions about what we should think about Henry and the Prince. If you think of the two plays as one, by 2.4 Hal’s reform is clearly not yet complete. If you think of them as independent, Shakespeare wants us to think of Hal who begins the second play as a unreformed roisterer, and wants us to be eager to see how in the world he will end up as Henry 5.
I tend to think of 2 Henry 4 as continuing the first play, but its weight falls at its end, and the early scenes give us somewhat ambiguous strains about the rebellion and what Prince Harry will do, will be. It’s not clear to me why the tavern scenes go on as long as they do; it’s as if Falstaff has somehow taken over and we see more and more of his what he has become. And it’s not pretty. But the scenes seem to take over and overpower the direction of the play. The more we see of Falstaff, the more we sense his falling toward a lack of influence and power with Hal. Yes, Mistress Quickly makes a strong case against him, insisting on his failure to pay his debts; of course we expect that, but it doesn’t help our sense that Falstaff’s humor had been a source of unconstrained vitality, as it had in Part 1. Instead of Hal we get the Lord Chief Justice jousting with and playing straight man for Falstaff. And we have a multiplication of tavern characters, Peto, Poins, Snare, Fang, the page, Pistol, Bardolph, Doll Tearsheet, in addition to Mistress Quickly. Falstaff jousts with all of them, rather than with Prince Hal, as he had done in Part 1. But he is losing energy; “I am old, I am old,” he complains to Doll in the middle of too-long 2.4. And there may be too many of them. With Pistol we get recollections and parodies of old plays from earlier in the decade, but it’s hard to see why. The joke of Hal and Poins dressing up like drawers doesn’t appear to go anywhere. Does Falstaff recognize him? Probably not this time either, but the quarrel with Hal seems significant and unresolved. And the repetition of the knock at the tavern door almost ends the scene. Doll and Mistress Quickly seem to end with a sympathetic pity for Falstaff, somehow forgiving him at the end. But it seems to signal that a darkening has come over Falstaff and the tavern.
The sense of darkness and sickness continues into the beginning of Act 3, and he image of the king in his nightgown, unable to sleep and complaining of a continuing insomnia, may set up a comparison with the dwindling of Falstaff. His final line of the soliloquy, “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,” seem to point to the irony of all the contest for rule. What has the crown done for Henry, what did it do for Richard? And he laments the overturning of friendships, the loss of Northumberland to him. Interestingly, he denies that he had an intent to seize the throne, but that “necessity” required it. He admits Richard’s prophetic foretelling of the current state of things. Warwick tries to reassure him that Richard made a reasonable guess, and Henry agrees they have to accept necessity now and oppose the archbishop and Northumberland. The whole sense of power and the desirability of rule is thrown into doubt at the end of the scene when we hear more of Henry’s sickness and Glendower’s death. Henry reminds the “dear lords” of his long-deferred intention of a crusade to Jerusalem. We don’t yet see the irony of that, of course.
The scene of Justice Shallow and Justice Silence rather effectively underscores the theme of impotence and death just before we get more of Falstaff’s recruiting methods. Time has taken away most of what they remember, and doubts arise even about those memories. Falstaff cannot even remember Silence’s name. Disease and frailty seem to predominate in the roll call of recruits. The role of money in the recruits’ buying out of the press is made explicit. Orson Wells’ appropriation of Falstaff’s response to Shallow and Silence’s memories of Jane Nightwork, “We have heard the chimes at midnight,” wonderfully sums up the debility of the old men, including Falstaff. But is also seems to wash back over the political world. At the end of the scene, Falstaff’s soliloquy laughs at the memories and what the two old justices really were in their youth, and all this leaves in doubt the reality not only their memories, but of what the nobles are and what they hope to accomplish. The melancholy comedy leans forward into the scene that follows.
I sense some strain in Part 2 in the thematics of showing the move toward Hal’s reformation. The unfinished business of Part 1 remains so through much of Part 2, and up to end of Act 4 we’ve seen little of him. So much weight falls on 4.3 and continues into 5.