Act Two: The Plot(s) Thickens

In the second act of The First Part of Henry the Fourth, the plots–those laid by the two main characters in the play, not Shakespeare himself–begin to grow. In the case of Prince Hal’s, it actually grows to fruition.

The opening scene of the act takes us to Gad’s Hill, the scene of the upcoming crimes: Falstaff’s robbery of the travelers to Canterbury, and Poins and Hal’s robbery of Falstaff. Here, we find Gadshill (yeah, a character whose name is a homophone for the location… a little confusing, I know) scoping out the scene, scouting it for potential travelers whom he and Falstaff might rob. There is some comic banter with and between some workers and travelers (humor predicated on the audience knowing the Elizabethan names for objects… potential failure to translate well into the twenty-first century). Gadshill is joined by the chamberlain, and they finish casing the joint.

Scene two takes us out on the road where Falstaff, Hal, and their crew prepare for the robbery victims to arrive. Poins has hidden Falstaff’s horse, prompting the old fat man to exclaim, “A plague upon it when thieves cannot be true to one another” (II.ii.24-25). Funny stuff. More comic bantering takes place before Gadshill’s arrival ahead of the travelers. Poins and Hal then go to cover escape routes (but we know they’re beginning their lying in wait for Falstaff). The robbery goes off without a hitch, and as Falstaff begins to divide the winnings, complaining that the missing “prince and Poins be … two arrant cowards” (II.ii.95-96), those “cowards” scare the robbers off with only a call for “Your money!” (II.ii.98). The joking prince admits, “Were’t not for laughing, I should pity him” (II.ii.105).

In Act Two, Scene Three, we find Hotspur reading a letter from a possible co-conspirator against the King. The letter’s writer shows some concerns, but Hotspur responds to each. It’s an interesting soliloquy: unlike Hal’s from Act One (and isn’t it interesting that it’s THESE two characters who get soliloquies), which is a pure relation of his thoughts to us, this could be seen as a man simply talking to himself. Regardless of its form, it certainly cements our view of him: an easily riled man, willing to accelerate his rhetoric (from “good plot” to “excellent plot” [II.ii.16 and 18, respectively]).

can we take this to assume his zero-to-sixty reactions are something new? was he a quiet and calm husband up till now? kinda hard to picture that…

His discussion of the letter and decision to leave immediately is interrupted by the entrance of his wife Kate. A good, loving wife, she has noticed a change in his demeanor: for the last two weeks she has been a “banished woman from (her) Harry’s bed” (II.iii.38) as he has been planning the rebellion. He has grown to “thick-eyed musing and cursed melancholy” (II.iii.45), and reduced to “faint slumbers” (II.iii.46), filled with martial vocal exclamations.

She knows something wrong (and fears her brother is behind it), and she tells him to tell her, if he loves her.  Hotspur’s response is to call for his horse. She threatens to “break (his) little finger” (II.iii.86) if he will not relent. He claims not to love her, then admits his feelings with a teasing, almost flirtatious speech:

Come, wilt thou see me ride?
And when I am on horseback, I will swear
I love thee infinitely.

— II.iii.98-100

But he then definitively refuses to tell her anything, as she is a woman and she “wilt not utter what (she) dost not know” (II.iii.109). But he does promise that she can follow him to where he is going.

like father like son… remember how Richard derides Bolingbroke for his popularity

The second act’s last scene (and here is as good a place as any to mention that both the act and this scene are the longest of their kinds in the Canon) takes us back to the tavern, where we see the fallout from the robbers’ robbery. But first, Hal admits to drinking with the commons, which he does so well that he has become

so good a proficient in one quarter of an hour, that I can drink with any tinker in his own language during my life

— II.iv.17-19

Hal and Poins then pull a prank on a young tapster, Francis, as they wait for Falstaff and his men to arrive. Just before the fat man appears, Hal speaks of his ability to be “all humors” (II.iv.89), but his is

not yet of Percy's mind, the Hotspur of the north; he that kills me some six or seven dozen of Scots at a breakfast, washes his hands, and says to his wife 'Fie upon this quiet life! I want work.'

— II.iv.97-100

If Hotspur disrespects Hal for his dissolute lifestyle, Hal is obviously not convinced that the martial life is all there is.

This quiet moment of seriousness (even disguised as a joking insult) is interrupted by the entrance of Falstaff, who immediately derides Hal and Poins as cowards. As the two egg him on, Falstaff recounts, with growing exaggeration, their robbery by “fifty” (II.iv.179) robbers, and the old knight’s courageous slaying of at least “seven” (II.iv.209).

Hal finally calls the old man on his lies, and without missing a beat, Falstaff claims he did not attack his robbers because he knew Hal was there, and it wasn’t “for (him) to kill the heir apparent” (II.iv.256-257). As the laughter moves to serious discussion of the military uprising and Hal’s impending exit from the tavern life, Falstaff offers to allow Hal to practice his returning speech to the King by acting out their reunion.

Falstaff’s attempts to play Henry are a bust, filled with rhetoric that is self-serving (for Falstaff). When they switch places, however, Hal shows how well he can take on the role of any other person, take on the role of a King. While still playing for laughs from the tavern, insulting Falstaff as “that old white-bearded Satan” (II.iv.448), Hal takes on the tone of kingly insult as well (as we shall see in the next act, when father and son do reunite). When Falstaff tries to save his own (Falstaff’s, not Hal’s) reputation, saying,

for sweet Jack Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff, valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant, being, as he is, old Jack Falstaff, banish not him thy Harry's company, banish not him thy Harry's company: banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.

— II.iv.460-464

Hal can only intone ominously “I do, I will” (II.iv.465). An incredible piece of foreshadowing, not lost on his fellow actor. Before Falstaff can respond with “much to say in the behalf of that Falstaff” (II.iv.468-469), however, a sheriff arrives to investigate the robbery. Before Hal heads back to London, he promises that the robbed will be “paid back with advantage” (II.iv.530).

And Hal’s time in the tavern, and our Act Two, ends.

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