It is only with the beginning of Act Three of The Second Part of Henry the Fourth that we finally meet our titular king. He enters in his nightgown, sending off a page to get Surrey and Warwick. This is not what we expect the king to be: he’s a dying man. But he cannot sleep:
O sleep, O gentle sleep,
Nature's soft nurse, how have I frighted thee,
That thou no more wilt weigh my eyelids down
And steep my senses in forgetfulness?
He cannot sleep while his subjects can. We might believe this to be guilt (and a foreshadowing to a certain Scottish king and his wife), but it’s not so much that as cares of a king that are keeping him awake. Or as he puts it in the last line of this soliloquy: “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown” (III.i.31).
When Surrey and Warwick arrive and wish him good morning, Henry sounds more like Falstaff from The First Part than himself: “Is it good morrow, lords?” (III.i.33). He tells them a story we saw two plays ago: Richard the Second warning that Northumberland would one day turn against Henry. Warwick dismisses Richard’s statement as “a perfect guess” (III.i.88). Henry fears that Northumberland’s army has grown to over “fifty thousand” (III.i.96). As we know, from Act Two, Scene Three, that Northumberland has fled to Scotland, and it seems Warwick knows this, too. He tells his king that “Rumor doth double, like voice and echo, // The numbers of the feared” (III.i.97-98). [ah, Rumor again!] This soothes Henry, who still dreams of a voyage to the Holy Land.
Act Three, Scene Two, takes us to Gloucestershire, and we meet Justices Shallow and Silence, and some of the country soldiers from their lands. [for a sequel, it is AMAZING how many new characters we meet in this play…] Unlike The First Part‘s King Henry who despairs over his son’s time in the tavern, Shallow speaks with pride of his cousin William, “a good scholar…at Oxford” (III.ii.10). Shallow and Silence then begin to reminisce about their younger days when they “knew where the bona-robes were and had the best of them all at commandment” (III.ii.23-24). They were skirt chasers, and so was one “Jack Falstaff, now Sir John, a boy, and page to Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk” (III.ii.25-26). Isn’t interesting that Falstaff was a page to Thomas Mowbray, the man with whom Henry Bolingbroke quarreled at the beginning of Richard the Second.
could it be an old grudge and loyalty to his former master that pushes Falstaff to corrupt the youth? hmmmm, very interesting…
Who should arrive but the old fat man himself, and the old friends become reacquainted in prologue to Falstaff’s pressing into military service some of the locals. We watch as he goes through the motley crew, comically commenting on each, much to the enjoyment of the two old men.
As the three think back on their youth (“We have heard the chimes at midnight” [III.ii.212-213], Falstaff tells them), Bardolph accepts bribes from some of the men to buy them out of military service.
Once his friends have left, and Bardolph has taken the new poorer recruits away, Falstaff is left alone on stage. He tells us, “Lord, Lord, how subject we old men are to this vice of lying” (III.ii.296-297). And THEN he goes on to tell a number of ridiculous stories himself, concluding, “Let time shape, and there an end” (III.ii.325).
And there an end to Act Three as well…