"Now all the youth of England are on fire, / And silken dalliance in the wardrobe lies" (1-2). Chorus indicates that sufficient time has passed so that Henry has been able to raise his army and the funding.
They sell the pasture now to buy the horse,Chorus says the French have had word that war is coming and are trembling with fear (14) -- see if that's true in scene iv. The French have had time to plot Henry's assassination through three English traitors (or loyalists, from another perspective): Richard Earl of Cambridge, Henry Lord Scroop of Masham, and Sir Thomas Grey of Northumberland. "Linger your patience on, and we'll digest / Th' abuse of distance; force a play" (31-32). The phrase means "stuff the play with incidents," but it sounds more questionable. Weirdest, though, Chorus transports us not exactly to Southampton, from which Henry's army will launch, but to a "playhouse now, there you must sit" (36) in Southampton, as if unintentionally to point out the artifice of all of this effort. So our buying into the phoniness is now fake-transported too.
Following the mirror of all Christian kings,
With winged heels, as English Mercuries.
"The characters in Scene 1 have no real purpose in the play," claims Cliffs Notes (Carey 319); "they are a dwindling band, and we are often made poignantly conscious of their redundancy to the King's present purposes" (Wells 153). Supposedly they're included by popular demand because of audience adoration from the previous Henry plays. But Shakespeare can subtly work in counterpoint in which the underplot and main plot are intertwined, or resonate from each other. "If Act I ends with a quarrel made, Act II opens with a quarrel composed" (Goddard, I 226).
A legal claim is at stake again: Mistress Quickly was troth-plighted to Nym, a character much given to alluding to deep things in the vaguest possible way:
I cannot tell; things must be as they may. Men may sleep, and they may have their throats about them at that time, and some say knives have edges. It must be as it may.... (II.i.20-23)"This is the Nym of The Merry Wives of Windsor complete with his 'humors,' his dark hints, and his affectation of desperate valor" (Asimov 467). His name is related to the German nehmen meaning "to take" and the archaic English nim meaning "to steal" (Asimov 478; cf. Garber 397). But Quickly has married Pistol, a bit of a grandiose poser who, like so many of Shakespeare's low-born, is characterized by his odd use of the English language. At least he has an interesting vocabulary -- "Pish for thee, Iceland dog!" (II.i.42) -- and perhaps touches of euphuism: "The grave doth gape, and doting death is near" (II.i.61). Pistol also owes a debt to Nym, and his boastings ultimately can be taken as juxtaposed with those of Henry, as are Nym's attempts to be enigmatic.
Early Oxfordians stressed Bardolph, Pistol, and Nym as caricatures of Marlowe, Peele, and Kyd (or maybe Greene), though somewhat merged (Ogburn and Ogburn 731). Pistol may well be sporting Marlowe's overblown style (Ogburn and Ogburn 732).
Here, though, with the help of Bardolph -- who has the distinction of appearing in four Shakespeare plays (Asimov 467) -- good sense overcomes hypocrisy, moralizing, and rhetoric: "show thy valor, and put up thy sword" (II.i.43-44); "why the devil should we keep knives to cut one another's throats?" (II.i.91-92). Goddard takes this as Bardolph "unconsciously condensing into a sentence the question of the centuries" (Goddard, I 227).
Then comes news of Falstaff's mortal illness -- all agree, it originates with the king's rejection: "The King has kill'd his heart" (II.i.88); "The King hath run bad humors on the knight, that's the even of it" (II.i.121-122); "Nym, thou hast spoke thee right. / His heart is fracted and corroborate" (II.i.123-124). The malapropism "corroborate" is interesting, but even the intended meaning, "corrupted," has implications since Falstaff at one time called Prince Hal his "heart" (Henry IV, Part 2 V.v.46). In any event, Falstaff in dying brings peace among men, "while Henry, living, makes war" (Goddard, I 227).
One of his close advisors praises Henry: "Never was monarch better fear'd and lov'd / Than is your Majesty" (II.ii.25-26). But this is a machiavellian formula! The plotting of the three traitors has been revealed to Henry, and he sets them up by announcing he will be merciful with a subject who "rail'd against our person. We consider / It was excess of wine that set him on" (II.ii.41-42). His show of mercy -- "clemency in the limelight" (Goddard, I 228) -- prepares for his viciousness, for when the three men advise against such leniency, immediately Henry gives each papers that indicate the guilt: "The mercy that was quick in us but late, / By your own counsel is suppress'd and kill'd" (II.ii.79-80). And so Henry in a long diatribe seems concerned only for the good of the kingdom -- it's not personal. But the men were bent on conspiracy on exactly the same end on which Henry is bent, and with better legal and historical justification: restoration of the throne to a man dispossessed because of female-side succession: Edmund Mortimer. Richard II even designated Mortimer as his heir. So the sins of the three traitors are Henry's own: ingratitude (II.ii.95), from the man who rejected Falstaff? "Treason and murther" (II.ii.105) -- think Richard II. Hypocrisy (II.ii.116ff), from the boy who deceived all England about his youth and embraced Chief Justice in public, aimed a moral discourse at men planning to do what his father had done? (Goddard, I 230). Henry's sanctimoniousness in the devil's hypothetical lines, "I can never win / A soul so easy as that Englishman's" (II.ii.124-125), might additionally refer to anyone buying into the glorious interpretation of Henry. And the king's condemnation of the "traitors" is placed in the play right next to Falstaff's death.
The men exude gratefulness that the scheme was revealed, though they'll die for it. And Henry increasingly name-drops God (II.ii.158, 160, 166, 179, 185, 190). "Henry does indeed appear in this scene to arrogate to himself certain of the prerogatives of God" (Goddard, I 231). Ending the scene, it's off to war: "Cheerly to sea! The signs of war advance! / No king of England, if not king of France!" (II.ii.192-193). The dark joke is that if the reasoning for his claim to the French throne is accurate, then Mortimer is the rightful king of England.
SCENE iii -- The Death of Falstaff
On the one hand, Falstaff could not inhabit this play. His perspective
could not be allowed alongside all the military pomp. He is too
subversive. "The greatest of all fictive wits dies the death of a
rejected father-substitute, and also of a dishonored mentor" (Bloom
272). But his death indicts Henry.
Mistress Quickly reports: "he's in Arthur's bosom, if ever man went to Arthur's bosom" (II.iii.9-10) -- "a splendidly 'English' malapropism for the biblical phrase 'in Abraham's bosom' (Luke 16:22)" (Garber 397).
'A parted ev'n just between twelve and one, ev'n at the turning o' th' tide; for after I saw him fumble with the sheets, and play with flowers, and smile upon his finger's end, I knew there was but one way; for his nose was as sharp as a pen, and 'a babbl'd o' green fields. (II.iii.12-17)
An earlier version of the play read, "His nose was as sharp as a pen on a table of green fields" (II.iii.16-17) -- a reference to the exchequer table which was the Lord Treasurer's "special province"; whereas Falstaff having "babbl'd" of green fields is not even in character (Ogburn and Ogburn 729). So at one time Falstaff may have represented Burghley, though clearly the creation ended up evolving far beyond.
"How now, Sir John?" quoth I, "what, man? be a' good cheer." So 'a cried out "God, God, God!" three or four times. Now I, to comfort him, bid him 'a should not think of God; I hop'd there was no need to trouble himself with any such thoughts yet. (II.iii.17-22)The "God" repetitions on his deathbed echo Henry's speech from the previous scene, but when Henry invokes the name of God it's to sanctify his bloody impulses; contrariwise, when Falstaff calls out, Mistress Quickly tells him not to think of God -- a humane and comforting impulse (Goddard, I 232). Quickly's account then "clearly alludes to Plato's story of the death of Socrates" (Bloom 292): the report that Falstaff gradually turned cold in dying may serve metaphorically to the death of the human side of Henry -- he too seems to have become "as cold as any stone" (II.iii.25-26).
Falstaff's friends recall a few incidents, but must hit the road to war. Pistol's call, "Let us to France" (II.iii.55), is antiphonal with Henry's call in the previous scene: "Now, lords, for France" (II.ii.182); but Pistol continues with an interesting metaphor: "Let us to France, like horse-leeches, my boys, / To suck, to suck, the very blood to suck!" (II.iii.55-56).
The French king (Charles VI who historically was actually insane at the time), the Dauphin, and French Dukes argue over just how large a threat Henry is. The Dauphin insolently ridicules Henry but others consider him much more dangerous. Exeter arrives with a message from Henry: surrender the crown or prepare for slaughter. The French must prepare to
Deliver up the crown, and to take mercyBut I thought we were supposed to "leave gormandizing" (Henry IV, Part 2 V.v.53). The French King will answer tomorrow.
On the poor souls for whom this hungry war
Opens his vasty jaws; and on your head,
Turning the widows' tears, the orphans' cries,
The dead men's blood, the privy maidens' groans,
For husbands, fathers, and betrothed lovers,
That shall be swallow'd in this controversy.
"In April 1392 Charles VI fell ill of a fever, underwent convulsions, and suffered enough brain damage to make him a mental cripple. From then to the end of his life (a period of thirty years) he alternated between raving madness and a precarious sanity.... The madness of Charles VI is not referred to directly in this play (perhaps because the English monarchs of Shakespeare's day were descended from him and Queen Elizabeth I was his great-great-great-granddaughter)" (Asimov 464).