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King Henry IV receives the news of two wars. The English have lost a battle against the Welsh and their commander, Mortimer, is being held captive by the Welsh leader, Glendower. The second tiding of the day is that the English have won in a battle against the Scots and that the English commander, Hotspur, has captured the Scots' commander, Douglas, and several other important nobles. The king is glad to know of Hotspurís victory, but he is annoyed that Hotspur refuses to hand over his captives to the crown. He sends orders to the Percies to appear before him.
At this point, the comic subplot is introduced. Prince Hal, to his father's disappointment, has been neglecting his royal duties and engaging in drinking and debauchery with friends of questionable reputations - Bardolph, Peto, Poins, Gadshill, and, of course, the errant knight Falstaff. While Hal and Falstaff drink at a tavern, Poins arrives with a plan to commit a robbery and to play a joke on Falstaff at the same time. After Bardolph, Peto, and Falstaff commit the robbery, Poins and Hal will rob Falstaff, and expose him as a cowardly liar. Hal agrees to participate. When his associates leave, Hal engages in a soliloquy, in which he swears that although he is engaging in fun for now, he will soon take up his princely duties.
In the comic subplot, Bardolph, Peto, and Falstaff rob a group of travelers at Gad's Hill and are in turn robbed by Poins and Hal.
The next day, Falstaff relates a spicy tale of valor and adventure to Poins and Prince Hal, saying that he bravely fought upwards of a hundred men. When Hal and Poins reveal the truth, that he ran away and left the booty after being faced by only them, Falstaff comes up with a quick defense. He claims that he recognized the prince and therefore did not fight him, as it would not be right to harm the heir apparent to the throne. When a messenger arrives from the king summoning the prince to court, Hal and Falstaff play-act the upcoming meeting between father and son. Hal hides Falstaff when the sheriff arrives looking for suspects in the robbery.
While Prince Hal is frolicking around, his fatherís enemies are working day and night for the rebellion. In a scene at Hotspur's castle, the hotheaded young leader is highly disturbed at not getting the expected support from one of his expected allies and fears that news of the rebellion will soon reach the king. Later, in Wales, the rebels have a tense meeting in which they divide up the kingdom and outline their plans for the coming war.
Prince Hal returns to the palace and declares his support for the king and his cause. Overjoyed, the king gives him the command of a royal army and the two prepare to march toward Shrewsbury, where the rebels are assembling. Hal returns to the inn, where he announces to Falstaff that he has cleared up the robbery and orders him to gather up and lead a troop of foot soldiers in the war.