Henry IV, Part 2
(1598) is one of Shakespeare’s historical plays, and the third installment of Shakespeare’s Lancastrian Tetralogy that also includes Richard II
, Henry IV, Part I
, and Henry
V. This tetralogy was adapted into the critically acclaimed television series The Hollow Crown
(2012), starring Tom Hiddleston as Prince Hal/Henry V. Some of the major themes of this play include power, honor, good kingship, and coming of age. With Henry IV (Bolingbroke) ailing on the throne and contending with rebellion, Prince Hal must learn to put aside his boyish carousing and assume the mantle of responsible leadership. To this end, the character of Falstaff is critical; he mirrors the age and illness of King Henry, and his cheerful dissolution serves as a counterpoint for Prince Hal, who prepares to become king.Henry IV, Part I
ends after the battle of Shrewsbury. Prince Hal has killed Hotspur, the valiant and hot-blooded son of the rebel Earl of Northumberland. The rebel forces lose heart and start scattering, allowing the king’s men to win the day. Henry IV, Part 2
picks up immediately after this, with a prologue delivered by Rumor, who circulates false reports of a rebel victory. Yet messengers fleeing Shrewsbury arrive to tell Northumberland the true outcome of the battle and that his son is dead. Northumberland vows bloody revenge, planning to gather more support for his cause. In order to gain more followers, he recognizes the need to change the narrative. The outright rebellion against King Henry is rebranded as righteous revenge for Bolingbroke’s usurpation of Richard II. He flees to Scotland to see how events play out before he plans direct action again.
Falstaff ignores the war even though he has orders to recruit men for the king’s army. Instead, he continues his life of petty crime and carouses with prostitutes, falsely claiming that he slew Hotspur. His page brings a report from Falstaff’s doctor that he is ill, and he is reminded throughout the play that he is old and dying. He narrowly avoids arrest for robbery and debt with his royal commission. The Lord Chief Justice is unimpressed, but he lets Falstaff go with a reminder that he is to go north and start collecting men. Falstaff goes to visit a prostitute, Doll Tearsheet, unaware that they are being observed by Prince Hal and Poins who are disguised. Falstaff says some uncomplimentary things about the two of them, unwittingly driving the wedge further between him and his young friends. The Prince reveals himself and confronts Falstaff. A messenger arrives from the king, looking for the Prince. Falstaff finally decides to go to recruit men when a second rebellion starts but accepts bribes from men who do not wish to be conscripted.
Meanwhile, the King is ailing. He envies those who can sleep because insomnia and a heavy conscience keep him awake. He delivers one of the most famous lines of the play, “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” Reflecting on his former friendship with Northumberland, he remembers his own crooked path to power: the way he attained the crown by the same kind of rebellion levied against him now. He desires to alleviate his guilt through a journey to the Holy Land.
In the field, the Machiavellian Prince John of Lancaster (Hal’s younger brother) engages with the rebels. He sends a message to the rebels that the king’s army is interested in parley, and he would like to hear and answer their grievances before battle commences. They arrange a meeting, and John promises to correct the wrongs and improve conditions, but he asks that the rebels disband their army and allow him to inspect it. Unfortunately, when word of a truce and disbandment spreads, the rebel army completely disburses. John dismisses some of his own armies but keeps the core intact. With the bulk of the rebel army gone, he orders the rebel leaders arrested for high treason and executed. His explains that his betrayal is part of his promise to bring peace and prosperity, by first removing agitators and rebels. This defeat is demoralizing to the rebel cause and the insurrection dies. Then John rides for the royal court where his father is gravely ill.
The king holds court with his sons. As he knows his end is near, he strives to ensure the bond between his four sons is absolute and that they will not turn on each other. He despairs to hear that Hal is in London with his disreputable friends, but Warwick assures him that things are not as they appear; Hal is merely studying his friends and the common people so he should know better how to rule them wisely, and tells the king that when the time comes, Hal will cast off such influences. The King disagrees, but the arrival of Westmoreland and John distract him with news of victory. The king has another spell and goes to lie down. Prince Hal visits his father. Henry makes peace with him and gives him advice for keeping the crown: bring civil peace to the country by giving it a foreign enemy. If the country is preoccupied with fighting wars abroad, they will not have the resources or energy to foment rebellion at home. At peace, the king dies.
Despite their assurances to the king that Hal is a good man and will be a good king, once he ascends the throne, the king’s brothers and court are nervous. The Chief Justice is resigned to a bad fate since he had made an enemy of the prince by exiling his companions. The new Henry V arrives, and the Chief Justice explains his reasons for his treatment of him when he was a Prince. In short, the Chief Justice had never been afraid to take the prince to task for his behavior, and he explains that it was his duty to protect the laws and image of the king. Henry V agrees with the Chief Justice and forgives him for it. Furthermore, when Falstaff comes to court thinking that Henry will advance him because of their friendship, the king says simply, “I know thee not, old man” and tells Falstaff to mend his behavior if he wants to be in the king’s favor. This is generally acknowledged to be one of the most important, and heartbreaking scenes in the play. Falstaff never makes it; the epilogue mentions that he dies of a sweat shortly after the play ends.