Written by William Shakespeare between 1596 and 1599, Henry IV Part 2 is a history play that continues the story of the reign of King Henry IV, ending with his death and the succession of his son, King Henry V (a.k.a. Hal). In the play, Prince Hal comes to terms with his father's death and prepares to leave behind his rowdy old friends before becoming the king who will uphold justice and restore civil order in England.
The play is part of a tetralogy (four plays), which is also known as the "Henriad," a cycle of plays that span the reigns of King Richard II, King Henry IV, and Henry V. (Henry IV Part 2 is preceded by Richard II and Henry IV Part 1 and is followed by Henry V.)
Shakespeare's main source for the play is Raphael Holinshed's history Chronicles and an early play of unknown authorship called The Famous Victories of Henry V. Shakespeare may have also borrowed from Samuel Daniel's poem "The Civil Wars."
Both Henry IV Part 1 and Part 2 weave together "high" historical matters of state and the comedic and fictional antics of characters like Falstaff and Mistress Quickly. The wild tavern scenes and the original character, Falstaff, are among the most beloved and written about issues in literary history.
The play was written during the latter part of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and many of its themes and concerns resonate with late 16th century political concerns, particularly the anxiety revolving around the question of succession. The commonwealth wondered what would happen when Queen Elizabeth I died – she was advanced in age by 1597 and had no children to inherit the crown.
Why should you care about Henry IV Part 1 and Part 2? The real question is "Why shouldn't you care?" First, they are the very first history plays to blend rowdy comedy and historical drama. High matters of state mingled with low-brow mayhem and carousing? Nothin' wrong with that. Plus, Henry IV Part 1 introduces one of the greatest and most talked about comedic figures of all time: Falstaff, who has inspired everything from Verdi's opera to the name of a U.S. brewing company. (You know you're in for a really good time when you attend a play that's got a character with beer named after him.) The play's also the inspiration for some seriously important cult classic films, like Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho and Orson Welles's Chimes at Midnight.
Still not impressed? Fine. We'll fall back on the old standard and talk about how the play's concerned with themes that are still relevant today: rebellion, power, honor, warfare, family drama, redemption, and our personal favorite, growing up. Let's focus on that last one.
When it comes down to it, the Henry IV plays are a coming-of-age story about Prince Hal, who's got to figure out a way to grow up in the public spotlight with a seriously judgmental father breathing down his neck. (Come on, the kid's dad has been running around saying he wishes Hal had been switched at birth by fairies and that God sent the Hal to earth just to punish the king for his past sins. That's so brutal.) While most of us have no idea what it's like to be a prince who's expected to change his wild ways and prepare to lead a country that's troubled by civil war, we all know what it's like to negotiate the pitfalls of adolescence and the pressures of outside scrutiny (whether it's under the watchful eye of hopeful parents, strict teachers, coaches, or peers).
Like Prince Hal, we've all made mistakes, and most of us also know what it's like to feel as though we've disappointed or let down those whose opinions matter the most. So, imagine all that pressure you've felt over the years and multiply it by an entire, war-torn kingdom that's pinned all its hopes and dreams for the future on you. That's a whole lot of pressure. Even if we think Prince Hal sometimes acts like a brat, we can't help but root for him. So, what do you think? Is it fair to say that Shakespeare gets this whole growing up thing? We kind of thought you'd see it our way.