The world of Henry IV Part 2 is much darker and more foreboding than that of Henry IV Part 1. This second part is full of images of disease and decay and is obsessed with the inevitable passage of time – King Henry IV is ailing and even Prince Hal, who must comes to terms with his father's illness and death, is weary.
While there are plenty of boisterous and comedic moments in the play – especially in the infamous tavern scenes where the commoners cut loose – even these episodes are overshadowed by a somber mood. Falstaff is as raucous as ever, but he also complains "I am old. I am old" (2.4.276). In one of the most painful moments in the tetralogy, the larger than life Falstaff, whose aging body is subject to disease in this play, is ultimately banished by his beloved Hal.
Literary critics refer to Henry IV Part I as a "history play," a genre that portrays English historical events (by which we mean, history according to Shakespeare) that resonate with current political issues, including matters of kingship, constitution, and rebellion. We also want to point out that it's easy to distinguish both parts of Henry IV from most other history plays because, in these two plays, Shakespeare blends the comedic antics of fictional characters (like Pistol, Falstaff, and Mistress Quickly) with the high matters of state that concern historical figures (like King Henry IV). Here's how this genre breaks down:
Portraying English historical events: The play covers the latter part of King Henry IV's reign and the coronation of his son, King Henry V, who was crowned in 1413. Of course, Shakespeare portrays history according to Shakespeare, which means the play sometimes strays from the "facts" and tweaks little bits of information that Shakespeare gathered from sources like Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles. Since Shakespeare is working with a five-act play, he tends to compress time, which is no big deal since the play doesn't pretend to be a history textbook. This play, along with Henry IV Part I, is primarily interested in how English history shapes the present, which brings us to our next point.
Historical events resonate with current political issues, including matters of kingship, constitution, and rebellion: When we say "current" political issues, we mean around the 1590s, when the Henry plays were written. The drama surrounding Hal's succession to the throne, for example, dramatizes the anxieties that Elizabethans likely felt as their unmarried monarch, Queen Elizabeth I, was aging and didn't have an heir to take over when she died.
Spicin' up "History" with a little fiction: Like we said, Shakespeare blends his portrayal of historical figures with some fun fictional characters like Falstaff, Mistress Quickly, Pistol, and the rest of the rowdy Eastcheap gang. This was a pretty nervy thing to do at the time. "Mingling kings and clowns" on stage was sort of frowned upon, especially by the famous poet Sir Phillip Sidney.
The title is pretty straightforward. We know we're getting the second installment of a play that covers the reign of King Henry IV.
The titles of Shakespeare's plays weren't always so simple. If we were to pick up one of the first published editions of the play, we'd get a lot more information. Elizabethan publishers were always taking it upon themselves to add a little something extra to spice up title pages. The 1600 Quarto, for example, reads like this:
Second part of Henrie
the fourth, continuing to his death,
and coronation of Henrie
With the humours of sir John Fal-
staffe, and Swaggering
As it hath been sundrie times publikely
acted by the right honourable, the Lord
Chamberlaine his servants
Written by William Shakespeare
You can check out the original by clicking here.
This extra information could be useful, don't you think? It looks like Henry IV's reign is coming to an end here and his son, Henry V, is going to take over. Hmm. The death of a king and the installation of a new one? Sounds pretty dramatic. Come to think of it, the matter of kingly succession would have been especially relevant for English audiences in 1600 (when this edition was printed) because the unmarried and childless Queen Elizabeth I (b. 1533 - d.1603) was pretty old by this time and had no heir to inherit the throne.
On the other hand, if we're worried things will get a little too heavy, the title page also promises that we're in for some serious fun – who wouldn't love the "humours" of Falstaff and the antics of the "swaggering" Pistol? (We saw Part 1 and Falstaff was hilarious. By the way, if you haven't checked out Shmoop's guide to Henry IV Part 1, you should.)
So, we know by now that the play is going to mix some "high" historical matters of state with some "low" comedic antics involving fictional characters, just like Henry IV Part 1. We're also told that the play has been popular on stage and was performed by the Lord Chamberlain's Men. (Psst. That's the name of theater company Shakespeare belonged to for most of his career. The name was later changed to the King's Men when James I was crowned King of England in 1603, becoming the company's official patron.) Who knew you could learn so much about a play just by reading a title?
Spoiler alert! We took a sneak peek at the play's ending and it's awfully dramatic. Remember when Hal and Falstaff performed a skit at the Boar's Head Tavern in Act 2, Scene 4 of Henry IV Part 1? Hal played the role of "King Henry" and when Falstaff pretend-begged him not to "banish plump Jack," Hal coldly replied "I do. I will." Well, apparently, Hal wasn't messing around. At the end of Part 2, Hal makes good on his promise to banish Falstaff by publicly rejecting his old chum. To add insult to injury, Hal orders Falstaff to stay at least ten miles away from him and then sends the Lord Chief Justice (Hal's new BFF and advisor) to lock up Falstaff and his rowdy crew in Fleet Prison. Ouch! Even though we know this moment is coming, it's still painful and Hal doesn't even flinch, which seems pretty cold. Yet, it seems necessary for Hal to break all ties with Falstaff if he's going to show the world he's taking this whole "being a responsible monarch" thing seriously. By publicly banishing Falstaff, Hal demonstrates that he really has changed his ways and is more than capable of restoring and upholding civil order in England. Now everyone in the audience can go home and get a good night's sleep knowing that order has been restored, right?
Not so fast. After the last scene, one of the actors (probably the guy who played Falstaff) runs back out on stage to deliver an Epilogue (a final speech). In addition to the usual kind of over the top apology we see in Elizabethan Epilogues (i.e., "We're sorry that our play was so very lousy but we sincerely hope you'll be kind enough to give us your applause anyway, even though we don't deserve it…"), the speech also promises that Shakespeare will "continue the story with Sir John in it." In other words, the Epilogue promises that Falstaff, who was (and still is) a crowd favorite, will live on.
There's also a disclaimer about the original name that was given to Falstaff's character in Henry IV Part 1, which was "Sir John Oldcastle." (The descendants of the historical Sir John Oldcastle weren't happy that Shakespeare's fat, disgraceful knight was named after their relative so Shakespeare had to change the name to "Falstaff.") The Epilogue says, "Oldcastle died a martyr and this is not the man." At this point, the Epilogue sounds sincere. But then, after the speech, the speaker does a "jig," which is basically a bawdy little dance number. (Think Will Ferrell meets Dirty Dancing.) The jig is a rebellious thing to do and it tends to unravel the play's tidy restoration of political and social order. In other words, Hal may have banished Falstaff, but the larger than life character can hardly be contained.
While it seems that Shakespeare had every intention of including Falstaff in the play that follows, Henry V, Falstaff, sadly, never actually appears as a character in the play. Instead, we hear that Falstaff has died (somewhere off-stage). Some literary critics speculate that Shakespeare scrapped his plans to include Falstaff because the actor who played the role, Will Kemp, left Shakespeare's theater company. Other critics say that another actor could have just as easily played the role but there was nothing for Falstaff to do in Henry V since he had already been banished.
The play is set in England at the end of King Henry IV's reign. Henry IV, by the way, ruled England from 1399 to 1413. In the play, Shakespeare condenses events from the last few years of Henry's reign into a very brief amount of time (less than a month).
Like Henry IV Part 1, Shakespeare does a lot of maneuvering between the "low" world of the commoners and the "high" world of the nobility in Henry IV Part 2. The three main settings of the play are the court, Eastcheap London, and Gloucestershire.
The world of the court is somber and intense. The palace is where King Henry IV deals with weighty issues like civil rebellion and his tumultuous relationship with his son, Prince Hal. The mood here is especially somber because the king is very ill. In fact, the king spends a lot of his time laid up in bed (not getting any sleep), where he eventually dies. In other words, the court isn't exactly the happiest place on earth.
The world of Eastcheap (a busy market street in a seedy London neighborhood), on the other hand, is where a lot of raucous activity (drinking, brawling, prostitution, gambling, etc.) goes down. (This, by the way, is just the kind of neighborhood were one could catch a Big Willy Shakespeare play in Elizabethan London.) Eastcheap is also where the Boar's Head Tavern is located, which means it's where Falstaff and company get rowdy. (Think Spring Break 1599 with knife fights and clever word play.) Basically, Eastcheap is associated with excess and civil disorder. We also want to point out that, even though Henry IV Part 2 is set in 1413, Eastcheap looks and feels a lot like England's colorful commercial district in the 1590's (that's when Shakespeare wrote the play). Critic Jean E. Howard notes that characters drink imported sweet wine, refer to clothing worn by Elizabethans, and make references to popular Elizabethan plays.
In Henry IV Part 2, Shakespeare also takes us through Gloucestershire, where Falstaff visits Justice Shallow and recruits soldiers for the army. The world of Gloucestershire is interesting insofar as it offers a glimpse into country life, a world that's far different than the hustle and bustle of London and the somber court. Here, Justice Shallow hangs out with his longtime friend, Justice Silence, where the men enjoy the middle class comforts of country living, which, apparently, involves eating lots of apples and discussing the price of livestock. Some literary critics say that Shakespeare sets out to portray the charms and simplicity of country life in the Gloucestershire scenes. In 1928, however, critic G.B. Harrison was one of the first scholars to point out that Gloucestershire was notorious for military recruiting scandals in the 1590s. This might be what Shakespeare had in mind when he decided to send Falstaff there to recruit (and take bribes from) potential soldiers.
If you're reading Henry IV Part 2, then you've probably already read Henry IV Part 1 so, Shakespeare's Elizabethan language should be getting a whole lot easier to manage by now (especially if you've also read Richard II, which is the first play in the tetralogy). You've also probably noticed that the story line is a heck of a lot easier to follow than the more complex plotlines in Part 1. So, you've got that going for you.
Reading any one of Shakespeare's plays can feel like reading a really lengthy poem and that's because they're written in a combination of verse (poetry) and prose (how we talk every day). We break all of this down in the paragraphs that follow but here's what you should remember about Shakespeare's plays. The nobility tend to speak in "blank verse," which is a formal way to talk. The commoners or, "Everyday Joes" tend to speak just like we do, in regular prose. (Note: The play Richard II is the one exception to this rule – it's the only Shakespeare play written entirely in verse – even the gardeners speak poetry.)
In Henry IV noble characters typically speak in iambic pentameter. (However, Prince Hal has a tendency to speak in regular prose, especially when he hangs out with the commoners so, you'll want to keep an eye on when and where he alters his speech style.) Don't let the fancy name intimidate you, iambic pentameter is simple once you get the hang of it.
An "iamb" is an unaccented syllable followed by an accented one. "Penta" means "five," and "meter" refers to a regular rhythmic pattern. So "iambic pentameter" is a kind of rhythmic pattern that consist of five iambs per line. It's the most common rhythm in English poetry and sounds like five heartbeats:
ba-DUM, ba-DUM, ba-DUM, ba-DUM, ba-DUM.
Let's try it out on this line, where King Henry IV complains about his sleepless nights:
unEAsy LIES the HEAD that WEARS the CROWN
Every second syllable is accented (stressed) so this is classic iambic pentameter.
Over half of Henry IV Part 2 is written in prose and this has a lot to do with the fact that Shakespeare introduces so many "low" or common characters in the play. That being said, their language is far from boring. Falstaff and the rowdy Eastcheap crew tend to talk in a bawdy way with lots of punning and double entendres. If King Henry IV (who we have already established speaks mostly iambic pentameter) talks in a formal way that's befitting his position as a monarch, then the commoners speak in a way that's just as raucous and out of control as they are. Want an example? Go to "Steaminess Rating."
The crown is always a visual symbol of a monarch's power but in Henry IV Part 2 it comes to mean even more. Let's take a look at a few significant moments where the crown comes into play. First, we want to think about the moment when King Henry IV refers to his crown when he tells us how exhausted he has become. When he says "Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown" (3.1.1), he makes it sound as if the crown is so heavy and uncomfortable that it prevents him from getting any sleep. Of course, Henry doesn't actually wear his crown to bed. The "crown" is a metaphor for the king's weighty responsibilities and the burden that comes with his power. In other words, the pressures of kingship keep the guy awake at night.
When Prince Hal visits his father and blames "the crown" for Henry's illness, he implies something similar to what King Henry says.
Why doth the crown lie there upon his pillow,
Being so troublesome a bedfellow?
O polish'd perturbation! golden care!
That keep'st the ports of slumber open wide
To many a watchful night! (4.5.5)
Prince Hal addresses the object as though it's literally responsible for his father's exhaustion. He calls it a "troublesome bedfellow" that keeps his father awake at night. Here too, Hal is using the crown as a metaphor for the burden of kingship.
Soon after, Hal takes the crown (prematurely) when he mistakenly thinks his father has died. When King Henry awakens from his nap and figures out what's happened, Hal's possession of the crown seems to be evidence that Hal wants his father dead. "Thy life did manifest thou loved'st me not," says Henry, "And thou wilt have me die assured of it" (4.5.4). For King Henry, Hal's possession of the crown represents a lifetime of Hal's disobedience, selfish desire for power, and hatred of his father.
Of course, we know that Henry fails to recognize that his son cares for him deeply but, we also wonder if there isn't just a bit of truth in Henry's claim. (Shakespeare will later explore a similar situation in King Lear, where Gloucester's son, Edmund, wants to kill his father.) When Hal returns the crown and father and son reconcile, the crown is not just a symbol of political power or responsibility, but of the complicated father-son relationship that builds tension throughout the both parts of Henry IV. If you're interested in exploring this further, check out our discussions of "Family" and "Power."
You've probably noticed that there are frequent references to swelling bodies of water in the play – especially flooding rivers and rising ocean tides. Come to think of it, most of these references are related to rebellion and disorder, which makes a whole lot of sense, given that rebellions and bodies of water can be dangerous and destructive when they "rise" up and breach set boundaries.
So, when one of the rebel leaders (Northumberland), shouts "Now let not nature's hand / Keep the wild flood confined! Let order die!" (1.1.12), he's calling for a great surge of rebels to rise up against King Henry IV, an authority figure that's supposed to keep the rabble in check. Northumberland is also furious because he's just learned that his son has been killed by Prince Hal so, we can also think of a "wild flood" as an apt metaphor for Northumberland's rage (expressed here in his powerful language), which is literally spilling out of him at this moment.
Another significant reference to swelling waters occurs when Hal promises his brothers and the Lord Chief Justice that the wild days of his youth are a thing of the past.
The tide of blood in me
Hath proudly flow'd in vanity till now:
Now doth it turn and ebb back to the sea,
Where it shall mingle with [the sea]
And flow henceforth in formal majesty. (5.2.4)
Here, Hal associates his rebellious past with a flowing "tide." This is an interesting association because it seems to align his unruly behavior (carousing with the commoners, stealing, thumbing his nose at his father's authority, etc.) with Northumberland's civil rebellion. This isn't so surprising, given that Shakespeare makes so many parallels between Hal's unruliness and civil rebellion throughout both parts of Henry IV. The difference between Hal and Northumberland, however, is that Hal also says here that he's prepared to leave his riotous past behind him (the "tide" will "ebb back to the sea"), while Northumberland makes no such comparable statement.
So, we've clearly established that floods and tides are associated with rebellion. The thing about floods and tides is that they're also a very natural phenomenon. Does this mean that Hal's rebellion against his father and the rebels' civil revolt is natural and/or to be expected? If so, does the play also suggest that after a flood/rebellion, it's also only natural that the waters recede/rebels go back to being obedient subjects? What do you think?
In the first two plays in the tetralogy, Richard II and Henry IV Part 1, Shakespeare establishes the idea that England is a ruined garden. In Richard II, the realm is portrayed as a kind of fallen Eden that's been destroyed by King Richard's bad policies (Richard II, 2.1.). In Henry IV Part 1, Hotspur describes how the Percy family helped Henry depose King Richard II when they "put down Richard, that sweet lovely rose, / An plant[ed] this thorn, this canker, Bolingbroke" (1.3.7). By suggesting King Henry IV (formerly called Henry Bolingbroke) is a "thorn" and then a "canker" Hotspur imagines England as a garden that's on the cusp of ruin and decay. (We're noticing a trend here – lousy kings are like lousy gardeners.)
So, we're not surprised when we get to Henry IV Part 2, where the Archbishop of York uses the same analogy to explain why Henry won't punish the rebel leaders:
[…] for full well he knows
He cannot so precisely weed this land
As his misdoubts present occasion:
His foes are so enrooted with his friends
That, plucking to unfix an enemy,
He doth unfasten so and shake a friend. (4.1.10)
In other words, if Henry executes his enemies (the rebel "weeds"), he'll probably end up harming some of his cherished allies as well because political relationships in England are so complicated. (Hmm. Is the Archbishop admitting that his rebellious activity is destroying England?) King Henry says something similar when he complains that Prince Hal's rowdy friends are like "weeds" that have sprung up in rich "soil" as a way of explaining how the unsavory friendships Hal has cultivated are corrupting the young prince (4.4.8).
So, what's up with all the garden imagery? Well, Shakespeare seems interested in conveying just how vulnerable England (and its leaders) can be to corruption and decay. Like a garden, the country must be carefully tended if it's going to flourish. That's just for starters. There's a whole lot more to say about this so go ahead and get your hands dirty.
In the play's "Induction" (prologue) a figure wearing a robe "painted full of tongues" steps onto the stage. This figure is not a human character – it's a personification of rumor or, hearsay – the kinds of stories that are circulated without any confirmation or certainty. In other words, Shakespeare takes an abstract concept, rumor, and gives it human characteristics. ("Rumour" is typically played by an actor who also has another role in the play though, we've seen productions where a bunch of actors come on stage – wearing scary costumes "painted full of tongues" – and deliver Rumour's speech in unison.)
OK, now that we know what Rumour is, we need to think about what Rumour does and why it matters. Rumour says it's come to "stuff" men's ears full of lies about the recent war between the king's forces and the rebel army. That's just what happens in the play's opening scene, where Northumberland receives contradictory information about the outcome of the battle at Shrewsbury.
Rumour also tips us off that there's going to be a whole lot of outright deception and lying up in this play – Falstaff's swindling of Mistress Quickly, Prince John's deception of the rebel leaders at Gaultree Forest, and so on.
We also want to point out that Prince Hal, who has created a complete persona or disguise ("wild Prince Hal") has prompted the entire kingdom to gossip and speculate about the kind of king he will become when he inherits the throne. When Hal finally reveals his true nature in the play's final scenes, he "mock[s] the expectation[s] of the world" and defies all the rumors and speculation about his character.
You probably noticed that the play is full of references to disease, decay, and illness. Lucky for you we discuss this in our section on major "Themes." If you're interested, you can read all about it by going to "Quotes" for "Weakness."
If we follow Prince Hal's trajectory throughout Richard II and Henry IV Part 1 and Part 2, we can see that Hal's story fits into what Christopher Booker calls the "Voyage and Return" plot. So, here goes: Born into a noble family, Hal was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. When his father becomes King Henry IV (in Richard II), Hal doesn't behave like a prince. Instead, he spends all his time (in Henry IV Part 1) carousing with low-life criminals in Eastcheap London.
Hanging out with his new loser friends sure beats spending time at the stuffy old court, especially when Hal gets to do fun stuff like participate in the highway robbery of his father's treasury. But, here's where Prince Hal's story complicates Booker's outline of the "Voyage and Return" plot. Hal tells us that he's not a degenerate – he's only pretending to be one so he can stage a dramatic "reformation" that will enhance his future career as a monarch. In other words, Prince Hal is going to stage his very own "Voyage and Return." So, for now, he'll pretend to be a wild child and later, when he's king, he'll behave like his true self, which will endear him to his subjects.
In Henry IV Part 2, Hal says he's grown tired of playing the role of the wayward son. His father is sick and he feels bad about it. Yet, he can't display his grief in public because everyone expects him to be a bad boy. Woe is Hal. Whatever will he do?
Hal's father has never understood why the prince hangs out with commoners and he also thinks his son wishes he, Henry IV, was dead. So, when Prince Hal tries on his dad's crown (after mistakenly assuming that his sleeping father is dead), the king blows up and tells Hal what a rotten kid he is. Poor Hal, if only his father knew the truth…
With Henry IV on his deathbed, Hal takes the opportunity to confess that he loves his father and wants to be a good king. After Hal and Henry make nice, Henry dies and Hal is named King Henry V. This happens just in time because Hal was getting tired of the whole "good-for-nothing prince" routine. Good-bye Eastcheap slums and hello royal palace.
Even though the king's forces enjoyed a victory against the rebels at the battle at Shrewsbury back in Henry IV Part 1, there are still a few dissenters, led by the Archbishop of York, and they're causing a lot of trouble. Also, King Henry hasn't been feeling well lately and he's still worried about what will happen when his son, Prince Hal, inherits the throne.
Even though Prince Hal saved his old man's life at the battle at Shrewsbury back in Henry IV Part 1, King Henry still thinks Hal's a loser, especially since Hal is still hanging out with Ned Poins, a rowdy commoner. In the meantime, Prince John arrests the rebel leaders so the only thing left to worry about is whether or not Prince Hal will reconcile with his father and be a responsible king.
Thinking his father has died in his sleep, Hal makes off with the crown. Whoops, that was not a good call. Things get awkward when the king wakes up from his nap and figures out what's happened. In fact, it seems like all of Henry's worst fears are confirmed by Hal's actions and he accuses his son of wanting him dead so he can be king.
After his father lays into him, Hal delivers a moving speech that finally convinces his father that 1) Hal loves him and 2) Hal wants to be a good king. The reconciliation between father and son happens just in time because shortly after they resolve their differences, King Henry dies (off-stage) and we hear about it from Warwick, who says that Henry has "walked the way of nature" (5.2.5).
Now that King Henry IV is dead, the Lord Chief Justice (the old king's main man and upholder of the law), along with just about everybody else, is pretty stressed out about his future under the new king. That's because, back in the day, the LCJ threw the wild prince in the slammer for misbehaving. Now that the very same prince is the King of England, things could possibly get ugly. Turns out, though, that Hal's committed to being a stand-up monarch. He embraces the LCJ as a "father" and says he's ready to uphold the law of the land.
In one of the play's most painful moments, Hal comes face to face with his old friend, who is an inappropriate companion for the monarch now that Hal has "turned away from [his] former self" (5.5.61). In other words, the king is no longer "wild Prince Hal" and must behave accordingly. When Falstaff (who has lined up on the street to catch a glimpse of the newly crowned King Henry V) eagerly greets his old friend, Hal says "I know thee not, old man. Fall to thy prayers" (5.5.47). Ouch! Hal then banishes Falstaff and orders him to stay at least 10 miles away from him. In doing so, Hal makes a statement to the world that he's a changed man.
Now that Hal's "reformation" is complete, Shakespeare turns his attention to what will happen in the final installment of the tetralogy. Prince John predicts that before the year is over, England will be at war with another nation. (FYI: In Henry V, the newly crowned King of England claims the French throne and invades France.) The end of the play, then, is more of a "to be continued" than a final conclusion.
King Henry IV is gravely ill, mostly because he's worn out by the civil rebellion that's plagued his reign and also because he's spent so much time worrying about his wild child son, Prince Hal, who is heir to the throne. Prince John squashes the rebel uprising in a surprisingly easy and anticlimactic moment but, King Henry faints when he hears the news of Prince John's victory. Plus, he's still at odds with Hal.
Prince Hal rushes home to his father's bedside, where he watches sadly as his ailing father sleeps. Thinking dear old dad has gone to heaven, Hal makes off with the crown. Then, surprise! King Henry wakes up and goes off on his rotten, good for nothing son. Hal explains that his dad's got it all wrong – he loves his father and promises to be a good king when Henry does die, which is going to happen sooner rather than later. All is forgiven and then…Henry dies.
Now that King Henry's dead, everyone stresses about what kind of King Hal will be. Is he going to run the kingdom into the ground? It turns out there's nothing to worry about because Hal embraces the Lord Chief Justice as a trusted advisor and a "father" figure who will guide him as he rules England. When Falstaff shows up to celebrate Hal's coronation, the newly crowned King Henry V publicly banishes him, showing once and for all that Hal is not messing around. Hal is taking this whole king thing very seriously, starting with his plans to wage war against France, which we can read all about in the play's sequel, Henry V.