Study Guide

Henry IV Part 2 What's Up With the Ending?

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What's Up With the Ending?

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.

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