Study Guide

Henry IV Part 2 Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By William Shakespeare

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

The Crown

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."

Swelling Waters

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?

Weeds

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.

Rumour

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.

Disease and Illness

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."

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