Study Guide

Henry IV Part 2 Power

By William Shakespeare

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God knows, I had no such intent,
But that necessity so bowed the state
That I and greatness were compelled to kiss— (3.1.73-75)

Gee, Henry IV sure has an interesting take on his deposition of King Richard II. Here, he maintains that he never intended to steal the crown from Richard when he returned from exile. (The deposition of Richard occurred in the first play of the tetralogy, Richard II. Henry has always claimed that he only confronted Richard because he wanted to recover his family's land, which Richard II stole after Henry's father, John of Gaunt, died.)

We're not surprised here when King Henry remembers his usurpation of the throne as a moment in which he was "compell'd" or, forced to "kiss" greatness. Henry seems to suggest that he was "compell'd" by forces greater than himself to dethrone Richard, who was a lousy king that jeopardized the commonwealth's well being. This paints Henry as being passive, as if he was an unwilling participant in the usurpation of the throne. Yet, at the same time, Henry's description of the usurpation as a moment where he "kissed" greatness seems to also hint at his own desire for the crown. Is this some kind of acknowledgement that he's not as innocent as he outwardly claims to be?

I know you all, and will awhile uphold
The unyoked humor of your idleness.
Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That, when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wondered at,
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapors that did seem to strangle him.
If all the year were playing holidays,
To sport would be as tedious as to work,
But when they seldom come, they wished-for come,
And nothing pleaseth but rare accidents.
So when this loose behavior I throw off
And pay the debt I never promisèd,
By how much better than my word I am,
By so much shall I falsify men's hopes;
And like bright metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation, glitt'ring o'er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
I'll so offend to make offence a skill,
Redeeming time when men think least I will. (Henry IV Part 1, 1.2.202-224)

Note: This passage is from Part 1 of Henry IV but we think it's worth repeating here because Hal's speech is so relevant to his path to kingship in Henry IV Part 2.

Up to this point in Henry IV Part 1, we've seen the prince carousing with his loser pals and we've also heard his father's complaints about Hal's "dishonourable" behavior. Here, Prince Hal turns to the audience and claims that he's not actually the degenerate he appears to be. Rather, he has merely been pretending to be a sordid wild child so that he can stage a dramatic "reformation" that will shock and amaze his countrymen (and his father) when he reveals himself to be a stand-up guy. In other words, Hal suggests that he's merely playing a "role" (that of a degenerate), which will act as a "foil" to his true nature.

Hal seems to realize that being an effective king requires strategy and what we now call public relations skills. (His father, King Henry IV, has already shown that a king can be knocked off his throne by unhappy and rebellious subjects.) As the man who stands to inherit the throne from his father, Prince Hal's got to figure out a way to keep his subjects in line.

Faith, it does me; though it discolors the complexion
of my greatness to acknowledge it. Doth it
not show vilely in me to desire small beer?
Why, a prince should not be so loosely studied
as to remember so weak a composition.
Belike then my appetite was not princely got,
for, by my troth, I do now remember the poor
creature small beer. But, indeed, these humble considerations
make me out of love with my greatness.
What a disgrace is it to me to remember thy name,
or to know thy face to-morrow, (2.2.4-14)

Recall that, in Henry IV Part 1, Prince Hal revealed to us his plan to carouse with the commoners in order to disguise his true nature. If the kingdom believed he was a wild child with a penchant for a low-brow lifestyle, then he would be able to stage a dramatic "reformation" that would stun and amaze his subjects when he finally became king.

Here, in Henry IV Part 2, it seems that Hal worries that he's becoming too much like the "role" he has been playing, as evidenced by his desire for "small beer" (the cheap, light beer favored by commoners, not princes). Hal knows that his taste for the low-life is inappropriate for a prince who will inherit the throne, as is his intimate friendship with Poins. Has Prince Hal's elaborate plot to stage his own "reformation" come back to bite him? Keep reading…

But I tell thee,
my heart bleeds inwardly that my father is so sick;
and keeping such vile company as thou art hath in
reason taken from me all ostentation of sorrow.
What wouldst thou think of me, if I should
I would think thee a most princely hypocrite.
It would be every man's thought, and thou art
a blessed fellow to think as every man thinks. Never
a man's thought in the world keeps the roadway
better than thine. Every man would think me an
hypocrite indeed. And what accites your most worshipful
thought to think so?
Why, because you have been so lewd and so
much engraffed to Falstaff. (2.2.43-48; 50-60)

In the previous passage we saw that Hal worries he's become too accustomed to the "wild prince" role he's been playing. In this passage, he describes another problem associated with his plot. Here, he suggests that he's become trapped in the role he's created for himself. He confesses to Poins that he's devastated by his father's illness – his "heart bleeds inwardly" – but he cannot show his true feelings in public because he's created a bad-boy reputation that everyone expects him to live up to. If Hal were to openly grieve for his father now, everyone would think he was a "hypocrite" and that his tears were disingenuous because he's spent so much time thumbing his nose at his father and hanging out with the likes of Falstaff.

Most subject is the fattest soil to weeds,
And he, the noble image of my youth,
Is overspread with them; therefore my grief
Stretches itself beyond the hour of death.
The blood weeps from my heart when I do shape,
In forms imaginary, th' unguided days
And rotten times that you shall look upon
When I am sleeping with my ancestors.
For when his headstrong riot hath no curb,
When rage and hot blood are his counsellors,
When means and lavish manners meet together,
O, with what wings shall his affections fly
Towards fronting peril and opposed decay! (4.4.59-71)

When King Henry IV learns that Hal is hanging out with Poins in London, he launches into a speech about how the kingdom is in for serious trouble when Hal inherits the throne. Henry compares Hal's base companions to an infestation of "weeds," which echoes an idea Shakespeare cultivates in Richard II and Henry IV Part 1. Here, as before, England is imagined as a ruined garden in a state of "decay." Later on (here in Part 2) Henry warns that when Hal is king, England will become a "wilderness" (4.5.137). (Tip: If you're interested in tracing this concept, check out "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory" in our guide to Henry IV Part 1.) We're also interested in the way Henry refers to Hal as the "noble image of [his] youth." It seems like Henry sees himself when he looks at his son, which may explain why he's so disappointed in Hal. Henry, as we know, was just as rebellious as Hal. Although Henry didn't consort with commoners, he did rebel against King Richard II.

My gracious lord, you look beyond him quite.
The prince but studies his companions
Like a strange tongue, wherein, to gain the
'Tis needful that the most immodest word
Be looked upon and learned; which once attained,
Your Highness knows, comes to no further use
But to be known and hated. So, like gross terms,
The prince will in the perfectness of time
Cast off his followers, and their memory
Shall as a pattern or a measure live,
By which his Grace must mete the lives of others,
Turning past evils to advantages. (4.4.72-84)

King Henry's advisor, Warwick, seems to know Prince Hal a lot better than the king does, wouldn't you say? After Henry IV complains about Hal keeping company with the likes of Ned Poins, Warwick insists that Hal associates with the commoners in order to "study" them (like a foreign "language") so that he'll be in a better position to rule his subjects when he's king. This, you may recall, is exactly what Hal suggests he's doing back in Henry IV Part 1 when he brags that he can "drink with any tinker in his own language" (Part 1, 2.4.18). Warwick assures the king that, when the "time" is right, the prince will "cast off his followers" and behave in a manner befitting his title. If Warwick recognizes this, why can't King Henry?

O, who shall believe
But you misuse the reverence of your place,
Employ the countenance and grace of heaven,
As a false favorite doth his prince's name,
In deeds dishonorable? You have ta'en up,
Under the counterfeited zeal of God,
The subjects of His substitute, my father,
And both against the peace of heaven and him
Have here up-swarmed them. (4.2.265-273)

When Prince John meets with the rebel leaders at Gaultree Forest, he chides the Archbishop of York (a.k.a. Scroop) for abusing his religious authority in order to lead a rebellion against King Henry IV. Prince John reminds York that the king is God's "substitute" on earth, which is a reference to a political theory know as the doctrine of "divine right." This doctrine says that kings are appointed by God to be his earthly representatives and therefore, subjects should never challenge the monarch's authority.

History Snack: There seems to be some topical relevance here. Queen Elizabeth I (who ruled England at the time this play was written) faced the Northern Rebellion of 1569, which was led by the Percy clan (relatives of the same rebellious Percies depicted in the Henry plays) and the Catholic Bishop of Ross. The rebels wanted to bump Elizabeth off the throne so they could install her Catholic cousin, Mary Stuart. The rebellion was quashed, and soon after, Elizabeth mandated that all churches in England read aloud a sermon (on a regular basis), called "Homily Against Disobedience and Willful Rebellion." Rebellion, according to the sermon was not only an act of treason, it was seen as a "great a sin against God."

Come hither, Harry, sit thou by my bed
And hear, I think, the very latest counsel
That ever I shall breathe.
                           The Prince rises from his knees and sits
                                                                    near the bed.

                                       God knows, my son,
By what bypaths and indirect crook'd ways
I met this crown, and I myself know well
How troublesome it sat upon my head.
To thee it shall descend with bitter quiet,
Better opinion, better confirmation,
For all the soil of the achievement goes
With me into the earth. It seemed in me
But as an honor snatched with boist'rous hand,
And I had many living to upbraid
My gain of it by their assistances,
Which daily grew to quarrel and to bloodshed,
Wounding supposèd peace. All these bold fears
Thou seest with peril I have answerèd,
For all my reign hath been but as a scene
Acting that argument. And now my death
Changes the mode; for what in me was purchased
Falls upon thee in a more fairer sort.
So thou the garland wear'st successively.
Yet, though thou stand'st more sure than I could do,
Thou art not firm enough, since griefs are green;
And all my friends, which thou must make thy friends,
Have but their stings and teeth newly ta'en out;
By whose fell working I was first advanced
And by whose power I well might lodge a fear
To be again displaced; which to avoid,
I cut them off and had a purpose now
To lead out many to the Holy Land,
Lest rest and lying still might make them look
Too near unto my state. Therefore, my Harry,
Be it thy course to busy giddy minds
With foreign quarrels, that action, hence borne
May waste the memory of the former days.
More would I, but my lungs are wasted so
That strength of speech is utterly denied me.
How I came by the crown, O God forgive,
And grant it may with thee in true peace live. (4.3.338-379)

King Henry IV's reconciliation with Prince Hal prompts him to dispense fatherly and political advice to his son, which, interestingly enough, leads into a kind of death-bed confession where Henry overtly acknowledges that his path to the crown was "crook'd."

It's clear in this passage that Henry blames his tumultuous reign on his usurpation of the throne – he sees his deposition of Richard II as a "soil[ed]" "achievement." Yet, he's also hopeful of the future because he believes that, since Prince Hal will inherit the crown by lineal succession, his son's reign will be recognized as more legitimate than his own and will, therefore, be much more stable. Still, Henry urges Hal to "busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels" when he is king. That is, he urges Hal to start a war on foreign soil as a way to distract both his friends and enemies from stirring up trouble for him at home. Henry also suggests that this is the real reason why he's always talked about leading a crusade to the Holy Land, which you can read more about by going to "Quotes" for "Warfare."

I then did use the person of your father;
The image of his power lay then in me.
And in th' administration of his law,
Whiles I was busy for the commonwealth,
Your highness pleasèd to forget my place,
The majesty and power of law and justice,
The image of the king whom I presented,
And struck me in my very seat of judgment,
Whereon, as an offender to your father,
I gave bold way to my authority
And did commit you. (5.2.74-84)

Once King Henry IV dies, the Lord Chief Justice must defend himself to Hal, who confronts the LCJ for once having Hal arrested and thrown in jail after the prince boxed the LCJ on the ears. Here, the Lord Chief Justice defends his actions as he explains that his job was to embody or represent the late king's "majesty and power of law and justice." Therefore, when Hal struck him, it was as though he was striking "the image of the king." In short, the Lord Chief Justice holds his ground and is unapologetic for doing his job. Hal's (a.k.a. King Henry V) response? Keep reading…

You are right, justice, and you weigh this well.
Therefore still bear the balance and the sword.
And I do wish your honors may increase
Till you do live to see a son of mine
Offend you and obey you as I did.
So shall I live to speak my father's words:
'Happy am I, that have a man so bold
That dares do justice on my proper son;
And not less happy, having such a son
That would deliver up his greatness so
Into the hands of justice.' You did commit me,
For which, I do commit into your hand
Th' unstained sword that you have used to bear,
With this remembrance, that you use the same
With the like bold, just and impartial spirit
As you have done 'gainst me. There is my hand.
                                                              They clasp hands.
You shall be as a father to my youth,
My voice shall sound as you do prompt mine ear,
And I will stoop and humble my intents
To your well-practiced wise directions.
And, princes all, believe me, I beseech you:
My father is gone wild into his grave,
For in his tomb lie my affections,
And with his spirit sadly I survive
To mock the expectation of the world,
To frustrate prophecies and to raze out
Rotten opinion, who hath writ me down
After my seeming. (5.2.103-130)

This is a major tuning point for Hal (a.k.a. Henry V), who embraces the Lord Chief Justice as a trusted advisor and a "father" figure. Hal insists that he has buried his "affections" (the "wild" behavior of his youth) along with his dead father. And, although Hal's father is dead and in his "grave," Hal says that Henry IV's "spirit" survives in him. Hal, then, is doing what he promised to do back in Henry IV Part 1. By adopting his father's "spirit" or persona, he's completing his staged "reformation" from errant prince to noble king. This seeming reformation will "mock the expectation[s] of the world," meaning, Hal is going to surprise everybody who expects him to be a degenerate monarch. (This, by the way, is a terrific passage for anyone who wants to think about the relationship between kingship and the theme of "Family," especially since the Lord Chief Justice has now replaced Falstaff as a surrogate father to Hal. See also 5.5 below.)

God save thee, my sweet boy!
My Lord Chief Justice, speak to that vain man.
Have you your wits? Know you what 'tis to
My king, my Jove, I speak to thee, my heart!
I know thee not, old man. Fall to thy prayers.
How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!
Reply not to me with a fool-born jest.
Presume not that I am the thing I was,
For God doth know—so shall the world perceive—
That I have turned away my former self.
So will I those that kept me company.
When thou dost hear I am as I have been,
Approach me, and thou shalt be as thou wast,
The tutor and the feeder of my riots.
Till then I banish thee, on pain of death,
As I have done the rest of my misleaders,
Not to come near our person by ten mile.
For competence of life I will allow you,
That lack of means enforce you not to evils.
And, as we hear you do reform yourselves,
We will, according to your strengths and qualities,
Give you advancement.   To the Lord Chief Justice.
   Be it your charge, my lord,
To see performed the tenor of our word.—
Set on. (5.5.42-48; 55-73)

In the previous passage, we saw Hal promise to embrace the Lord Chief Justice as a "father" figure and to abandon his former wild ways. As evidence of Hal's promise, he rejects his old "tutor and the feeder of [his] riots," Falstaff. If Hal's success as a king depends on his willingness and ability to uphold law and justice in his kingdom, then Falstaff (a thief, a swindler, a corrupt military recruiter, and so on) has no place in his life. This is why many literary critics see Hal's rejection of Falstaff as a necessary and shrewd political move. On the other hand, some critics argue that Hal's banishment of his old friend is an unforgivable betrayal, which doesn't bode well for his reign as king. What do you think?

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