Study Guide

Henry IV Part 2 Time

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Do you set down your name in the scroll
of youth, that are written down old with all the
characters of age? Have you not a moist eye, a dry
hand, a yellow cheek, a white beard, a decreasing
leg, an increasing belly? Is not your voice broken,
your wind short, your chin double, your wit single,
and every part about you blasted with antiquity?
and will you yet call yourself young? Fie, fie, fie, Sir
John. (1.2.181-189)

The Lord Chief Justice chides Falstaff for referring to himself as a "youth." Although Falstaff insists on his youthful zest for life throughout both parts of Henry IV, his body tells quite a different story. As the LCJ points out, Falstaff's got a "white beard," a fat "belly," an old man's cracked "voice," and sallow looking skin. We also know that just a few moments before Falstaff's confrontation with the Lord Chief Justice, he discussed the recent urine sample he gave his doctor and his Page joked that the doctor said Falstaff's body is riddled with disease. (Check out "Quotes" for "Weakness" if you want to know more about this.) So, Falstaff knows better than anyone that he's no longer a young man. The LCJ doesn't understand that Falstaff is being ironic when he refers to himself as being in the "vanguard of [his] youth." Later, in fact, Falstaff will notoriously exclaim "I am old, I am old" (2.4.265). So, Shakespeare goes out of his way to show us that even the larger than life Falstaff is subject to the ravages of time, a move which lends itself to the play's melancholy tone.

We are time's subjects, and time bids begone. (1.3.116)

As Mowbray and Hastings prepare to gather their rebel forces against the king, Hastings notes that they are "time's subjects." In other words, there's no time to waste if the rebels are going to wage a successful rebellion against King Henry so they better get a move on.

Yet, we can also read these poignant lines as emblematic of the play's obsession with the passage of time. We've already seen that Falstaff (Prince Hal's rowdy and out of control friend) is time's "subject." (See 1.2.110 above.) Even the rebels (Mowbray, Hastings, York, etc.), who refuse to be the king's literal "subjects," are helpless against the power of time. The play also reminds us that King Henry, who spends most of the play on his death bed, is powerless to the passage of time. So, even though Hastings may not be aware of the implications of what he says to Mowbray in this passage, his words are arguable one of the most poignant lines in the play.

Had my sweet Harry had but half their numbers,
Today might I, hanging on Hotspur's neck,
Have talked of Monmouth's grave. (2.3.43-45)

Lady Percy insists that if Northumberland's troops had fought at Shrewsbury, her dear Hotspur would be alive today. Henry IV Part II is full of poignant moments just like this one. Characters frequently look on the past and try to imagine what the present and the future would be like if things had only been different.

Ha, cousin Silence, that thou hadst seen that that
this knight and I have seen!—Ha, Sir John, said
I well?
We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master
That we have, that we have, that we have. In
faith, Sir John, we have. Our watchword was 'Hem,
boys.' Come, let's to dinner, come, let's to dinner.
Jesus, the days that we have seen! Come, come. (3.2.218-226)

As Silence and Shallow enthusiastically recall the heady days of their youth, Falstaff agrees that, yes, they have "heard the chimes at midnight." Falstaff's words are poignant but he's also somewhat dismissive of these two men. Later, he complains that old men are the biggest "liars." He says "This / same starved justice hath done nothing to prate to / me of the wildness of his youth, and the feats he / hath done about Turnbull Street: and every third / word a lie" (3.2.293-296). Falstaff points out that old men often misremember the past and inject the days of their youth with a glory that wasn't actually there.

Brain snack: Falstaff's famous line lends itself to the title of Orson Welles's study of Falstaff's character, Chimes at Midnight, You can watch Welles's film adaptation of this scene on YouTube.

By heaven, Poins, I feel me much to blame
So idly to profane the precious time
When tempest of commotion, like the south
Borne with black vapor, doth begin to melt
And drop upon our bare unarmèd heads.—
Give me my sword and cloak.— Falstaff, good
night. (2.4.368-374)

As King Henry IV lay ill and the rebel forces gather against the king, Prince Hal expresses guilt for wasting time in a seedy tavern with commoners. His father doesn't have much time to live so Hal is running out of opportunities to come to terms with the king.

We can't help but notice the way this passage recalls Henry IV Part 1, where Hal says "I'll so offend, to make offence a skill; / Redeeming time when men think least I will" (1.2.214-215). In other words, Prince Hal, who wastes his time carousing with the commoners in Part 1, insists that his reformation (from a wild prince to a responsible monarch) will redeem the actions of his misspent youth. Here, in Part 2, however, Hal seems to be growing impatient and weary.

O God, that one might read the book of fate
And see the revolution of the times
Make mountains level, and the continent,
Weary of solid firmness, melt itself
Into the sea, and other times, to see
The beachy girdle of the ocean
Too wide for Neptune's hips; how chances mocks
And changes fill the cup of alteration
With divers liquors!  (3.1.45-53)

This is one of the most pessimistic speeches in the play. Here, King Henry IV is full of despair. He sees the future as inevitably "fat[ed]" for apocalyptic ruin, where the mountains are leveled and the land "melts" into the sea. As he imagines a young man reading the "book of fate" and then giving up all hope of the future by sitting "down" to "die," he seems to be talking about himself. Although Henry is certainly no longer a "youth," he seems, like the young man in his story, to have given up all hope as he approaches his death. The speech continues below.

'Tis not 'ten years gone
Since Richard and Northumberland, great friends,
Did feast together, and in two years after
Were they at wars. It is but eight years since
This Percy was the man nearest my soul,
Who like a brother toiled in my affairs
And laid his love and life under my foot,
Yea, for my sake, even to the eyes of Richard
Gave him defiance. But which of you was by—
[To Warwick.] You, cousin Nevil, as I may

King Henry IV looks on his past with regret. Northumberland and King Richard II, he recalls, were friends once. There was also a time when he and Northumberland (his enemy now) were close. Northumberland was like a "brother" to Henry and played an instrumental role in his usurpation of the throne from Richard II. Is Henry feeling guilty for his part in the rebellion against King Richard? His speech continues below…

When Richard, with his eye brimful of tears,
Then checked and rated by Northumberland,
Did speak these words, now proved a prophecy?
'Northumberland, thou ladder by the which
My cousin Bolingbroke ascends my throne'—
'The time shall come,' thus did he follow it,
'The time will come that foul sin, gathering head,
Shall break into corruption'—so went on,
Foretelling this same time's condition
And the division of our amity. (3.1.68-72; 76-80)

King Henry recalls a moment (from Richard II) where Richard predicted that Northumberland and Henry would eventually be at odds. Henry is convinced that Richard had prophetic powers and was able to see into the future.

Note: In case you want to do some comparison, here's the passage from Richard II where Richard tells Northumberland that he and Henry (called Bolingbroke before he was crowned king) would have a falling out. Notice, Henry is nowhere around when Richard speaks these lines. It's possible he heard about Richard's speech from someone else.

Northumberland, thou ladder wherewithal
The mounting Bolingbroke ascends my throne,
The time shall not be many hours of age
More than it is ere foul sin gathering head
Shalt break into corruption: thou shalt think,
Though he divide the realm and give thee half,
It is too little, helping him to all;
And he shall think that thou, which know'st the way
To plant unrightful kings, wilt know again,
Being ne'er so little urged, another way
To pluck him headlong from the usurped throne.
The love of wicked men converts to fear;
That fear to hate, and hate turns one or both
To worthy danger and deserved death. (Richard II, 5.1.3)

There is a history in all men's lives
Figuring the nature of the times deceased,
The which observed, a man may prophesy,
With a near aim, of the main chance of things
As yet not come to life, which in their seeds
And weak beginnings lie intreasurèd.
Such things become the hatch and brood of time,
And by the necessary form of this,
King Richard might create a perfect guess
That great Northumberland, then false to him,
Would of that seed grow to a greater falseness,
Which should not find a ground to root upon
Unless on you. (3.1.81-93)

In the previous passage (Henry's speech at 3.1 above), we heard King Henry IV describe the late Richard II as a man with prophetic powers who accurately foretold how Northumberland would rebel against Henry. The ever practical Warwick, however, isn't buying this and sets out to disprove the idea that anyone could have prophetic powers. He says that by "observ[ing]" the past, one can accurately predict what the future might hold. King Richard II, he says, predicted that Northumberland would turn against King Henry IV because Northumberland had already proved himself to be a traitor to one king. (In other words, there's nothing supernatural about it.) Warwick insists that events from the past are like "seeds" that develop naturally into future events. Richard II, then, didn't have any special powers. He simply made a logical deduction or, a "perfect guess."

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)

Henry IV has no confidence in his son's ability to rule England. When King Henry hears that Prince Hal is spending his time in the low company of men like Ned Poins, he says his "blood" weeps from [his] heart" when he envisions the "rotten times" that lay ahead. King Henry imagines that, once he's dead and gone, an out of control Hal will "fly" uncontrollably and inevitably toward "peril" and "decay."

It's also interesting that Henry refers to his son as the "noble image of [his] youth." Shakespeare frequently portrays children as mirror images of their parents but he's also doing more here than merely suggesting that Hal looks a lot like his father did when Henry was a young man. King Henry IV, as we know, was just as rebellious as Prince Hal. In fact, he overthrew a king and instigated years of civil unrest in England. So, when he refers to Hal as the "image" of his youth, he seems to be remembering his own "headstrong riot."

We know that King Henry couldn't be more wrong about his son. When Hal becomes King at the end of the play, he completes the "reformation" he has been planning since Henry IV Part 1. This is made especially clear when Hal (a.k.a. King Henry V) rejects his former friend, Falstaff, and says "Presume not that I am the thing I was […] I have turned away from my former self" (5.5.59-61). Whereas King Henry IV cannot imagine a future without seeing the wildness of Prince Hal's (and perhaps his own) past, King Henry V clearly defines the boundary between his past and the present (what he once "was" and what he is now). You can read more about Hal's reformation by checking out "Quotes" on "Power."

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