Study Guide

Henry IV Part 2 Themes

  • Power

    Both Henry IV Part 1 and Part 2 offer an elaborate meditation on kingship. In Part 2, Shakespeare focuses on the anxieties surrounding succession and the transfer of power between father and son. For Henry IV, kingship has been an exhausting and draining experience. Because Henry usurped the crown in Richard II, he spends most of his reign defending his position and worrying about what will happen when his unruly son, Hal, takes over. When Hal replaces his father and becomes Henry V, his position is more legitimate because he's inherited the throne by lineal succession. At the same time, Hal must prove that, despite his wild youth, he's fit to rule the country.

    Questions About Power

    1. How did King Henry IV come to the crown, exactly? How has his path to kingship affected his reign?
    2. How does Prince Hal's path to the throne compare to that of his father?
    3. How would you characterize Henry IV's reign?
    4. How does Prince Hal feel about being heir to the throne? Does Hal change when he becomes Henry V? If so, how is he different?

    Chew on This

    Because Henry IV usurped the throne from a Richard II, his power and legitimacy are less stable than that of a monarch who inherits the throne by lineal succession – by rebelling against and deposing a king, Henry IV has paved the way for future rebellion.

    Although King Henry IV worries about what will become of the kingdom, his anxieties about Prince Hal's succession to the throne are finally put to rest before he dies.

  • Family

    Throughout the tetralogy, Shakespeare is interested in family bonds (especially father-son relationships), particularly when they intersect with politics. Even though Prince Hal saved his father's life at the battle of Shrewsbury in Henry IV Part 1, the troubled relationship between the king and his heir continues to parallel the civil rebellion in England. It also threatens the possibility of reestablishing any kind of political unity and order. As King Henry IV nears his death, he accuses Prince Hal of wanting him dead, an issue that Shakespeare also explores in plays like King Lear. Hal's success as a king seems contingent upon his making amends with his father and rejecting his surrogate father-figure, Falstaff. Hal's banishment of Falstaff and his acceptance of the Lord Chief Justice as a new "father" confirm his "reformation" from a wayward son to a monarch who will uphold civil order.

    Questions About Family

    1. In the Induction (prologue), Rumour makes reference to Northumberland, who "lies crafty sick" at his castle at Warkworth. What are/were the consequences of Northumberland's fake illness for his family and for the country? Tip: You might refer to Lady Percy's accusations against Northumberland in Act 2, Scene 3.
    2. Falstaff is somewhat of a surrogate father figure for Prince Hal in Part 1 of Henry IV. What role does he play in Hal's life here in Part 2? Is it different or similar? What textual evidence would you use to support your claim?
    3. Why does King Henry accuse Prince Hal of wishing for his speedy death (4.5)? What makes him think Hal wants him dead? Is he right? How does Hal respond to the accusation?
    4. How does Prince Hal respond to his father's death?

    Chew on This

    In the play, civil unrest is frequently compared to domestic violence.

    In order to restore and ensure civil harmony in England, Prince Hal must first make amends with his father, King Henry IV and reject his old surrogate father-figure, Falstaff.

  • Weakness

    Henry IV Part 2 is consumed with images of illness, decay, and disease. King Henry IV is dying, Falstaff is plagued by illness that accompanies old age (and an excessive lifestyle) and even the lowly commoner, Bullcalf, claims to have a "whoreson cold." At other times, the entire country imagined as a human body wracked with disease, which is an appropriate metaphor for a commonwealth that's plagued by civil rebellion and turmoil. This theme can be traced back to Richard II, when Henry's father, John of Gaunt, accused King Richard II of corrupting England and subjecting the country to "infection" (Richard II, 2.1.3).

    Questions About Weakness

    1. What is Northumberland's excuse for not participating in the battle at Shrewsbury?
    2. Why does Falstaff send his urine to a doctor in Act 1, Scene 2?
    3. Both the rebels and the king use the language of illness to describe the state of England. Why do they do this? What do they say is the cause of the country's disease?
    4. Does the play ever offer a solution for the country's "disease"? What will "cure" England?

    Chew on This

    In Henry IV Part 2 England is portrayed as a diseased body that must be "purged" of rebellion and disorder in order to be healthy.

    In the play, monetary debt is associated with disease – for Falstaff especially, both problems occur when one is overindulgent (from eating, drinking, and spending too much). So, while the play celebrates the raucous and wild behavior it portrays in the infamous tavern scenes, it ultimately suggests that the health of the individual body (and the nation) depends on curbing excessive behavior.

  • Time

    "We are time's subjects" notes Hastings as the rebels make preparations for another insurgency against the king (1.3.110). This is a sharp reminder that even in the midst of civil rebellion and chaos, there's one certainty – everyone is "subject" to the passing of time. In Henry IV Part 2, the spirited and larger than life Falstaff is aging and Henry IV is at death's door as the play anticipates the moment when Prince Hal will be crowned King Henry V. While characters in the play look forward to the future, they are also hyper-aware of the past. Memory plays a prominent role here and the play is deeply interested in the way we interpret (or misinterpret) our pasts and how our understanding of history can shape future events. While some (like Shallow and Justice) look on the past with fondness, others recall bygone events in an attempt to explain present circumstances, to imagine what the future might be like or, to speculate about how things might have been if only the past were different.

    Questions About Time

    1. Characters in Henry IV Part 2 seem to spend a lot of time remembering and talking about events from the past. Justice Shallow wants to talk about the good old days with Falstaff, Mistress Quickly says that Hal's presence at the Boar's Head Tavern is just like old times, and so on. What kinds of effects do these nostalgic moments have on the play as a whole?
    2. Even though Falstaff is old, he is always attributing to himself a youthful spirit. He also surrounds himself with friends that are much younger than he is. Why does he do this? Does he really believe that he's just like the young men he carouses with? What does this say about his character?
    3. Why does Prince Hal say he feels bad about wasting time in Act 2, Scene 4?
    4. How does the theme of time in this play relate to the portrayal of time in Henry IV Part 1 and Richard II?

    Chew on This

    When Hastings's notes that "[w]e are time's subjects" (1.3.110), he articulates one of the play's most important concepts – everyone (including the monarch and the rebels who resist the king's authority) is powerless against the passage of time.

    Henry IV Part 2 is a nostalgic play that regards the past with both fondness and regret, even as it looks hopefully toward the future.

  • Rules and Order

    In Henry IV Part 2, the king's reign continues to be troubled by civil rebellion. The difference, however, is that the rebel leaders proceed with more caution than we saw in Part 1 (mostly because the impetuous Hotspur has been killed). The rebels' careful deliberation, however, doesn't prevent them from being suppressed – Prince John easily tricks them into laying down their arms before any battles can be waged. The riotous antics of Falstaff continue in Part 2 and Shakespeare introduces new and rowdy characters (like Pistol and Doll Tearsheet) who thumb their noses at authority. However, Prince Hal doesn't participate much in the revelry, as he looks forward to his future as king. By the play's end, order is restored – the rebels are put to death and Falstaff is banished by his beloved Hal as the play looks forward to civil order and unity.

    Questions About Rules and Order

    1. How is the civil rebellion resolved in this play?
    2. In Henry IV Part 1, Prince Hal spent most of his time carousing with his raucous Eastcheap companions. How does Hal behave in Part 2?
    3. Why doesn't Mistress Quickly want Pistol in the Boar's Head Tavern? What happens when Pistol is allowed inside?
    4. What happens to Falstaff after Hal becomes King Henry V?

    Chew on This

    In Henry IV Part 2, Doll Tearsheet and Mistress Quickly are more dangerous to the commonwealth than the rebel army.

    By banishing Falstaff, Hal proves he's ready and willing to restore civil order and uphold justice in England.

  • Warfare

    There's a whole lot of talk about warfare, but very little action in Henry IV Part 2. Instead, the play looks back on the events surrounding the battle at Shrewsbury (from Part 1) and even looks ahead to the war Henry V will wage against France in the play Henry V. Like the other Henry plays, Part 2 reminds us that civil war is a family affair – civil strife is frequently associated with domestic abuse. The play also reveals that King Henry IV's unfulfilled plans for a crusade are hardly more than a diversionary tactic. At other times, Shakespeare points to the kinds of corruption and deceit that inevitable accompany war – Falstaff is up to his old tricks again, taking bribes from recruits and devising a scheme to defraud the military so he can receive a wounded soldier's pension. Even Prince John, the military leader in charge of the king's forces, manages to avert a bloody battle only after he deceives the rebel leaders.

    Questions About Warfare

    1. What does Rumour have to say about the battle at Shrewsbury in the Induction (prologue)?
    2. Henry IV has always wanted to lead a crusade to the Holy Land. Why does he want to wage war in Jerusalem? (Tip: Pay attention to what he says to Hal on his deathbed.)
    3. What happens to the rebels at Gaultree Forest?
    4. There's plenty of talk about warfare in Henry IV Part 2 but we never see an actual battle. Why do you think that is?

    Chew on This

    If warfare and "honour" go hand-in-hand in Henry IV Part 1, then Part 2 is all about the relationship between warfare and corruption.

    In the play, Shakespeare reminds us that, if a kingdom is like a large family, then civil warfare is tantamount to domestic violence.

  • Lies and Deceit

    Henry IV Part 2 is full of acts of deception. When the play opens, Rumour announces that it plans to "stuff" the ears of men with "lies." Soon after, Falstaff swindles Mistress Quickly out of money and breaks his promise to marry her. Prince John then deceives the rebel leaders at Gaultree Forest and sentences them to death for treason. We're also reminded that Prince Hal's public persona is built on a lie – he's been hiding behind a disguise since Henry IV Part 1. It seems that nobody in this play can be trusted (except, perhaps, the Lord Chief Justice, who seems to be the only straight-shooter in the entire lot). And it's no wonder, given that the monarch, King Henry IV, took a "crooked" path to the throne. Shakespeare makes us wonder if the only difference between the commoners and the nobility is that the nobles justify their deception as a form of "political strategy."

    Questions About Lies and Deceit

    1. What does Rumour say in the Induction? Why does the play begin with this figure's speech? Does the speech resonate throughout the remainder of the play? If so, how?
    2. In Act 1, Scene 1, what kind of news do various messengers bring to Northumberland?
    3. Why does Mistress Quickly want to take legal action against Falstaff?
    4. How does Prince John get the rebels to agree to send their troops home? Is the ploy a shrewd political strategy or a serious breech of faith? Or, is it some combination of both?

    Chew on This

    Rumour's opening speech about circulating unverified information and false reports is an appropriate beginning – the play is full of speculation and deception.

    Falstaff's swindling of Mistress Quickly is a "low" and comedic parody of Prince John's political deception and betrayal of the rebels at Gaultree Forest – the only difference between Prince John and Sir John Falstaff is that Prince John justifies his actions as political "strategy."