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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
"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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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."