Before we get into the second part of Henry IV, I want to draw your attention to something.
Remember on the homepage where I stated that plays should be experienced as performances? Theater is one way to do this, but so are movies.
Ladies and gentlemen, I want to draw your attention to the BBC’s Hollow Crown. The first series, which aired in 2012, followed Richard II through Henry V and I’m going to be marathoning it once I finish next week’s play.
What I really want to draw your attention to is the fact that the second series (spanning Henry VI Part 1 through Richard III) will be airing beginning today (May 7th)! It won’t be airing in the US quite yet (I don’t have a date for the premier yet), but this is exciting! Benedict Cumberbatch plays Richard, who becomes the Duke of York and later King Richard III. He’s a monster of a character, so this should be fun.
(**Addendum: Cumberbatch plays a Richard, but I’m not certain which one he plays. Just as there are an embarrassment of Henrys running about, there’s a confusing amount of very-important Richards running about in later plays as well.)
And now, onto the play!
Henry IV Part 2 takes up where Part 1 ended: Hal has killed Hotspur and other rebels remain. There are two story lines to follow: that of Falstaff, and that of Henry/Hal/the rebels.
Falstaff appears to be in poor health, though we’re never told what’s wrong. With his ways, I’m guessing various diseases and issues caused by his indulgences. He’s confronted by the Lord Chief Justice, who questions Falstaff about a recent robbery. Falstaff turns the conversation to the King’s failing health before asking for one thousand pounds for a military expedition, which the Chief Justice denies.
We then find Falstaff in a tavern with Doll Tearsheet, a prostitute with whom he’s in a relationship; Doll proceeds to get into a fight with Ancient Pistol, Falstaff’s ensign, whom Falstaff ejects from the tavern.
What Falstaff doesn’t know is that Hal and Poins are disguised as musicians in the tavern and spying on him for a lark. Falstaff proceeds to make insulting remarks about both Hal and Poins (mostly Hal) before the two reveal themselves. Falstaff tries to use his usual wit to diffuse his comments, but it doesn’t seem to work as well as it did in Part 1.
When news of the second rebellion reaches the group, Falstaff goes off to raise forces. He meets up with Justice Shallow, an old friend from school, and has him bring forward possible recruits. Two of the five possibles offer bribes so Falstaff lets them off.
In the other story line, Henry despairs that Hal isn’t fit for the crown. When the rebel forces led by the Archbishop of York, Mowbray, and Hastings prepare for attack they meet with Westmorland in parlay. Prince John, Hal’s brother, leads the forces for the King and brokers a peace with the rebels. Just as the rebel army is retreating, however, John double-crosses them and arrests the rebel leaders. (True story: I gasped when this happened.) So, these rebels are arrested, and we get news that Glendower is dead, and Northumberland’s forces are defeated in the north. All fantastic news, right?
Well, yes, except Henry is dying and all of this news pushes him over the edge. It’s almost like the conflict was helping to hold his health together. Henry has a fit and, when Hal arrives, appears to have died. Saddened, Hal exits with Henry’s crown. Henry wakes, notes that his crown is missing, and is outraged. He seems to truly believe that Hal can’t wait to become king. Hal, for his part, rather eloquently explains his actions to his father, extols his love, and vows that he understands the gravity of his station. Henry seems convinced and, with his dying breaths, proceeds to give Hal his final council. Then Henry then dies.
And now our two story lines meet. Pistol rides out to find Falstaff and tells him of the King’s death. This isn’t somber news for the group, though; it’s cause for celebration. With Hal now on the throne, everyone believes Falstaff has become one of the most powerful men in London. Falstaff rushes back to London to receive his rewards with his entourage in tow.
Hal, meanwhile, is showing those close to him that he’s truly changed his ways. As if to cement that fact in everyone’s mind, he publicly rejects Falstaff and subsequently has him arrested.
We then have an epilogue, where the chorus (most likely Rumor, who introduced the play) explains that the story continues with Henry V and assures the audience that Falstaff does not represent Sir John Oldcastle, an anti-Catholic rebel. A bit strange, but there you have it.
Once again, Henry and Falstaff are foils; both are facing their mortality (Henry is dying, and Falstaff is constantly commenting on his age and how he’ll die in the future). However, they also represent the opposing sides of Hal’s personality, which he (Hal) ultimately has to choose between. On one side we have Henry, whose gravity and sense of responsibility are something Hal has seemed to rebel against, possibly because he (Hal) never asked for the weight of the crown and wasn’t raised to accept all that comes with it. On the other side we have Falstaff, whose habit of eschewing responsibility is rivaled only by his indulging in vices. In the end, Hal must choose between Falstaff and his father.
Now, may I take a moment to gush over how much I adore Hal? He’s the most well-rounded character in either part of the Henry IV plays. He’s witty and fun-loving but also realizes his responsibilities. More interestingly, he’s clever in a cut-throat way. He told us in the beginning of Part 1 what he intended (to act a wastrel and then reform when he assumed the crown so his responsible nature would be more well-loved), and it worked!
Of course, this means we have to discuss Hal’s rejection of Falstaff at the end. Was this necessary? Did Hal merely use Falstaff? Eh, I’m not so certain. We know that Hal always intended to reject his wastrel ways, but not that he intended to reject his old friends so completely (although there is the promise of reconciliation if his old friends can mend their ways). But let’s look a bit deeper.
First, Henry laid into Hal in their last scene together. It’s one of the best father-son scenes in Shakespeare’s corpus. After Henry rebukes Hal, he (Hal) subsequently apologizes and professes his intentions to be a responsible king. Henry then gives Hal advice and the way in which he does so, along with his previous rebuke of Hal, are rather manipulative. First he rips Hal apart and then he gives him the last council he’ll ever breathe. This is Guilt Trip 101. So even if Hal had already resolved to mend his ways and reform he’d be doubly pressed to do so now.
And I think that’s just what Henry wanted; he sees his son, hears his intention to be more responsible, and what Henry thinks is this: the crown will be less tenuous once a dynasty is established with an heir assuming the kingship. After all, it was Henry and not Hal who overthrew the former king. But Henry needed to be certain that Hal wouldn’t fall back on old habits, for Hal’s sake as well as for England. If Hal surrounded himself with his old friends, if he kept bad council, he might become exactly the kind of king Richard II was. So I think that Henry gave Hal advice with his dying breath to help preserve his son. In a way, it was atonement for having deposed Richard and I think Henry feared having his son turn into another Richard as divine retribution for having usurped the throne.
But did Falstaff deserve to be rejected so thoroughly? Honestly, yes, he did. Some people will say that Hal used Falstaff, but Falstaff used Hal just as much. He rarely (if ever) had a good thing to say about Hal when saying such didn’t somehow benefit himself, and he only flew to London after Henry died to assume the power and glory he thought he was entitled to. He didn’t care that Henry had died, didn’t care whether Hal was upset or handling either his father’s death or his new-found responsibility hard. Falstaff thought only of Falstaff.
And in a way, Hal had to publicly reject Falstaff. It was the only way for people to truly believe that Hal had reformed and shucked off his former ways. Falstaff even points this out, though he states (but doesn’t seem to believe) that Hal would contact him in private and maintain their friendship. Hal can’t do that, not unless Falstaff shows people that he himself had reformed. Hal’s position would be too harmed by a relationship with Falstaff, and both of them knew it.
So this split was inevitable, though not tragic. It would have been tragic if Falstaff had sacrificed anything to be there to support Hal, but he didn’t and he wasn’t.
So where did Shakespeare get his history? What were his historical sources? The main source for Shakespeare’s history works appears to be Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles, which also acted as a source for both Macbeth and King Lear. Most of the Roman history plays were based off Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans Compared Together as translated by Sir Thomas North.
Of course, Shakespeare dramatized many aspects of history to make a good play. We saw this with Hotspur and Hal: in Part 1 they’re depicted as the same age when in fact Hotspur was much older. This was a deliberate move on Shakespeare’s part; by making Hotspur and Hal of an age together he allowed them to become foils for one another. Also, keep in mind that Shakespeare had political reasons to depict certain historical stories in a certain light; with Queen Elizabeth, a Tudor, on the throne it was in Shakespeare’s best interests to shine a light on the Tudor line favorably and to cast any detractors in shadow. Basically, Shakespeare tried to show the Tudor line as having divine right to their station.
And that’s a wrap! Next week we get more of Hal in Henry V.