The third play in William Shakespeare’s second tetralogy, King Henry IV, Part II is based on Raphael Holinshed’s The Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (c. 1577) and on an anonymous Elizabethan drama, The Famous Victories of Henry V (pb. c. 1598). It offers a collection of well-rounded characters for whose creation Shakespeare made slender use of his sources. The drama resolves the conflict, carried over from King Henry IV, Part I, between the king and rebellious nobles. In its essence, this conflict is one of local versus national rule. The second play also continues the character development of Prince Hal as an ideal future king. The denial of characters’ expectations, marked by sudden dramatic reversals, represents a unifying motif of the drama.
Retaining the main plot of the rebellion and the subplot involving Falstaff and his companions from Henry IV, Part I, the drama limits action in favor of rhetoric. To the panoply of characters surrounding the king from Henry IV, Part I, Shakespeare adds the astute and farsighted Warwick as an adviser and the upright chief justice as another father figure for Prince Hal. Additions also enhance the subplot involving Falstaff. He is furnished, in Henry IV, Part II, with a spirited young boy as a page, with the histrionic, swaggering Pistol, and with the sharp-tongued Doll Tearsheet. In a further strand of the subplot, Justice Shallow, his cousin Silence, and Shallow’s servants serve as humorous country bumpkins who willingly play into Falstaff’s hands.
Rumors of battles linger through much of the drama, but they prove to be only rumors. As the rebels regroup under the able archbishop of York following their loss at Shrewsbury, the king’s divided army prepares to move against the centers of rebel strength, Wales and York, arousing expectations of decisive battles. The threat of battle in Wales simply evaporates, as the king learns that Glendower, the Welsh leader, has died. In the north, Prince John entices the rebels into a deceptive truce and sends their leaders to summary execution. The crushing of rebel power consolidates the king’s rule, yet ironically he is too ill to enjoy the fruits of his victory. The action seems subdued and anticlimactic; the elimination of the rebel threat and the consolidation of regal power pave the way for an orderly succession.
Instead of vivid action, the play offers rhetorical confrontations to strengthen the dramatic conflict and to help resolve the two poles that influence Prince Hal—his father and Falstaff. In one of many indications that the fat knight will be rejected, Falstaff freely expresses his indiscreet opinions of...
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1. Is there a discrepancy between what the play seems to demand that we think of Falstaff and what we actually think of him?
Falstaff is a liar, a thief, a cheat, a drunkard and a glutton, and the play prepares us for his ultimate rejection by the King. We are plainly meant to side with the new King, who has so solemnly declared his intent to be worthy of the crown, in renouncing this "surfeit-swell'd . . . old . . . profane" man (Act 5, scene 5). But although Falstaff may be a disreputable character that no King could afford to fraternize with, he is nonetheless, despite all his bad qualities, a likable old rogue who wins the audience's affection. Perhaps his attractiveness lies in his willingness to mock authority and to get away with it (surely something we would all on occasion like to do). Falstaff's irresponsibility, his refusal to take anything seriously, his turning of everything to humor, appeals to that part of us that longs, but probably does not dare, to throw off all the accumulated burdens of life. As A. C. Bradley put it in his essay, "The Rejection of Falstaff," "The main source . . . of our sympathetic delight in Falstaff is his humorous superiority to everything serious, and the freedom of soul enjoyed in it." Other characters sense that quality in him, and he inspires affection in them (and so in us too) because of it. No more telling comment is made about Falstaff than that spoken by Hostess Quickly as Falstaff is about to go off to the wars: "I have known thee these twenty-nine years, come peascod time, but an honester and truer-hearted man-well, fare thee well" (Act 2, scene 4).
2. Describe the character and main concerns of Henry IV.
Henry is a practical man and a determined warrior, but he is weighed down by the series of rebellions that have assaulted his kingdom throughout his reign. These rebellions have thwarted his desire to go to the Holy Land. He knows that the cause of the prolonged civil disorder is the questionable way in which he became King, and he cannot stop himself trying to justify his earlier conduct. The issue seems to be in the back of his mind all the time. For example, in recalling his seizure of the crown, he claims to Warwick that he did not plan to do so in advance. The pressure of events forced him into it: "I had no such intent / But that necessity so bow'd the state / That I and greatness were compell'd to kiss" (Act 3, scene 1). In other words, he had no choice in the matter, or so he has convinced himself.
The subject of the legitimacy of his crown is still on his mind when he speaks to Prince Henry on his deathbed. He acknowledges that "God knows, my son, / By what by-paths and indirect crook'd ways / I met this crown" (Act 4, scene 5). And at the end of this speech, knowing that his death is imminent, he drops any attempt at self-justification and asks God's forgiveness for "How I came by the crown."
The King's second main concern, as he first reveals to Clarence and Warwick, in Act 4, scene 4, is what will happen to the kingdom after his death. He has no confidence in his eldest son's ability to manage the kingdom well, and he expects a state of anarchy to prevail. He is reassured, however, by the sincerity of Prince Henry's promise to rule wisely. He then says that the dubious way he gained the crown will not affect his son, who will come about the throne legitimately, by inheritance.
3. How does Shakespeare use prose and verse to differentiate between the types of characters in the play?
Henry IV part 2 is written partly in prose and partly in blank verse. Generally speaking, the characters from a higher social class, including all the rebel leaders and the King and his party, speak in blank verse. It is a more dignified form of utterance, appropriate for their social status. In contrast, the characters from a lower social class, such as the crew in the Boar's Head, speak prose, as do the Country Justices Shallow and Silence, and Sir John Falstaff.
Falstaff, although he is a knight of at least moderate social standing, always speaks in prose, even when he is addressing Prince John (Act 4, scene 3). He makes no attempt to vary his manner of speech according to whom he is addressing, and nor would we expect him to. Falstaff always is what he is, and he cannot be anything else. Similarly, Prince John does not lower himself to speak prose when he addresses Falstaff. This is in contrast to the practice of Prince Hal. Whenever the Prince is with Falstaff and the other low characters, he speaks prose (this is also noticeable in Henry IV, part 1). This reinforces at the level of language the fact that he is lowering himself to their level. But when Prince Henry talks to his father, he speaks in a very dignified blank verse, as he does when he makes his final speech to Falstaff, rejecting him. This is the first time in either of the Henry IV plays that Prince Henry has spoken to Falstaff in blank verse. One could even say that Prince Henry's development as a character is mirrored in the way he moves from predominantly speaking in prose to speaking in verse. It is a movement that Falstaff cannot follow.
The other character who adjusts his form of speech according to the person he is addressing is the Lord Chief Justice. He shows that he can meet Falstaff at his own level by speaking to him in prose as the two men verbally spar in Act 1, scene 2, and Act 2, scene 1. But later in the play, the Lord Chief Justice speaks in verse to the nobles and to the newly crowned Henry V.
4. Discuss Prince John's tactics at Gaultree Forest. Is he justified in tricking the rebels?
It is hard for a modern reader to avoid the conclusion that Prince John's methods reflect little credit on him. He tricks the rebels into disbanding their army but then arrests the rebel leaders, justifying his actions by saying that he never guaranteed their personal safety. Most people would agree that this is hardly an honorable way to defeat an enemy, unless one believes that in all circumstances, the ends justify the means.
Shakespeare was bound by his historical sources to present this incident, although he ascribes the perfidy to Prince John rather than to Westmoreland. But apart from Falstaff's disparaging remarks about the coldness of Prince John, Shakespeare does not censure the Prince's Gaultree trick. The rebels are silenced soon enough, of course, but Shakespeare could easily have written a snatch of dialogue in which one or more characters expressed some unease about the method by which the rebels were captured. He chose not to do so. He may have felt that the rebel cause was a dishonorable one, and that Prince John's stratagem was therefore an acceptable way for the righteous cause to triumph. After all, not a single life was lost at Gaultree, and passages such as Northumberland's rant in Act I scene 1, in which he calls for chaos to descend on the land, amply suggest the threat the rebels presented to order and good government.
5. Is Falstaff treated too harshly by the new Henry V?
Some critics have felt that Henry's cold rejection of Falstaff at the end of the play reflects badly on the new king's character. However, while it may be discomfiting for some to see the fat old knight publicly humiliated, Shakespeare makes it clear during the course of the play that the King, if he is to rule wisely, has no other choice. Falstaff stands for lawlessness and irresponsibility, and while the young Prince Hal might have enjoyed his witty company, Falstaff is obviously an unfit companion for a King.
Falstaff's punishment is not unduly severe. He is banished from within ten miles of the King's presence, but he is given an allowance for life. His incarceration in the Fleet prison, although no doubt galling for one who expected the laws of England to be at his command, is to be of short duration. (This is not explicitly stated in the text but long imprisonment in London is not compatible with the decree of banishment.)
Shakespeare prepares the audience for Falstaff's downfall in several ways. He inserts two scenes in which Falstaff is directly confronted by the Lord Chief Justice, who is presented as a worthy opponent. Shakespeare also has Falstaff assigned to Prince John's army rather than to Prince Henry, thus beginning the separation between the two, who had served together at the battle of Shrewsbury. Apart from the final scene, there is only one scene (Act 2, scene 4) in which Falstaff and the Prince appear together. And in Act 5, scene 3, in which Falstaff hears the news that the Prince has ascended to the throne, it is clear that what he represents is antithetical to good order and wise government. "The laws of England are at my commandment," Falstaff says. "Blessed are they that have been my friends, and woe to my Lord Chief Justice!" Plainly, Falstaff is getting above himself, and needs to be put in his place by a newly wise monarch.