The stirring continuation of the themes begun in Henry IV, Part One again pits a rebellion within the State and that master of misrule, Falstaff, against the maturing of Prince Hal. Alternating scenes between bawdy tavern and regal court, between revelry and politics, Shakespeare probes at the sources, uses, and responsibilities of power as an old king dies and a young king must choose between a ruler's solemn duty and a merry but dissipated friend, Falstaff. The play represents Shakespeare at the peak of his maturity in writing historical drama and comedy.
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January 01, 1988
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Excerpt from Henry IV, Part Two by William Shakespeare
Shakespeare wrote 2 Henry IV quite soon after 1 Henry IV, perhaps in 1597, partly, no doubt, to capitalize on the enormous theatrical success of Falstaff and partly to finish the story of Falstaff's rejection. In writing 2 Henry IV, Shakespeare drew on materials similar to those used for 1 Henry IV, notably Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles (1587) and the anonymous play The Famous Victories of Henry V (1583--1588). Moreover, he undertook to write a play that structurally is much like its predecessor, revealing more similarity between these plays than one can find elsewhere in Shakespeare. Even the three Henry VI plays do not reiterate structural patterns to the same degree. Is Shakespeare repeating himself, rewriting the earlier play, and, if so, why? Is 2 Henry IV essentially a way of giving audiences more of what they had found so entertaining in the earlier play, or is it a way of reflecting on new and troublesome issues only partially raised in 1 Henry IV? The similarities are indeed marked, though, as we shall see, their chief function may be to highlight the important contrasts that arise through a consideration of the surface resemblances.
The structural pattern runs as follows. In both plays, Shakespeare alternates between scenes of political seriousness and scenes of comic irresponsibility, juxtaposing a rebellion in the land with a rebellion in the King's own family. In 1 Henry IV, we move from a council of war (1.1) to a planning of the robbery at Gad's Hill (1.2). The scenes comment on each other by their nearness and by their mutual concern with lawlessness. Similarly, in 2 Henry IV, we are at first introduced to a political rebellion in the north of England, after which we encounter Falstaff and Prince Hal's page. In both plays, 2.2 shows us Hal with Poins, setting up a future meeting to embarrass Falstaff by means of a plot, and, in both plays, 2.4 is a long, centrally located scene at the tavern, involving Hal and Falstaff in a contest of wits devised to expose Falstaff as a resourceful liar. The festivities in both scenes are brought to an end by a knocking at the door. (The act-scene divisions may not be Shakespeare's, for they do not appear in the early quartos of either play; nevertheless, the structural location of these scenes is similar.) Between these linked scenes of comic action, we turn in both plays to the rebel camp of the Percys for a discussion of military planning against King Henry (2.3). In both plays, Falstaff goes off supposedly to fight against the rebels, but instead manages to abuse his authority as recruiting officer and to garner un- deserved honors, either through wounding the dead Hotspur in the leg or through capturing Coleville of the Dale with the aid of an inflated reputation. The battle scenes are punctuated by Falstaff's wry soliloquies; his disputation on wine in 2 Henry IV (4.3.88--123) serves a function like that of his better-known catechism on honor in 1 Henry IV (5.1.129--40). Both plays introduce a confrontation between Hal and his father: the son is penitent for his waywardness, the father lectures on statecraft, and the prodigal son is recovered into kingly grace. Prince Hal goes on thereafter to win public honor and to prove himself his father's true son. Even the rejection of Falstaff, with which the second play ends, finds its counterpart in 1 Henry IV in Hal's impatience with Falstaff during the battle of Shrewsbury, his elegy over the seemingly dead body of his onetime companion, and his resolve to be henceforth a prince.
These resemblances, and still others, are further highlighted when we realize that Shakespeare continues to use in his second play the structural device of foils, or paired characters, around Hal, who help define alternative models of conduct. The father is, as before, an awesome figure of authority-one whose sternness Hal never fully adopts and yet one whose public role as king Hal must inherit. Falstaff, as before, offers himself as a companion in revelry, dissipation, and joie de vivre, and must be rejected, even though much of what he says offers insight into the coldness of King Henry and especially of Hal's dutiful brother Prince John. Yet the chief purpose of these re- capitulations is to suggest profound differences. 2 Henry IV does not simply go over familiar material. Even the resemblances noted so far embody significant changes: the opening scene of the first play takes place at court, the second in the country; the second scene of the first play sets up the trick to be played on Falstaff, whereas in the second play this event takes place in 2.2; this same second scene of the first play is chiefly a battle of wits between Hal and Falstaff, whereas in the second play Falstaff has to cope with the pointed questioning of the Lord Chief Justice; and so on. Repeatedly, the similarities of situations reveal how much Hal has still to learn, how much Falstaff has changed, and how much more complicated the political process is than it first appeared. The foil relationships in this play focus less on honor, as in 1 Henry IV, than on two related matters: rumor or reputation, and justice.