Shakespeare Saturday: King Henry IV, Part 2

I confess this blog has been a bit on the back burner over the last few weeks – that’s what sort of happens on holidays. Good intentions that never never go far. I have detailed notes and character lists of the earlier plays, little sticky notes with additional notes on them, but nothing of the last few I have done. I may have struggled to maintain interest over past month or so, but still I have managed to keep going, and next week’s Much Ado About Nothing will mark the halfway point. And there’s only one history play left after this, Henry V, the final part of the tetralogy. I wasn’t excited about the histories to begin with, but have ended up liking some of them much better than many of the comedies so far. I think 2 Henry IV also sort of marks a point in Shakespeare’s career. He has made a big noise few times until now, but after this he will stand up to his full height and begin to roar.

good-tickle-henry-iv-part-twoThe King and Prince Hal have teamed up and seen off the rebellion. The King’s health is beginning deteriorate; he cannot sleep and continues to rage/worry about Hal’s behaviour. The wars have worn him down, and he has never managed the crusade he promised to go on to redeem Richard II’s death. His supporters have betrayed him, and the son he had high hopes for has once again taken off to resume his old ways. There’s another rebellion brewing – Northumberland is grieved by the loss of his son, and Hotspur’s death drives his actions as much as Henry’s perceived failure as king.

Prince Hal has gone back to London, but there’s an uneasiness about him; Poins reminds him that his father is ill and not many a son would leave their father’s side knowing how poorly they are, making the prince wistful of his situation. There’s a sense that the future weights on him already, and he isn’t ready to give up on his seemingly carefree life.

Falstaff is crawling through the gutters, pursued by law and debtors, still convinced that his “friendship” with Prince Hal will keep him safe. He tries to borrow money, he tries to marry money, he tries to steal money – heck, he even tries to make some money by taking bribes from soldiers he’s meant to be recruiting to the King’s army. It’s all for nothing though – the Prince is done with him, and he’s done with himself. He meets some old army mates, and the reminiscences make him realise how old he is.

Nay, she must be old; she cannot choose but be old;
certain she’s old; and had Robin Nightwork by old
Nightwork before I came to Clement’s Inn.

That’s fifty-five year ago.

Ha, cousin Silence, that thou hadst seen that that
this knight and I have seen! Ha, Sir John, said I well?

We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow.

That we have, that we have, that we have; in faith,
Sir John, we have: our watch-word was ‘Hem boys!’
Come, let’s to dinner; come, let’s to dinner:
Jesus, the days that we have seen!

Hal and Falstaff meet one last time, in the Eastcheap inn. Falstaff, confronted by Hal, lies about bad-mouthing the prince; before they have it out the prince receives a message that his father has arrived in Westminster. He leaves, not bothering with Falstaff – they won’t really meet again. Prince John, Hal’s younger brother, has been sent to meet the rebellious noblemen, and he arrests them for treason; the good news cause the king’s poor heart give in and he collapses. Hal arrives in the court, and – presuming his father dead – takes the throne from his pillow and putting it on his head. The king, waking up, finds his crown missing and confronts him. The father and son and finally talk, years of resentment and misunderstanding between them melting away. Henry IV replaces the crown on Hal’s head, and he accepts it. His journey is complete. The king dies, and Henry V, proving his doubters wrong, renounces his old ways. Falstaff has come to London, hoping to reacquaint himself with the new king, but Henry V rejects him.

This is, in a way, a play about the importance of choosing your friends well. Prince Hal has long had a youthful sense that he’s a cut above the company he keeps, but is becoming to understand that (to deploy another cliche) if you choose to lay down with dogs, you cannot complain when you get fleas. I think Falstaff is a character we are meant to sympathise with in this play, and yet hard as I may try, I cannot bring myself to like him. He’s not just thoroughly unpleasant, but also the sort of character whose conviction that he’s above the rules makes any enterprise involving him difficult. He cheats and lies and does it with a sense of entitlement; he may be penniless but he behaves like a millionaire thinking that his wealth should automatically put him above the law. The contrast between Hal’s two worlds couldn’t be starker; the people who populate the London underclass are shown as rowdy, coarse and mercenary. Mistress Quickly is stupid and Doll Tearsheet hardly a whore with a heart of gold. The one character who actually endears himself is Ned Poyns – I feel he loves Hal (in more ways than one), but he also knows that theirs is an unequal relationship, and that Hal cannot forever escape whatever he’s running away from. After Hal leaves the inn for the last time, we don’t see Poins again, and Hal’s separation from this world becomes complete. None of it historically accurate, but as a coming-of-age story, this is a poignant journey.

Is it any good?

I probably like Part 2 better than Part 1. There’s a certain sadness about this play that I think many of Shakespeare’s later plays also carry, even the comedies. He has matured as a playwright, about to reach his artistic peak (he would come to write As you like it and Hamlet, often considered his best plays, within the next two years) and it shows here.

Fun fact

Shakespeare makes no mention of Henry’s wife Joan of Navarre, who outlived the king by over 20 years. She had no children of her own, but had a good relationship with Hal, championing him, often taking his side against the King, and supporting him loyally after he became Henry V.

What say thou?

This play has a number of long speeches, the most famous of them being the King’s soliloquy in Act 3, Scene 1, the last line of which is often quoted.

How many thousand of my poorest subjects
Are at this hour asleep! O sleep, O gentle sleep,
Nature’s soft nurse, how have I frighted thee,
That thou no more wilt weigh my eyelids down
And steep my senses in forgetfulness?
Why rather, sleep, liest thou in smoky cribs,
Upon uneasy pallets stretching thee
And hush’d with buzzing night-flies to thy slumber,
Than in the perfumed chambers of the great,
Under the canopies of costly state,
And lull’d with sound of sweetest melody?
O thou dull god, why liest thou with the vile
In loathsome beds, and leavest the kingly couch
A watch-case or a common ‘larum-bell?
Wilt thou upon the high and giddy mast
Seal up the ship-boy’s eyes, and rock his brains
In cradle of the rude imperious surge
And in the visitation of the winds,
Who take the ruffian billows by the top,
Curling their monstrous heads and hanging them
With deafening clamour in the slippery clouds,
That, with the hurly, death itself awakes?
Canst thou, O partial sleep, give thy repose
To the wet sea-boy in an hour so rude,
And in the calmest and most stillest night,
With all appliances and means to boot,
Deny it to a king? Then happy low, lie down!
Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.

This play is also surprisingly full of sex talk – some less veiled than other:

Prince Hal:
Look, whether the withered elder hath not his poll
clawed like a parrot.

Is it not strange that desire should so many years
outlive performance?

Best Character

Still Hal. Falstaff, though a despicable character, is also extremely well written.


Second part of the Henry IV of the first Hollow Crown cycle. It’s a good episode – Hiddleston is rather good as a weary, wistful Hal and Simon Russell Beale brings out the desperation in Falstaff brilliantly. Few scenes have been cut, and a lot of the dialogue; many of the scenes are also in different order than in the play. But, as a whole it works. I particularly like the brief scene in the Eastcheap inn – Hal goes to meet his destiny and his parting words to (“Falstaff, good night.”) are given the poignancy of an absolute end – this acquaintance is over and by severing it, Hal steps over the threshold into his new life.

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