Introduction: Henry IV, Part 2

December 5, 2009 in Introduction

No consensus has ever been reached on the precise relation between this play and Henry IV, Part I. With Falstaff, Hal, an anxious Henry IV, a tavern and a battlefield much remains the same, but something has changed in the quality of events. The royalist victory in this play is not settled in noble combat, but through a trick by one of Hal’s brothers; although there is laughter in the tavern, Falstaff spends much of his time wandering the countryside, returning to London only to be spurned by Hal with the words “I know thee not, old man”. Those words are spoken by the new Henry V, and the play can be read as both Hal’s final steps to the throne and a double elegy for the end of the older generation of Falstaff and Henry IV.

In a discontinuity between this play and its predecessor, a new reconciliation takes place between Henry IV and Prince Hal, this time fraught with Hal’s error of being caught wearing the crown when his father awoke. Hal consoles his father with the idea that he only took it in “The quarrel of a true inheritor”, a reference to the fact that, for the first time since the regicide of Richard II, the crown will follow a bloodline, and so it shall, in Henry IV’s words, “descend with better quiet, better opinion, better confirmation”. The dying king then offers Hal the advice of using a foreign military campaign to unite the country, something that looks forward to the events Henry V.

The nature of this play, as both elegy and anticipation, makes it difficult to perform as a standalone production and some critics have speculated that the strangeness of its outlook is the result of a lack of material left in Holinshed for Shakespeare to use. Nevertheless, its distinctness from Henry IV, Part 1, may also be seen as a virtue: the worlds of the court and the tavern are more distinct here, and each adopts a particularly distinctive idiom, be it the Hostess’ request to “Do me, do me your offices”, or Henry IV’s reflection that if the “book of fate” were seen, then “The happiest youth, viewing his progress through, / What perils past, what crosses to ensue / Would shut the book, and sit him down and die”.

Contributed by James Harriman-Smith

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