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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