Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1113
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 other characters—Justice Shallow, Prince John, and Hal—in soliloquies. His comments on others are less extensive but no less indiscreet. In two early scenes, encounters between Falstaff and the chief justice foreshadow the major rhetorical confrontations involving Hal. Falstaff, who has escaped punishment for theft only because he holds a military commission, attempts to intimidate the chief justice, who has sought to admonish him about his thievery. To the chief justice, Falstaff pretends that he is deaf. This joke turns on Falstaff, who hears but fails to understand what others are saying. To the chief justice, Falstaff intimates that the king is dying, that Hal will become king, and that as Hal’s friend Falstaff will have important influence. Unmoved by any personal threat, the chief justice demonstrates his commitment to law as an ideal.
The scene between Falstaff and the chief justice foreshadows Hal’s three great rhetorical confrontations in the drama: with the king, his real father; with the chief justice, a just and wise father figure; and with Falstaff, a parody of a father figure who must be rejected. In act 4, scene 4, Hal is summoned to his dying father’s bedside. The king’s doubts about him are reinforced when Hal, thinking his father dead, removes the crown from a pillow to meditate on the pain and grief it has brought. Regaining consciousness, the king notices that the crown is missing and concludes that Hal has seized it prematurely.
When the prince returns, the king denounces him for ingratitude, citing numerous examples from the past, but this sense of personal injury gives way to a more important concern—the future of the nation under Hal’s rule. Henry fears that Hal will recklessly give power to Falstaff and others like him. As a consequence, the national unity that the king has achieved will degenerate into riot and anarchy. In an eloquent response, Hal convinces the king that he has been mistaken about Hal’s intentions. He assures the king that he will follow the king’s example, not that of his predecessor, Richard II. Following the speech, the king, now more confident, advises Hal to rely on the wise counselors who have served him and to involve the country in a foreign war in order to promote unity.
Following the king’s death, his counselors and Hal’s brothers fear impending chaos. To reassure them, Hal addresses the chief justice, who is convinced that he has the most to lose. Of his three confrontations, this is the only one that Hal deliberately arranges; the other two are either unexpected or opportunistic. Assuming the role of an injured party, Hal demands that the chief justice explain his earlier decision to send Hal to prison. The chief justice recounts the episode in detail and argues that authority and justice demanded Hal’s punishment. Pointedly, he asks Hal to explain how his sentence was unjust. The king responds with moving dignity, affirming to the chief justice that he had been correct, confirming him in his office, retaining him as counselor, and assuring those present that Hal will follow the example of his father.
The third confrontation is arranged by Falstaff, who has rushed from Gloucestershire to London after hearing of Hal’s succession. Arriving in time for the coronation procession, Falstaff thrusts himself forward and addresses the king with impudent familiarity: “God save thee, my sweet boy!” Hal coldly turns aside and directs the chief justice to speak to Falstaff. The move astonishes Falstaff, who believes that the chief justice will be punished for his transgressions, and he again directs his speech to Hal. Speaking as king, Henry V responds, “I know thee not, old man.” He denounces Falstaff as a misleader of youth and banishes him from the royal presence. Incredulous at this reversal and denial of his expectation, Falstaff thinks the king will send for him in private, but even Justice Shallow discerns the finality of the king’s tone. By the play’s end, Hal has convinced the skeptics of his ability to rule.