Henry IV, Part II

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 476

Following the royal victory at Shrewsbury, there remain two determined opposing forces under the leadership of the Earl of Northumberland and the Archbishop of York, respectively. Prince John cleverly, if ruthlessly, brings the latter’s forces to bay before they can unite with Northumberland’s, and the realm is secured.

Meanwhile the king’s concern over the moral character of young Henry continues, as the heir still consorts with the pleasure-loving Falstaff and his tavern friends. Contrary to the expectations of father and brothers, however, Prince Henry demonstrates, immediately upon the old king’s death, the determination to govern prudently and wisely.

The carrying out of his vow, seemingly made in jest in Part 1, to banish Falstaff, is the most controversial action of this play. Set against Falstaff’s great comic vitality, the new king seems cold and ungenerous, but Shakespeare establishes that Falstaff’s main motive is not good-natured fun but the hope of future royal favors, and young Henry must reject the claims of a man so cowardly, self-indulgent, and irresponsible.

The terms of banishment are relatively mild: Falstaff must not approach within ten miles of court, the king guarantees him a pension, and he can expect advancement if he reforms. Falstaff, as might be expected, will never reform, and Shakespeare transfers him next to THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR, a comedy where he can entertain without corrupting the kingdom in the process.

The play focuses on civil leadership and filial duty. Both require the eventual displacement of the father, and after experiencing the undisciplined life, young Henry must also reject the man who parodied his father in Part 1. High among the duties of leadership is justice, a theme that both comic and sober scenes progressively elucidate.


Ornstein, Robert. A Kingdom for a Stage. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1972. In a critical study that includes all of Shakespeare’s history plays, Ornstein devotes a chapter to Henry IV, Part II. He describes Hal’s development and his rejection of Falstaff.

Pearlman, Elihu. William Shakespeare: The History Plays. Boston: Twayne, 1992. A valuable scholarly overview of the histories. The chapter on Henry IV, Part II is divided into numerous brief analyses of characters and themes.

Porter, Joseph A. The Drama of Speech Acts. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979. Analyzes speech and oratory in the second tetralogy. A chapter on Henry IV, Part II explores the contrasts between Falstaff’s speech and Hal’s.

Tillyard, E. M. W. Shakespeare’s History Plays. London: Chatto & Windus, 1944. Strong on historical interpretation, Tillyard’s study explores the important themes of the second tetralogy. Traces the growth and development of Hal’s character.

Traversi, Derek Antona. Shakespeare: From “Richard II” to “Henry V.” Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press. A close reading of the second tetralogy includes a chapter on Henry IV, Part II that emphasizes character development and style.

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Critical Evaluation