Henry IV, Part 2, is concerned with the demands of kingship, although Falstaff plays a much greater role than he did in Part 1. From the Induction and 1.1, with their emphasis on the disruptions of rebellion, to the close, when Prince Hal assumes the heavy mantle of kingship as Henry V, the lessons of 2 Henry IV are political. Hal rejects Falstaff in 5.5, the final scene, and this incident symbolizes the ethic of a ruler: strict justice, though tempered by mercy.
To an even greater degree than in Part 1, Shakespeare here presents a picture of all England—the common people who underlie history as well as the aristocrats who make it. Palace chambers and battlefields are set against dissolute East-Cheap and bucolic Gloucestershire. In addition to several familiar East cheap denizens from Part 1, Shakespeare here presents two other extraordinary figures: the Ancient Pistol and Doll Tearsheet. In Gloucestershire, rural England is represented by Justice Shallow and a number of splendid countrymen, including Davy and Silence. In assembling these citizens, 2 Henry IV continues the unprecedented achievement of Part 1, the creation of a comprehensive sense of the diverse life of England in the context of key historical events.
As in Part 1, Prince Hal's development is central to the history being presented, though here he becomes a statesman rather than a warrior. However, he is an unimportant character until 4.5, when he meditates on and accepts the burden of kingship. Then, having become king in Act 5, he accepts the Chief Justice, a symbol of honesty and duty, and rejects Falstaff, an emblem of irresponsibility. Hal is committed to becoming a good king, and this is the end to which the rest of the play leads as well, but the focus of the dramatic action is elsewhere, on values opposed to good government, represented by Falstaff on one hand and the rebels on the other.
Falstaff makes quite a different impression than he did in 1 Henry IV. He is older and in bad health, as he remarks in 1.2.229-233; the prospect of his death looms, as Doll reminds him in 2.4.229-232. He is more distinctly and unpleasantly a swindler, preying on Shallow and the Hostess and sending Feeble and his fellows to their probable deaths; in Part 1 his robbery victims were the anonymous—and supposedly rich and powerful—Travelers, and his soldiers remained unseen. Further, he justifies his selfishness in Part 2 with a flagrantly cynical appropriation of 'the law of nature' (3.2.326). He thus seems singularly ripe for a downfall.
The groundwork for Falstaff’s rejection by Hal in 5.5 was laid in Part 1, and it is anticipated throughout Part 2. Falstaff’s awkward encounters with the Chief Justice in 1.2 and 2.1 foreshadow this end. In addition, Hal is conspicuously absent from Falstaff’s early scenes; their only encounter prior to 5.5 is Hal's somewhat hostile appearance at Falstaff’s tavern party in 2.4, which ends with the Prince's cursory farewell to his old friend as he leaves to help suppress the rebellion. Hal shows no interest in Falstaff’s world after that point. But after the new king so coldly and firmly dismisses him, Falstaff persists in supposing that Hal is only putting up a public front, although by this time, even the gullible and unsophisticated Shallow sees the truth. Falstaff’s rejection comes as no surprise to anyone but himself. His folly in leaping boldly into Hal's coronation scene only seals his fate. His lack of judgment is, of course, the fundamental reason why he is not acceptable company for a king.
It has often been contended that one's response to Hal's rejection of Falstaff reflects one's attitude towards Shakespeare's political sensibility, perhaps towards all political philosophy. According to this theory, the extent to which one sympathizes with Falstaff, who represents comic license and freedom, limits the value that one can simultaneously place on social order. This view, however, not only denies Shakespeare's breadth of vision, which encompassed both freedom and order, but, more important, it also depends on a more sentimental outlook than that of the 16th century. The playwright's plain purpose was to bring Falstaff to a reckoning and to complete the elevation of Prince Hal to his intended destiny as the just King Henry V.
Shakespeare is clearly more sympathetic to the fat scoundrel than the Prince is, for Falstaff is still intended as an essentially delightful character. His inventive humor is still appealing; as he says himself, 'I am not only witty in myself, but the cause that wit is in other men' (1.2.8-9). In his famous praise of wine (4.3.84-123), Falstaff compares himself favorably to the cold and calculating Lancaster, and we are irresistibly inclined to agree with him. At the end of 2.4 the Hostess and Doll Tearsheet touchingly show their affection for him, although they are fully aware of his nature. His ways may bar him from being close to a responsible ruler, but they do not prevent others from appreciating his high spirits. Shakespeare's fondness for Falstaff is further demonstrated by the remarkable leniency with which the new king treats him, however frostily Hal may address him. He is allowed to live as he pleases, with a comfortable pension; clearly, the playwright did not wish to deprive his remarkable creation of sack and capons. Moreover, as the Epilogue indicates, Shakespeare intended to bring him back in another play. Falstaff is very much a part of Shakespeare's England and thus of the historical context within which the play's political questions are set.
The rebellion of the nobles is at the political core of 2 Henry IV. The threat of social disorder runs through all the History Plays, and in 2 Henry IV it manifests itself both in the petty crimes of Falstaff and in the more grievous offence of the rebels. Rebellion is cast in a highly negative light. Northumberland's apocalyptic rage in 1.1.153-160 demonstrates the anarchic morals of the rebel leaders, who are willing to permit society to collapse. And, to stress his worthlessness, Northumberland is presented as treacherous to his own treacherous cause in the Induction (lines 36-37) and in 2.3. Morton describes, in 1.1.200-209, the Archbishop's sacrilegious use of religion to stimulate armed revolt; Westmorland elaborates on the Archbishop's particular guilt in 4.1.30-52. However, Shakespeare rarely settled for a single viewpoint on any subject, and the Archbishop makes a plainly sincere response to Westmoreland, in which he states the dilemma of the royalist who nevertheless is provoked into rebellion by misgovernment. Here and in 4.2.30-42, he offers to disband the rebel forces if his complaints are heard by the king, and it is precisely this that is promised when Lancaster deceives and traps the rebel leaders.
Nonetheless, the playwright thoroughly disparages the rebels, and it is striking that he does not similarly deplore Lancaster's treachery against them. Such a scheme, common enough in the histories Shakespeare read, seems acceptable, in the play's terms, because it works against the greater evil of the uprising. It may also serve as an example of the woeful state of public life amid the dynastic struggles that dominate most of the history plays. The rebellion itself is a continuing reminder of King Henry's situation: he is a usurper, under whom the nation cannot be calm. He himself observes this several times (e.g., 3.1.57-79, 4.5.183-186), and in dying he takes comfort that Hal, a legitimate heir, will not encounter the same difficulty.
The play's focus on political turmoil is sharpened by several secondary themes, the most important of which is the unreliability of human knowledge. This motif is repeatedly stressed. At the play's outset. Rumour summons a baffling array of 'surmises, jealousies, conjectures' (Ind. 16) that humanity must face. Among the false impressions that pervade the play are the king's fear that Hal will prove a disastrous heir, Falstaff’s contrary assumption that he will prove a delightful one, the rebels' expectation of aid from Northumberland, and their betrayed hopes at Gaultree. The Archbishop seems entirely justified in his plaint 'What trust is in these times?' (1.3.100). Only Prince Hal is aware—from the beginning of 1 Henry /F—that his own position will be regal. He alone is free of misunderstanding, as befits his ultimate heroic stature as Henry V.
Recurrent references to disease and death add to the atmosphere of urgent uncertainty. Both the king and his rival, Northumberland, are physically ill, and the King's fatal sickness is particularly prominent. Falstaff, as we have seen, encounters his mortality as well; Hal notices his white hairs and says that his 'grave doth gape' (5.5.48-53). Henry says of his kingdom, 'How fifrul it is, what rank diseases grow' (3.1.39), and the Archbishop constructs an elaborate metaphor on the diseased nation, asserting the need to 'purge th'obstructions which begin to stop our very veins of life' (4.1.65-66).
Animal imagery, a favorite device of Shakespeare's, serves to represent the brutal energy of civil disruption: the Archbishop likens the fickle public to a dog eating its own vomit in 4.1.95-100; Northumberland speaks of the civil conflict as 'a horse [that] madly hath broke loose, and bears down all before him' (1.1.10-11). And, when the king paints a hysterical picture of England under the rule of a profligate Hal, he says, 'the wild dog shall flesh his tooth on every innocent'(4.5.131-132).
Political realities prohibit any festive, comic resolution of 2 Henry IV. Even Hal's succession to the throne, while an optimistic conclusion to the conflicts that have marred his father's reign, is not a consummation; rather, it points onwards to the wars of Henry V. The several worlds that are juxtaposed in 2 Henry IV—fictional versus historical, aristocratic versus plebeian, urban versus rural—are each disturbed by political events. Their rich interactions yield a convincing portrait of difficult times, pertinent in the nervous Elizabethan era when fears of rebellion pervaded political thought, and no less relevant in our own troubled time.
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