The Second Part of Henry the Fourth

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Histories

Home | Questions | Commentaries | Guides | Links | OLLI

Shakespeare, William. The Second Part of Henry the Fourth. (Norton Histories, 2nd ed. 673-757).

Of Interest: English Monarchy Timeline | RSC Resources | ISE Resources | S-O Sources | Holinshed “Henry IV” | Historical Figures | 100 Years’ War Timeline

Why Shallow ? He is partly a foil for Falstaff, believe it or not.  Even Jack sees through his old acquaintance’s claims to a riotous youth, his selective and creative memory about his own personal past.  Shallow is “shallow” because the currents of time, for him, run thin – there’s no depth or authenticity in him.  Falstaff is privileged for a while to be near the royal sunshine, at least while it’s clouded over.  He meets some of the great people of the times, like Henry IV’s sons as they march across the stage of English history.  But not Shallow.

The disorder of rebellion has transformed men from their proper selves – a theme that provides some of the more powerful rhetoric in the play.  The Archbishop comes in for criticism most of all since he turns his religious authority towards taking down the king.  This kind of distortion from right office and proportion is the dark potential in historical change.  Hal, by contrast, is more like Jove hiding himself to practice his deceptions before returning to Olympus.  He is friends with that old lord of misrule, Falstaff, who is constantly described as being almost like “Vice” in a morality play, but it turns out, as we are told from the outset, to be true that Hal is in league with providence and that his sense of time is redemptive.  Misrule is an education for him, a pattern by which to judge the wrongdoers he will later need to deal with sharply.  A prince royal or a king may be “but a man,” but it seems we aren’t to judge him on quite the same temporal scale as we judge others.

The source of Henry IV’s fear, we know already from the first play, is guilt because he had initiated his own rule at the expense of Richard II’s death, and the consequences have been violent revolt.  Now that peace is restored, he fears his heir will unleash the spirit of revelry and greed upon the kingdom, achieving only an anarchic reign rather than true succession, which had been the king’s best hope for a happy continuation of his dynasty.

In Act 4 note the parallel with Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane – could you not wait with me even for an hour?  Yet we see the inappropriateness of this reference because Henry IV is no angel, considering how he came by the crown.

The play stages reflections on the private personal mythologies of men like Falstaff and Justice Robert Shallow, mythologies that have currency and scope only within such characters’ restricted social circuits.  But we know that such “personal mythologies” are by no means limited to small or middling characters; recall Owen Glendower’s sureness that the very heavens quaked with prodigies at his birth, or the manner in which Harry Monmouth, Bolingbroke, i.e. Henry IV, came by his crown.  Ever the public-relations expert, he is dealing with the necessity of crafting a legend and an image that the people will accept, casting this image before himself as an interpretive guide to his actions present, past, and future.  It seems that some (like Henry IV and Falstaff) are more self-conscious about this “creative” process, and try to use it to their gain, while others, like good Master Shallow, engage in it more or less unconsciously, to cover up the void of their present existence. (We notice Shallow’s concern for advancing age, the yawning grave – something Falstaff has shrunk from, too.)  Some, like Henry IV, see the limitations and perils of this drive to mythology, too.  Perhaps they use it after the manner of Plato’s well-intentioned philosopher kings in The Republic.  I suppose Falstaff is in his way just as reflective, though of course his way of dealing with it is to turn to cynicism and moral relativity that can have dire consequences for those who serve him, like the poor ragamuffins who are “peppered with shot” under his cowardly command.  Falstaff has certainly mixed with the great, taking his part in the weaving of history, thus showing that they are not gods.  Ultimately, Hal’s promise to maintain the lie that graces Falstaff’s absurd pretensions can’t be sustained: the great events and their aftermath demand better, and he is swept aside with nothing but a vague promise of possible rehabilitation, redemption.  But we know from Henry V that old Jack dies a sad, broken man, lost in his abandonment by the prince he loved.

The sentimental moments in WS’s portrayal of Falstaff are genuine, but their scope is ruthlessly limited by events and great personages from the tapestry of English history.  This is something his plays’ very structure is determined to bring home to us.  Word and sentiment can’t be permanently subordinated to action, and in the end, the world is not to be sacrificed to a quibble or a quibbling character.  On a more existential level, this “roasted manning-tree ox with the pudding in the middle” Jack, brimming with life and overflowing, bursting his proper confines, is reduced to his true dimensions: the ones left him by a life poorly lived and a decaying mass of flesh.  Everyone, as the meanest soldier in King Henry IV or V’s army might have told him, “owe God a death.”  It’s his privilege that no less a man than Prince Hal informs him of his responsibilities.

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen et al., eds. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd edition. Four-Volume Genre Paperback Set. Norton, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93152-5.

Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake

Henry the Fourth, Pt. 2

Questions on Shakespeare’s Histories

Home | Questions | Commentaries | Guides | Links | OLLI

Shakespeare, William. The Second Part of Henry the Fourth. (Norton Histories, 2nd ed. 673-757).


1. In the “Induction” and then in Act 1, Scene 1, what is the present state of the rebellion against King Henry IV? What source or sources do the conspirators, chief among them Henry Percy, 1st Earl of Northumberland (father of Hotspur, whom Prince Harry killed in Act 5 of I Henry IV), use to gather their sense of where they stand? What is the cause of Northumberland’s rage from 1.1.136-60, and what do his angry words suggest to us about the nature and effects of rebellion?

2. Act 1, Scene 2, what is the argument between the Chief Justice and Sir John Falstaff? What is Falstaff trying to accomplish or gain at this point? How does this scene reflect on the ones preceding and following it, in which we hear the rebels assessing and debating their own prospects?


3. In Act 2, Scene 1, in what difficulty is Sir John embroiled with Hostess Quickly of the Boar’s Head Tavern, Eastcheap? How does he resolve it, if indeed what happens amounts to a resolution at all? What is the Hostess’ own perspective on the quarrel?

4. In Act 2, Scene 2, what is Prince Harry’s plan to expose Falstaff’s “true colors”? Reflect back to Prince Harry’s practical joke and raillery at Falstaff’s expense in Act 2 of I Henry IV: in consideration of Harry’s present reflections and devices throughout the scene, what change might we find in his way of evaluating Sir John’s shortcomings?

5. In Act 2, Scene 3, Lady Percy (the slain Hotspur’s wife) and Lady Northumberland (the Earl’s wife) try to talk Northumberland out of taking part in the imminent battles against the King. What arguments do they use, and in the process what contrast between Hotspur and his father the Earl emerges to the latter’s disadvantage?

6. In Act 2, Scene 4, Falstaff’s abuse of Prince Harry’s reputation and friendship is made plain. Consider the sweep of this scene in its entirety — the women’s exchanges with Falstaff, his driving out of fiery Pistol, and then Prince Harry’s exposure and mockery of his ungenerous and overly familiar prating. What basic error does such prating betray in Falstaff’s way of thinking about Harry? And more generally, what figure does old Sir John cut as a man in this scene, with regard both to his sentimental appeal for us and his stark limitations?


7. In Act 3, Scene 1, the King (Henry IV), steeped now in experience, meditates on the burdens of his exalted status. Aside from the famous remark, “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown” (3.1.31), what can we learn from his thoughts on the subject of royal power and pomp, both when he is alone and when he speaks with Warwick?

8. In Act 3, Scene 2, we are introduced to Justice Robert Shallow. What is this character’s personal mythology; i.e., what view of his past has he built up for himself and for retail to others? What habits of speech reinforce his self-representation, and what motive/s might we suppose have led to the construction of such a narrative on his part? How does How does Falstaff assess this old acquaintance, and what advantage does he expect to gain from his brief reunion with Shallow?

9. In Act 3, Scene 2, while conversing with Justice Shallow, Falstaff sets about choosing some soldiers to serve under his charge in the fight against the rebels. Who are these prospective soldiers? What attitudes do they manifest about the wars, and as in I Henry IV (and/or Henry V if you are familiar with that play), what resemblances and contrasts are thereby underscored between the common person’s view of military violence and the views of their aristocratic “betters”?


10. In Act 4, Scene 1, King Henry IV’s supporter the Earl of Westmorland argues the rebellion with the rebels Archbishop of York (Richard Scroop) and Lord Mowbray. What points do they advance in favor of their struggle against the king, and how does Westmorland answer those points? Moreover, what error in military judgment does it soon become clear that the rebels have allowed themselves to commit?

11. In Act 4, Scene 2, Falstaff takes the rebel Sir John Coleville prisoner. We have heard Falstaff talk about military honor before, in 5.1 and 5.3 of I Henry IV. How does the rascal address this issue in the present scene? In addition, how do he and the king’s brother, Prince John, seem to regard each other?

12. In Act 4, Scene 3, what advice does Henry IV give the Duke of Clarence (i.e. his son Thomas) about Prince Harry? How does Warwick assure the king that all will be well with the heir apparent? In responding, consider the relation between Warwick’s response and what Prince Harry himself has said about his conduct thus far, for example in 2.2 and 2.4 of the present play, or 1.2 of I Henry IV? What continuity do you find?

13. In Act 4, Scene 3, Prince Harry reflects on the crown from lines 151-73, somewhat as the king himself had done in 3.1. How does Prince Harry’s emphasis differ from that of the king? Moreover, as the scene progresses with the awakening of the king to find his crown missing, what anxieties beset him about the reign to be expected of his seemingly reckless heir? How does the Prince convince him that his fears are groundless?

14. In Act 4, Scene 3, a reassured King Henry IV offers his heir Prince Harry a striking piece of advice about how a ruler may avoid the worst kind of trouble. What is that advice? What does it suggest about the king’s understanding of his subjects, and, more broadly, about human nature? (See 4.3.305-47; “O my son …”) Consider also what the king does immediately after giving this advice — how does it reflect on or alter your perception of the political counsel he has just given?


15. In Act 5, Scenes 1-2, what theory about “wise bearing or ignorant carriage” (5.1.64) does Falstaff set forth? What happens subsequently (in the second scene) between the Chief Justice and Prince Harry to call this theory into question? In the course of this interaction, what does Prince Harry say to demonstrate his grasp of the legal and formal or ceremonial aspects of his now supreme position?

16. In Act 5, Scenes 3 and 5, what are Falstaff’s expectations now that his old friend Prince Harry is king? What happens to those expectations when the king’s procession passes him by? Consider the manner in which the meeting between these two unfolds in the fifth scene: to what extent does “Harry” recognize his former companion, and what can we learn from the exact manner in which he does so?

Edition: Greenblatt, Stephen et al., eds. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd edition. Four-Volume Genre Paperback Set. Norton, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93152-5.

Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake