The dilemma of producing a proper sequel attends Shakespeare only once in the canon, and herein we will find some of the familiar pitfalls of the genre. To be sure, Henry IV Part II is a fine play but it has an air of construction whereas the first was all invention. And yet our main characters – King and Prince Henry, Falstaff – are imbued with such distinct personalities that it would be a sin not to see them again. It must have been wearying at times for the playwright to invent and invest his characters with such life and nuance only to cast them all aside the next year for a new troop. The history plays only partially solve this problem; though certain characters and plots recur, Shakespeare’s own aesthetics compelled him to create with each play new themes that made it feel unique. Henry IV Part II is an exception – this is an unabashed sequel.
Another play, another rebellion. King Henry’s reign has been defined by the insurrections he’s had to quell, and they have been no small victories, with his traitors scheming to partner with foreign foes. Much as Hotpsur was the heart of the first one, so Archbishop Of York will play that role here. But there is a key difference, elucidated by Morton, a lesser lord come to Northumberland to lighten the news of Hotspur’s defeat with new possibilities:
For that same word, rebellion, did divide
The action of their bodies from their souls;
And they did fight with queasiness, constrain’d,
As men drink potions; that their weapons only
Seem’d on our side, but, for their spirits and souls,
This word, rebellion, it had froze them up,
As fish are in a pond. But now the bishop
Turns insurrection to religion:
Supposed sincere and holy in his thoughts,
He’s follow’d both with body and with mind;
Derives from heaven his quarrel and his cause
What a coldly astute observation: the warriors who fight for rebellion or country will only go so far, but those who fight for their god are indefatigable. Archbishop of York is game for the plan, shamelessly setting aside his “peaceful” robes to invoke god and King Richard to stir up insurrection against the current king. I detest Archbishop of York – a miserable, slimy priest unapologetic in his use of his high status for political aims. Shakespeare does not allow us to merely study the plays from critical arm’s distance; we must get invested in the stories, laugh or cry if we will, and cheer for the decapitations of our enemies. Archbishop of York is a true villain in a play that needs one, as the rebellion plot itself is a rather limp re-telling of the same from the first play. Whereas Hotspur evoked empathy in among memorable comrades as Glendower and the Douglas, Archbishop of York is just hateable. When analyzing the status of King Henry, York invokes a vile metaphor: “So that this land, like an offensive wife that hath enraged him on to offer strokes, as he is striking, holds his infant up, and hangs resolved correction in the arm that was uprear’d to execution.” Who thinks like that? The good bishop does. We only wish that there had been some interaction between him and the heretical poet Falstaff, who does remark to Lord Chief Justice in another scene, “I am as poor as Job, my lord, but so not patient.”
I am not displeased then with the devious turn the Archbishop and his cronies receive from the king’s men. After some general blustering just before the big battle, the king’s representatives – Prince John of Lancaster and Westmoreland – agree to terms so that war might be avoided. They all share a drink, being sure in the meantime that the rebellion forces are informed of a peace agreement. Once the army has been dispersed, Westmoreland doublecrosses the traitors, arresting them as Lancaster sentences them to death: “Most shallowly did you these arms commence, fondly brought here, and foolishly sent hence…Some guard these traitors to the block of death, treason’s true bed and yielder-up of death.”
This is a contentious moment for critics and audiences (and not the only one, as we will see). The king’s men blatantly break their word to the Archbishop, but in doing so they manage to avoid another bloody battle. Opinions are varied on this issue, and some have argued vehemently against this duplicitous maneuver; there is enough evidence in the play to take up either side. But consider: the rebellion was not really being fought for the people of England but rather the aims of a few powermongers. The armies cheer when they hear the news that a peace treaty has been reached. Do they further care that a few lords and an Archbishop might lose their heads? Probably not. Good riddance.
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King Henry IV Part II is a rueful play. In the first part, wit was a conqueror, of kings, empires, gods. But what can conquer wit? Time. Falstaff is repeatedly reminded of this in his otherwise comical misadventures. He cavorts with old friends who insist on romanticizing fictional tales of ancient debauchery. He endures them with humor but there is some sadness in his tone: “We have heard the chimes of midnight, Master Shallow.” The comically inept Shallow, Silence, Davy et al remind me of some backwoods hicks, who while away their days on their secluded farm drinking sack, singing songs, and engaging in circular stupidity. What is most lacking for Falstaff is a wit equal to his; he has no more Prince Henry to play off of, so some of his better barbs go unnoticed. He misses his old friend: “I will devise matter enough out of this Shallow to keep Prince Harry in continual laughter the wearing-out of six fashions.”
And yet Shakespeare does not descend to a hacky portrayal of Falstaff’s own demise. The old rogue is alive and wily as ever, constantly squabbling with authority, women, friends, the world. He is attended by a page who under Prince Henry’s mischievous command is only a small boy; this is a comically undignified assignment for the proud Sir John and provides even in introduction one of the funniest lines of the play (“FALSTAFF: Sirrah, you giant, what says the doctor to my water? PAGE: He said, sir, the water itself was a good healthy water; but, for the party that owed it, he might have moe diseases than he knew for.”) We have several scenes of Falstaff’s vetting process for his army, which basically consists of his punning on the names of his soldiers. He purposely chooses the weakest of the bunch (“And for a retreat, how swiftly will this Feeble, the woman’s tailor, run off!”) I love how Falstaff refuses to treat war with any sort of respect, and that his own aims are more toward robbing his old friend Shallow after the fact.
There are limits to the effectiveness of Falstaff’s wit. Though we in the audience may never tire of him, the other characters surely have. Lord Chief Justice has lost all patience with him, regardless of his association with the rising Prince Henry. He catches him even despite Falstaff’s own best efforts to sneak away (“Boy, tell him I am deaf”) and engages him in a comical dialogue. Falstaff remains as dissident as ever against authority and his royal connection has further emboldened him, so he has no compunction with openly mocking the prince and chief justice. This is a very funny role for him – the disreputable villain has given been a taste of power, and he likes it almost as much as sack. The key exchange (“LORD CHIEF JUSTICE: But since all is well, keep it so: wake not a sleeping wolf. FALSTAFF: To wake a wolf is as bad as to smell a fox.”) exemplifies what’s truly special about Falstaff – he’s not only wittier than his superiors, but he’s wiser as well. We have seen in the last play that he knows all the players in the royal dramas, that he can break most of them down in a few clever lines. He’s also shrewd enough to recognize his own treacherous position in the shifting political climate – after he is confronted by Prince John of Lancaster, Falstaff remarks: “I would you had but the wit: ’twere better than your dukedom. – Good faith, this same young sober-blooded boy doth not love me; nor a man cannot make him laugh.” An important observation that underscores a larger theme in this play: though the power of Falstaff’s wit has not diminished, it has not the same effect that it once did.
Even Prince Henry becomes immune to the Falstaff charm. The first of their two scenes together is as comical as expected, as Hal and Poins disguise themselves as drawers to spy on Falstaff cavorting with Doll Tearsheet, one of the “working women” of the pub. But Hal’s attentions have turned most resolutely to the crown, as the king is ill and, after spurning the Archbishop’s rebellion, has taken to his royal bed. The heir must therefore prepare for that moment when the sun finally appears from behind those “base contagious clouds.” Therefore we get a few more scenes of the king venting about his son’s company in which he bitterly envisions his reign: “Have you a ruffian that will swear, drink, dance, revel the night, rob, murder, and commit the oldest sins the newest kind of ways? Be happy, he will trouble you no more…England shall give him office, honour, might.”
Since the prince does not have another battle in which to prove himself worthy – and his victory at Shrewsbury is referred to as political capital that he has since spent – he must once again offer words of apology and intent. But there will come a point when his words will not be enough, when he must prove with his actions that he is worthy of the crown. King Henry’s final counsel to his son is powerful, full of hard earned wisdom and realpolitik: “God knows, my son, by what by-paths and indirect crookt ways I met this crown…Therefore, my Harry, be it thy course to busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels.” This had always been King Henry IV’s own intention, but rebellions had quelled his plans. He sees his son falling into the same predicament, perhaps an even worse one since he is not yet so respected.
King Henry is a complicated guy: a good man who wants what’s best for his family and his country yet has no qualms about whatever means may be employed to achieve that. He has encountered more than his fair share of treachery since we first saw him with proud resolution stand before King Richard. His reign has been defined by traitorous rebellion, but he’s smart enough to realize that it was his own contentious means used to gain the crown that have haunted him. We constantly see his frustrations – he knows that he can earn gold and prosperity with a successful foreign war but the rebellions have sapped his resources; he wishes for a son he can be proud of and to leave his legacy, but Prince Henry is too preoccupied with his rascally friends.
How is Prince Henry to navigate this problem? He is known as the wild child, unequipped to follow the basic laws of England, let alone wear the crown. Just before his father’s death, he is caught taking the crown from his father’s pillow, which even in an honest moment of mourning, must have come off badly to the king’s advisors. (That scene does not work as well in print as it likely does onstage, where an actor can visibly speak to the crown for effect.) He is also completely alone when he is crowned king, as both the court and his own family suspect his allegiances and capabilities.
Thus the newly crowned King Henry V must face his problems head on. The first prickly issue is Lord Chief Justice, who is aware that his contentious relationship with Falstaff may fair poorly in the new king’s judgment. But he is given opportunity to fully explain his position, to which King Henry V practically bows with humility and support. Perhaps overly so: we know how clever Hal can be, and since this issue with the court is essentially a match of wits, he can publicly offer up just the right words to the old justice to gain his respect. His words to his brothers are more sincere; they had worried that perhaps he might extract some sort of punishment but he assuages them: “This is the English, not the Turkish court…a joint burden laid upon us all. For me, by heaven, I bid you assured, I’ll be your father and brother too.” A sweet moment, and some reassurance that the compassionate young man has survived the coronation to king.
But what about his treatment of Falstaff? Here we come to the most contentious moment in the play, which dwarfs the minor arguments about the doublecrossing of the rebels. When Falstaff hears the news of King Henry V, he is ecstatic and comical as ever as he flies to greet the new king: “Let us take any man’s horses; the laws of England are at my commandment. Blessed are they that have been my friends; and woe to my lord chief justice!” But he is not aware of the tricky political world Hal is now facing, particularly with respect to his old friends. There has to still be some doubts in the court at this sudden change from the wild young man to honorable king. This also presents a signficant problem for the author: Shakespeare was to write Henry as a great king in the next play, plausibly leading army and country to war, so there had be some sort of demarcation from the young prince to mature king. Greenblatt writes: “In Prince Hal, the author of Henry IV saw himself, projecting onto his character a blend of experimental participation and careful, self protective distance; recognizing the functional utility of his tavern lessons in language games and in role-playing; and unsentimentally accepting the charge of calculated self-interest.” Perhaps this gets to why these two plays feel so alive and vital – Shakespeare has invested much of his own experience and emotion into these characters, finding some real connection between Prince Hal’s arc and his own.
Must Hal so publicly and brutally reject Falstaff? I suppose so. Bloom calls this play “The Passion of Sir John Falstaff.” When he shouts out his old friend at the coronation, King Henry V famously brushes him off: “I know thee not old man.” He does offer a few words of vague support (“as we hear you do reform yourselves, we will, according to your strength and qualities, give you advancement”) but the fatal blow has already been struck, and all involved surely must know that Falstaff is well beyond any sort of ‘royal reformation.’ But what a dilemma for the author – he must have his future hero banish his favored rogue. Shakespeare does not shrink from this, though again Falstaff’s death would have made for a cleaner narrative and connected with the theme of aging that informs the Falstaff subplots. But these plays are always bold, inventive, never clean. And so Falstaff meets the highest of public indignities with wit: “Shallow, I owe you a thousand pound.” He had borrowed that money under the pretext of his coming advancement, but later explains to his comrades that the king had only playing a public role and would soon call to his old friend in secret for advice. So no, on second thought, he’ll be keeping those thousand pounds. Has wit been conquered? Perhaps not.
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King Henry IV Part II ends with a most curious Epilogue: a Dancer appears to essentially apologize for the quality of the play: “I was lately here in the end of a displeasing play, to pray your patience for it, and to promise you a better.” The dancer goes on to offer a bit more apologia involving Falstaff and his supposed connection to the real Sir John Oldcastle, which had been a matter of contention among the descendants of the family, then promises that the fictional Falstaff would return in the next play. The dancer ends will some patriotic words: “and so kneel down before you; but indeed, to pray for the queen.”
What’s going on here? There are several possibilities. It might be argued that Shakespeare did not actually write the epilogue; though I hold no credence to any theory of multiple authors of Shakespeare’s work, the whole process of producing the plays and publishing the First Folio is still shrouded in much mystery. Could not some concerned party with a fair poetic bent have perhaps added an epilogue just to be sure that the play would not be banned and forgotten? Perhaps, but the more likely possibility that Shakespeare did indeed write this ending is even more interesting. How besieged was this famous playwright with political pressures? Nonetheless the plays are unflinching in their portrayals of royalty, in the sexual humor and general dissidence toward convention. Rarely do we see something so openly apologetic as this epilogue. I suspect that his real concern would have been an artistic one. We have just seen his great king banish the audience’s favorite character, and do so wholly and seemingly without compassion. Though we can surely find arguments and reasons for this within the play, the effect could have been shocking for an audience who loved Falstaff. A great king is crowned, a thief is sent to prison, and the audience riots – how audacious is Shakespeare? But it’s a sudden end to one of the richest friendships in all the plays. So there is a promise that Falstaff will return, that he has not been sent to death, that they will perhaps reunite. Or if not, that we will at least see him again – Falstaff In Prison would have been a very funny play. One final note: the Epilogue does serve as bookend of sorts with the Induction in which personified Rumor appears onstage to offer false reports of war. Perhaps this is a key to this mystery, that in fact the dancer’s patriotic words and promises are as insincere as any other rumor.
King Henry IV Part II must have been a much more difficult play to write. Part I seems to come alive of its own devices, and the critical consensus is that Falstaff as a character truly emerged as Shakespeare wrote him. But having conjured him, he must somehow juggle this unusually powerful character in among his larger historical narrative. Falstaff is bigger than kings, wars, too big even for the stage. Goddard: “[W]e must see him, as Titania did Bottom, with our imagination, not with our senses. And that is why we shall never see Falstaff on the stage…[A]s for the miracle – it just refuses to happen in a theater. It would take Falstaff himself to act Falstaff.” Did Shakespeare know that Falstaff would not return for King Henry V? I suppose so, therefore even his seemingly minor interactions with the likes of Shallow are given lengthy examination in this play. Shakespeare was surely aware of the rarity of his creation and we can sense that he invested much of his own personal experience into his writing. “He drew Shylock out of his own long pocket,” Joyce wrote in Ulysses; from where did he draw Falstaff? Robert Greene? He feels so alive that he must have been based on someone he knew, but the wit is of course Shakespeare’s own. I get the sense that he cared for the main players in Henry IV very much, as audiences have, as we all should. Falstaff: “I am not only witty in myself, but the cause that is wit in other men.” There is no greater Shakespearean honor.