The success of Henry IV Part I (three editions of the play were printed in 1598 – 1599) and the figure of Sir John Falstaff led to demand from the queen and the more general audience for ‘more of Sir John Falstaff’. This led to two further plays, ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ and ‘Henry IV Part II‘. This was probably written in 1597 – 98. There is much academic debate as to whether Shakespeare originally intended to write two parts of Henry IVth, or was driven by demand.
Henry IV Part II is the third play of the Henriad, : Richard II, Henry IV Part I, Henry IV Part II, and Henry Vth, all of which have a major theme of authority. In Henry IV Part I, Henry, now king (Henry IV), is having trouble with Northumberland and his son Harry Hotspur, and his own son, Prince Hal, who seems to prefer spending time with Falstaff, than helping his father the king. This plot is repeated in Henry IV Part II. The king is ill and seems to have forgotten the help of Prince Hal at the Battle of Shrewsbury. The Prince continues to enjoy his time with the low-life of Eastcheap, though he spends much less time with Falstaff, probably in preparation for his rejection of Falstaff when he becomes king. There is another rebellion, but this time defeated by a duplicitous (or Machiavellian) trick by Prince John, Hal’s brother in the Forest of Gaultree.
The play is usually seen as darker than Henry IV Part I, and less successful.
The play focuses on Prince Hal’s journey towards kingship and his rejection of Falstaff once king. He distances himself from Falstaff. They only appear together in two scenes. In the first, Prince Hal and Poins, with some disgust, spy on Falstaff as he makes love to Doll Tearsheet, a prostitute. In the second, after becoming king, when he rejects him publically.
Falstaff is moving towards death and rejection. When rebellion breaks out, Hal gets him a commission to raise soldiers for the king, to support Prince John in his battle against the rebels. He visits an old friend, Justice Shallow, in rural Gloucestershire, where he ‘presses’ soldiers to join him, letting the best go free, for a bribe, and those without money are forced to join him.
Falstaff joins with Prince John, who overcomes the rebels by a rather mean trick, and Falstaff returns to Justice Shallow for a scene where rural England is evoked with great humour and love.
Henry IV plays a much smaller part in this play than in Henry IV Part I. He is ill, cannot sleep, consumed by guilt and worries, and eventually dies, after being reconciled with Prince Hal.
The news of the death of the king reaches Falstaff in Gloucestershire and he rushes to London, supported by Shallow and others and arrives just in time for the coronation. He calls out to the new king who unceremoniously rejects him. “I know thee not old man.”
The new king has always known that kingship would lead to the rejection of Falstaff, and this can appear Machiavellian, but perhaps in this play, we can see Shakespeare’s view of the authority of the king at its clearest. ‘Good rule is not the wielding of power but the fostering of the good life on the national scale’. Henry IV’s deposition of Richard II has its moral blemishes, but the order that he imposes is better than the chaos of Richard’s rule. The rebels in Henry IV Part I and II seek to bring anarchy, and so their defeat is in the interests of the people. Falstaff’s cry ‘the laws of England are at my commandment’ demonstrates why Henry Vth has to reject him, and accept the Lord Chief Justice as ‘father’.
C21 Performance considerations:
We have the same reservations about this play as about Henry IV Part I. The story of Prince Hal’s relationship with his father, with Falstaff, and with the Lord Chief Justice, still moves a modern audience. But the conflict between the rebels and the King is harder to empathise with, particularly given Prince John’s duplicitous trick to defeat the rebels.
The scenes with Hal and his father; Falstaff with Justices Shallow and Silence delight, to the scenes between Falstaff and Prince Hal, have led to us extracting the story of Prince Hal, his father the king, and Falstaff, to focus on the conflict between the two fathers and their two very different philosophies. We plan to publish (shortly) the resulting 1 hour play – ‘Gentlemen of the Shade’ in our C21 edition. This was originally shown at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2003.
The play is over 28,000 words in the Modern First Folio edition and so will need substantial cutting for those who want to put on a 2-hour production of the play. There are also only four fairly minor female roles; Mistress Quickly; Doll Tearsheet; Lady Northumberland, and Lady Percy (Hotspur’s widow).
Henry IV Part II MFFE Version 1.00 as an epub for Apple, Android, and other compatible epub e-readers
Henry IV Part II MFFE Version 1.00 as an .azw3 file for Kindles
Henry IV Part II MFFE Version 1.00 as a PDF for printing (on US letter and European A4 papers) and e-reading with Adobe Reader