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Henry IV, Part 2 /

A Modern Perspective: Henry IV, Part 2

By A. R. Braunmuller

As inventor, or part-inventor, of the English history play, William Shakespeare sought to dramatize the historical information he found in texts chronicling England’s past. Amid a welter of detail, doubts over precise causality, and factual contradictions, the chroniclers Shakespeare read sometimes tried to give their narratives a moral or political shape. The most celebrated of their shapings appears in the lengthy title of Edward Hall’s 1548 The Union of the two noble and illustre famelies of Lancastre & Yorke, beeyng long in continual discension for the croune of this noble realme . . . beginnyng at the tyme of kyng Henry the fowerth, the first aucthor of this devision, and so successively proceadyng to the reigne of . . . kyng Henry the eight, the undubitate flower and very heire of both the sayd linages. For Hall, the long span of events from Henry IV’s deposition of Richard II in 1399 to Henry VIII’s accession in 1509 represented a movement from “division” to “union,” from wrong and civil war to right and peace, and from uncertain title to undoubtable (“undubitate”) authority. Even if Shakespeare had adopted wholesale Hall’s proposed historical pattern (and he did not), the question of how to dramatize that pattern or any other remains.1

One large dramatic structure Shakespeare did choose—it is particularly visible in Henry IV, Part 2—is a dynamic of anticipation and fulfillment. Such a dynamic is theatrically and dramatically appropriate in plays about events already known to their audiences: Richard II will always be deposed, Richard III always dies at Bosworth Field (1485), Prince Hal will always become Henry V (1413), and so forth to the end of English (and all) history. These fulfillments, however, must be treated in such a way as to arouse expectation rather than boredom, or the players will have no audiences. Making an analogy between card tricks and the dramatization of times already past, already known, a character in John Arden’s play about nineteenth-century history, Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance, succinctly defines Shakespeare’s task and his achievement: “That’s what I call life—it all turns up in the expected order, but not when you expect it.”2

Following classical Greek and Roman playwrights who dramatized mythical and legendary subjects whose outlines and outcomes were similarly familiar, Shakespeare uses devices that make the unexpected expected: prophecy and curse, prediction and omen, repetition and quotation, rise and fall. Thus, Queen Margaret’s curses and their fulfillments in Richard III summarize the events of Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3; they recall those events for the audience of the first tetralogy’s culminating play, and they give a question-and-answer shape to Richard III itself.3 Likewise, the bishop of Carlisle’s prophecy of “woefullest division” if Richard II is deposed (Richard II 4.1) is regularly recalled in the second tetralogy’s subsequent plays even as it becomes, or is becoming, “true.” In that same scene, Richard II excoriates his enemy Northumberland and predicts he will be no more loyal to Bolingbroke (later Henry IV) than he has proved to Richard. Sure enough, and testifying to anticipation now fulfilled, Henry IV virtually quotes Richard II, who

Did speak these words, now proved a prophecy[:]

“Northumberland, thou ladder by the which

My cousin Bolingbroke ascends my throne”—

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

“The time shall come,” thus did he follow it,

“The time will come that foul sin, gathering head,

Shall break into corruption”—so went on,

Foretelling this same time’s condition

And the division of our amity.

(Henry IV, Part 2, 3.1.70–80)

Anticipating Henry IV’s death and worrying over what kind of king Hal will be, Gloucester and Clarence make gloomy deductions from various omens:


The people fear [i.e., scare] me, for they do observe

Unfathered heirs and loathly births of nature.

The seasons change their manners, as [if] the year

Had found some months asleep and leapt them over.


The river [Thames] hath thrice flowed, no ebb between,

And the old folk, time’s doting chronicles,

Say it did so a little time before

That our great-grandsire, Edward, sicked and died.


Clarence’s speech is a good example of Shakespeare’s imposition of an omen’s fulfillment, this time anachronistically backward instead of forward; Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles (1587) records the River Thames’ odd behavior in 1412 (not 1413, the year of Henry IV’s death, as imagined in Henry IV, Part 2),4 but it is Shakespeare who adds the detail of Edward III’s death being similarly preceded or predicted. Thus an omen’s fulfillment is retroactively—and dramatically—created.

The dynamic of anticipation and fulfillment has some special features in Henry IV, Part 2, distinguishing this play from Shakespeare’s other history plays and in the process making it his fullest reflection on the nature of history. This special treatment produces a spectrum of responses—in both characters and audiences—that range from morose determinism to a desperate whistling-past-the-graveyard attempt at spontaneity.

Theatrically, one of the most pertinent aspects of the dynamic is the relation between Henry IV, Part 2 and its elder-brother-play, Henry IV, Part 1. As G. K. Hunter first showed, the two plays have numerous parallel episodes; the parallels diminish as the second play goes forward, and by the last act of Henry IV, Part 2 there are few or none.5 For instance, Part 1 contains a splendid episode in which Hal and Poins plan (2.2) and then play (2.4) a trick forcing Falstaff to defend his flight from the abortive Gadshill’s robbery; Hal and Poins similarly disguise themselves in order to lure Falstaff into defending his ridicule of Hal in Part 2 (planning, 2.2; execution, 2.4). Or consider the way each play seems to be leading to a climactic confrontation between disputed authority (Henry IV) and arguably honorable opposition (Northumberland et al.). The results? In Henry IV, Part 1, the Battle of Shrewsbury, mixing royal deceit (the numerous fake King Henry IVs) with feudal single combat (Hotspur and Hal) and with Falstaff ’s cunning, temporarily successful, bid to gain the glory of Hotspur’s defeat; in Henry IV, Part 2, the Gaultree episode, not a battle, where Prince John deceives his opponents into ignominious defeat and instant execution and Falstaff captures Colevile of the Dale without even the effort it took to stab dead Hotspur’s thigh.

These “parallels,” too, exemplify a pattern of anticipation and fulfillment, this time within and between the two plays; they are also not really parallels so much as they are echoes with difference. The Gadshill episode requires ingenuity and risk in its planning and execution and some truly hilarious fast-talking when Falstaff ’s initial heroic explanation is mortally wounded, forcing him to shift to another instantaneously. Its echo in Part 2 is a sad little matter of Poins and Hal eavesdropping in disguise and then revealing themselves as a punishment for Falstaff ’s trivial insults. To keep the joke (and the threat of physical violence) alive, Hal claims Falstaff had seen through their disguises and deliberately insulted the Prince of Wales; thus he forces Falstaff to attack Doll Tearsheet, Mistress Quickly, and other tavern habitués to exculpate himself:

See now whether pure fear and entire cowardice doth not make thee wrong this virtuous gentlewoman to close with [i.e., pacify] us. Is she [Doll] of the wicked, is thine hostess here of the wicked, or is thy boy of the wicked, or honest Bardolph, whose zeal burns in his nose, of the wicked?


The small-minded nastiness of this riposte lies in Hal’s own occasional contempt for Quickly, Doll, and their companions, illustrated by his treatment of Poins himself, Falstaff ’s “boy,” and the two women—“parish heifers [i.e., prostitutes] . . . to the town bull” (2.2.156–57)—in act 2, scene 2. The contrast between Shrewsbury in Part 1 and Gaultree in Part 2 is similarly sharp and similarly distasteful: heroism and a contrary pragmatism that deserves a hearing in the first; a cheat, realpolitik, and the immoral arrogance of deadly choplogic in the second.

In Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, Prince Hal is a hypocrite, a peculiarly subtle version of anticipation and fulfillment played out on a personal level, for—in plays if not in life—the discrepancy between ulterior design and appearance leads us always to anticipate a revelatory moment when design and appearance publicly coincide for good or ill. Yet how different is the princely hypocrisy of Part 1 from that in Part 2. In Part 1, Hal continually invites the audience to note the crafted difference between the way he appears and the way he will appear, advantageously for him and disadvantageously for others. In Part 2, Hal’s actions make him a prisoner of his own sham:

thou [Poins] thinkest me as far in the devil’s book as thou and Falstaff for obduracy and persistency. Let the end try the man. But I tell thee, my heart bleeds inwardly that my father is so sick; and keeping such vile company as thou art hath in reason taken from me all ostentation of sorrow.

POINS     The reason?

PRINCE    What wouldst thou think of me if I should weep?

POINS    I would think thee a most princely hypocrite.


There is no advantage in being hypocritical if one does not or cannot keep the hypocrisy secret. Further, the reputation of hypocrisy makes expressing genuine feeling (the inwardly bleeding heart that leads to “ostentation of sorrow”) impossible, as Henry IV’s response to Hal’s premature mourning and removal of the sleeping king’s crown makes clear:

Thy wish was father, Harry, to that thought.

I stay too long by thee; I weary thee.

Dost thou so hunger for mine empty chair

That thou wilt needs invest thee with my honors

Before thy hour be ripe?


Hypocritical behavior may or may not be justifiable, and Hal’s in Part 1 has been defended as a necessary form of self-sacrifice to the greater need of the commonwealth. When hypocrisy freezes into self-loathing, however, it is both ineffective and unattractive.

Each of these repetitions that are not quite parallel shows Henry IV, Part 2 to be a more stunted and unforgiving dramatic environment than that of its predecessor: the comic tricks become more malicious, requiring Falstaff to be actively cruel rather than self-deprecatingly and self-justifyingly grandiloquent; the laudable aim of political and social peace loses any pretence to justice; and the price of healing the divisions his father caused is still exacted from Hal, but the reward is only a weary contempt for his companions and his father’s sick disbelief.6

A dynamic of anticipation and fulfillment describes not only a pattern in Shakespeare’s English history plays, especially in Henry IV, Part 2, but also a pattern in the experience of every spectator who sees the same play more than once. We can learn more about the special nature of Henry IV, Part 2 if we ask what distinguishes the ways it repeats Part 1 from the way any single performance of Henry IV, Part 1 repeats another.

Why, for instance, does repeating a joke on Falstaff seem stale and bitter when it crosses between the two plays, yet ever-fresh when we see it happen again and again in performances of Part 1? First, we see Falstaff and Hal together much less frequently and at much less length in Part 2 than in Part 1. Falstaff therefore appears in circumstances where the personal and political stakes do not have much opportunity to impress us. The victories are more trivial, the deceits needed to achieve them shabbier. Second, a sense of tolerance and forbearance evident among the Eastcheap gang in Part 1 has vanished in Part 2, a forbearance that marked more than the temporary suspension of the inevitable and long-predicted showdown between Falstaff and Hal that hangs over both parts. Mere swagger and bravado among the men in Part 1 are now real blows, real wounds. Pistol, not present in Part 1 and humbled to a bawd’s role in Henry V (5.1), here speaks Henry IV, Part 2’s recapitulation of many earlier plays and appears nearly crazed with masculine, military violence. Mistress Quickly has evidently given up hope—her first act in Part 2 is to attempt to have Falstaff arrested—and though he soon enough bamboozles her again, he succeeds only through the paradoxical and morally repugnant argument that to expect him to be honest is to be in a “humor” and someone else’s dupe: “Come, thou must not be in this humor with me. Dost not know me? Come, come. I know thou wast set on to this” (2.1.156–58). Like another of Falstaff ’s perpetually deceived women, “old Mistress Ursula, whom I have weekly sworn to marry since I perceived the first white hair of my chin” (1.2.247–49), Mistress Quickly is also “old Mistress Quickly” (2.2.151, my emphasis), and Doll speaks a sad truth for the audience as well as the characters:

Come, I’ll be friends with thee, Jack. Thou art going to the wars, and whether I shall ever see thee again or no, there is nobody cares.


Third, Falstaff ’s calculating relation with Hal has become far more evident, or at least Falstaff acknowledges this calculation to himself and the audience in soliloquy far more bluntly:

I will devise matter enough out of this Shallow to keep Prince Harry in continual laughter the wearing out of six fashions, which is four terms, or two actions, and he shall laugh without intervallums. O, it is much that a lie with a slight oath and a jest with a sad brow will do with a fellow that never had the ache in his shoulders.


A “lie with a slight oath and a jest with a sad brow” are indeed Falstaff ’s staple techniques of ingratiation. Being granted this glimpse of the manipulator inside the jest-maker troubles rather than endears, and the sentence concludes with Falstaff ’s acknowledging that it hurts him to laugh, just as the jokes and laughter are also becoming more painful for the audience. To be sure, Hal’s exploitation of Falstaff and Francis and Hotspur and many others made him unattractive in Part 1, and similar traits persist in Part 2. But Hal never concealed his calculation from the audience, and there are many characters—including Warwick in Part 2, 4.3.73–84, virtually quoting Hal’s own self-justification (Part 1, 1.2.202–24)who agree with Hal’s claim that he acts and speaks not out of self-interest, as Falstaff manifestly does, but out of a desire to heal the social rifts that his father’s usurpation opened.

Political transgression—the overthrow and murder of Richard II—historically condemned England, Scotland, and Wales to what Edward Hall named “The unquiete tyme of Kyng Henry the fourthe,”7 a reign filled with social and political insubordination, overambitious aristocrats, hopes—including Henry’s own hope of a holy crusade—deferred and then denied. “Hope deferred maketh the heart sick,” the biblical proverb begins, and Shakespeare’s characters regularly analogize Henry IV’s illegitimate rule with a metaphorical national sickness. The archbishop of York, one of Henry’s rebellious enemies, imagines the common people as a dog returning to its vomit:

The commonwealth is sick of their own choice.

Their over-greedy love hath surfeited.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

And being now trimmed in thine own desires,

Thou, beastly feeder, art so full of him [Henry IV]

That thou provok’st thyself to cast him up.


Justifying rebellion at Gaultree, the archbishop later avers:

                                        we are all diseased

And with our surfeiting and wanton hours

Have brought ourselves into a burning fever,

And we must bleed for it; of which disease

Our late King Richard, being infected, died.


When Henry IV learns of the multiple defeats of his many enemies, the happy news has a paradoxical effect:

And wherefore should these good news make me sick?

Will Fortune never come with both hands full,

But write her fair words still in foulest letters?

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

I should rejoice now at this happy news,

And now my sight fails, and my brain is giddy.

O, me! Come near me, now I am much ill.


Rebellious nation, sick king; a sickened nation, a usurping monarch.

Yet the illness is other or more than metaphorical. Illness comes to seem the very consequence of time’s passage: the coming of old age, the likelihood of increasing physical weakness, the certainty of death. Falstaff ’s first words concern pathology:

FALSTAFF    Sirrah, you giant, what says the doctor to my water [i.e., urine]?

PAGE    He said, sir, the water itself was a good healthy water, but, for the party that ow[n]ed it, he might have more diseases than he knew for.


Similarly, Henry IV regards “the revolution of the times”—that is, the very passage of time, the revolving of the heavens and earth—as so inevitably degenerative that “The happiest youth,” somehow granted a vision of “his [future] progress,” “Would shut the book [of fate] and sit him down and die” (3.1.46, 54–56).

Many of the play’s many old characters, however, do not sit down and die, however enfeebled of body, mind, and spirit they may seem or be. The first of the three fine scenes (3.2, 5.1, 5.3) at Justice Shallow’s Gloucestershire house begins with a sharp illustration of Poins’s observation, “Is it not strange that desire should so many years outlive performance?” (2.4.265–66). Here Poins remarks on what he regards as Falstaff ’s senile sexual desire, but the first Gloucestershire scene argues that other desires persist, too. As Shallow overwhelms Justice Silence with reminiscences of decades before and mournfully contemplates death, he also asks pointed economic questions that seem to anticipate future livestock transactions:

SHALLOW   . . . Death, as the Psalmist saith, is certain to all. All shall die. How a good yoke of bullocks at Stamford Fair?

SILENCE   By my troth, cousin, I was not there.

SHALLOW   Death is certain. Is old Dooble of your town living yet?

SILENCE   Dead, sir.

SHALLOW   Jesu, Jesu, dead! He drew a good bow, and dead? He shot a fine shoot. John o’ Gaunt loved him well, and betted much money on his head. Dead! He would have clapped i’ th’ clout at twelve score, and carried you a forehand shaft a fourteen and fourteen and a half, that it would have done a man’s heart good to see. How a score of ewes, now?

SILENCE   Thereafter as they be, a score of good ewes may be worth ten pounds.


Death is certain to all, unquestionably; Justice Shallow, however, has a lively interest in the present and future values of bullocks and ewes. The scene continues with the cruel humor of Falstaff ’s press-ganging soldiers for the wars and then Falstaff ’s promising that he will return to fleece his surprisingly (and for Falstaff, unpleasantly enviable) rich and successful old acquaintance.

Last among the Gloucestershire scenes is a brief late-night drinking party. It displays the most genuine merriment in the play, largely because while Silence says little sober, he sings quite a lot, drunk. Pistol interrupts this country demi-idyll with news of Henry IV’s death, Hal’s accession, and, or so Falstaff assumes, his consequent rise as royal councillor and victor at last over his old antagonist, the Lord Chief Justice:

Boot, boot, Master Shallow. I know the young king is sick for me. 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!


Falstaff forgets his own experience and his own views here. That experience came seven acts before (if we regard Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 as a ten-act play) when Falstaff thought he was playing Hal, addressing Hal playing Henry IV:

No, my good lord, banish Peto, banish Bardolph, banish Poins, but for sweet Jack Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff, valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant being as he is old Jack Falstaff, banish not him thy Harry’s company, banish not him thy Harry’s company. Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.

(Part 1, 2.4.491–98)

Hal’s celebrated, and true, reply is not by a pretend Henry IV, but by a real Hal, sooner or later to be Henry V: “I do, I will.” Falstaff ’s increasingly pathetic attempts at ingratiation, combined with his physical isolation from Hal in Part 2, suggest he has not forgotten Hal’s words nor has he failed to realize their implication. Whether or not we imagine an emotional life for Falstaff that would lead him to repress this strong warning, he sneeringly concludes the second Gloucestershire scene with reflections he might better have taken to heart:

It is a wonderful thing to see the semblable coherence of his [Justice Shallow’s] men’s spirits and his. They, by observing of him, do bear themselves like foolish justices; he, by conversing with them, is turned into a justice-like servingman. Their spirits are so married in conjunction with the participation of society that they flock together in consent like so many wild geese. . . . It is certain that either wise bearing or ignorant carriage is caught, as men take diseases, one of another. Therefore let men take heed of their company.


Falstaff here gives a neatly cynical rendition of his own technique and his own predicament: he should take as careful note of his company as Hal does of his. Diseases, whether individual or national, are indeed caught “one of another.”

When Falstaff and Prince Hal meet for the second time in Henry IV, Part 2, Hal has a changed office (he is now Henry V) and is therefore a changed person.10 Prince has become king. Falstaff—who earlier ran through all the variations of his name and title only to find they amounted, redundantly, to no more than “Sir John Falstaff, knight” (2.2.116–17)—has not changed and is therefore unknown to and unknowable by the prince-turned-icon, the prince who has become or will become the “mirror of all Christian kings” (Henry V, 2. Chorus.6).

Prince Hal was always going to become Henry V. History and the chroniclers Shakespeare read teach us so. Shakespeare’s audiences also knew that historical fact. The anticipated moment was always going to be fulfilled. And Prince Hal/King Henry V was always going to banish “plump Jack” and all Falstaff ’s “world,” if we believe Hal’s long-ago assertion (Part 1, 2.4). Even so the merriment of Eastcheap, the remembered gaiety of Justice Shallow’s youth in London (Part 2, 3.2), the timeless time of agèd Justice Silence’s drunken song, “the merry year, / When flesh is cheap and females dear, / And lusty lads roam here and there . . .” (5.3.18–20)—all these must have an end, because as Shallow’s already-quoted saying affirms, “Death . . . is certain to all. All shall die.”

The extraordinary power of Henry IV, Part 2 as a play about history does not arise from its dramatizing of historical events; they are few in the play, and Shakespeare omits many he might have included. Rather, the play’s power comes from the way it shows how time passes and how with time’s passing all that the audience values—friendship and love, physical strength and sexual prowess, ideals of state and duty, parental care and children’s love—all these and more must also pass. Henry IV, Part 2 is a great play about history because it shows how little history cares about all we care about.

“Hope deferred maketh the heart sick: but when the desire cometh, it is a tree of life” (Proverbs 13.12) is a profoundly hopeful hope. That hope is not what we feel at the conclusion of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 2. To repeat, and the repetition also acknowledges the passage(s) of history and time: “whether I shall ever see thee again or no, there is nobody cares.” So says Doll Tearsheet. Her king-to-be, Prince Hal, says much the same: “thus we play the fools with the time, and the spirits of the wise sit in the clouds and mock us” (Part 2, 2.2.141–42). Three centuries later, John Arden’s character Annie speaks a modern version of Shakespeare’s truth: “That’s what I call life—it all turns up in the expected order, but not when you expect it”

  1. An excellent treatment of Shakespeare’s histories as a group, taking up among other points this issue, is Phyllis Rackin, Stages of History (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990); relevant earlier studies include E. M. W. Tillyard, Shakespeare’s History Plays (London: Chatto and Windus, 1944), and H. A. Kelly, Divine Providence in the England of Shakespeare’s Histories (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1970).
  2. John Arden, Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance: An Unhistorical Parable (New York: Grove Press, 1960), p. 42.
  3. See A. R. Braunmuller, “Early Shakespearian Tragedy and Its Contemporary Context: Cause and Emotion in Titus Andronicus, Richard III, and The Rape of Lucrece,” in Shakespearian Tragedy, ed. M. Bradbury and D. J. Palmer, Stratford-upon-Avon Studies 20 (London: Edward Arnold, 1984), pp. 96–128.
  4. Raphael Holinshed et al., The . . . Third Volume of Chronicles (1587), p. 540, column b.
  5. See G. K. Hunter, “Henry IV and the Elizabethan Two-part Play” (1954), rpt. in his Dramatic Identities and Cultural Tradition (Liverpool: University of Liverpool Press, 1978), pp. 303–18; Harold Jenkins, The Structural Problem in Shakespeare’s “Henry the Fourth” (London: Methuen, 1956); Sherman H. Hawkins, “Henry IV: The Structural Problem Revisited,” Shakespeare Quarterly 33 (1982): 278–301.
  6. “There is, throughout Part II, a musty atmosphere as of stale air in closed rooms, of moral and physical debility” (Sigurd Burckhardt, Shakespearean Meanings [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968], p. 152); Burckhardt’s study of “Shakespeare’s Prince Hal Trilogy” (pp. 144–205) is a superb exposition of Part 2’s atmosphere of failure, weakness, and aging.
  7. Edward Hall, Union of the . . . famelies of Lancastre & Yorke (1548), folio 9v (signature Blv).
  8. This passage appears in the Folio edition (1623) but not in the play’s earliest printing, a quarto (1600).
  9. Henry here speaks an inverse of (which also proves an identity with) Northumberland’s reaction to news of Hotspur’s defeat and death at Shrewsbury: “In poison there is physic, and these news, / Having been well, that would have made me sick, / Being sick, have in some measure made me well” (1.1.150–52).
  10. For this distinction and its implications, see Philip Edwards, Person and Office in Shakespeare’s Plays (London: Oxford University Press, 1970).