Henry IV, Part 2 (~1599) by William Shakespeare

A much lesser work than “Henry IV, Part 1”, to my mind. There are some great moments in here, but the play as a whole feels so much more tangential and padded than “Richard II” and “Henry IV, Part 1”. It picks up in the later acts, but there’s so much repetitive Falstaff material in the first acts that it really does lag. I honestly think the two “Henry IV” plays could have been combined, with most of this one chopped out, the battle of Shrewsbury from the first play serving as the climax, and the key moments in this play forming the denouement.

As is, many characters regress and go through character development they already went through in the last play, most notably Hal. The plot conflict is literally the same as the last play, the rebels causing trouble for the Lancasters, so cutting to the unique elements of this play – Prince John’s surprising method of dealing with the rebels, King Henry IV’s weakening health, Hal rising the occasion, the changing relationship between Hal and Falstaff – would have felt more natural in a way. It’s somewhat ridiculous how Falstaff seems to have the most lines in this play, and the titular character barely any in comparison. At least what lines he does have are fantastic.

This play focuses more on the idea of doubles in the thematic sense, to the point where I was reconsidering the first play and wondering if there were some I missed. Certainly the first play had the high vs low dynamic, with the Boar’s Head inn contrasting with Henry’s court, Falstaff and his rogues contrasting with the nobility, the stability of noble marriages like that which the Percys had with the breezy inconsistency of the prostitutes of the inn, and so on. But it wasn’t until this play I zeroed in on the idea of Falstaff and Henry IV as contrasting doubled father figures for Hal, which is part of why the ending of the play is so important for his character.

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Henry IV himself resembles his father John of Gaunt in “Richard II”, being aged, sick, growing mad, engaging in long diatribes about his age and the nation that don’t always land properly with whoever’s listening. Henry IV’s realisation that his wish to atone for usurping Richard II by crusading to the Holy Land, expressed in the closing of “Richard II”, cannot be realised, as his age and closeness to death prevents him from doing it now, and the civil strife and instability of his reign has prevented him from doing it earlier. It falls on his son to make the realm more stable and perhaps to atone for Richard II’s death too, but is Hal up to the task? You’d assume so, given the ending of “Henry IV, Part 1” centres around Hal going through the character development to become someone his father can rely on, but his character is regressed here, and basically goes through the same development again. The scenes between the two Henrys are fantastic, but I find them odd structurally on the big-picture level, in terms of their characters. Still, the moving scene where the two of them make peace and understand each other is very powerful stuff, and is what makes the ending, where Hal spurns his other father figure Falstaff, understandable, even while it’s still devastating.

Just how devastating that scene is depends on your reading of the characters though. I feel I understand and empathise well, but I struggle a bit with Falstaff. I find some of lines comic, and his relationship with Hal is well-developed, but I found myself exceedingly tired of him in this play. In the preceding play, his scenes didn’t feel like divergences, as all subplots converged at the climax, and his scenes then were with Hal and thus building the foundation for Hal’s character development. Here, all but two of his scenes are without Hal, and thus rest on him alone. Alone, I find him a much less compelling character. It doesn’t help that so many of his scenes are so repetitive, and almost feel just like padding. His motivation in this play I also found difficult to empathise with – I certainly understand feeling close to his stand-in son figure, Hal, but his arrogance and assuredness about reaping nepotistic rewards when Hal is crowned is so emphasised and repeated that it ends up feeling less rougish, and more exploitative.

I very much feel the character of Falstaff, despite his enormous amounts of material in the text, is one that would get filtered and interpreted to a much more focused state through stagings and adaptations, as I found it difficult to fully grasp my readings of his character and many of his scenes here. Exciting stuff for those performing the play, I’m sure, to interpret him as they’d like – should he be proud of Hal’s growth at the end, devastated by Hal’s treatment of him, bottling up and covering up his feelings from it through his humour, something else entirely? For all the lines Falstaff gets in the play, so much in unsaid here about the relationship between him and Hal. How did Hal truly take the insults he overheard? Did they factor in to his treatment of Falstaff at the end, or was it purely born of fulfilling his promise to his father, or was it just fulfilling his stated plan in “Henry IV, Part 1” to eventually straighten up all along? Was it as much Hal killing part of himself, the part less suited for kingship, as killing Falstaff’s heart?

There’s isolated brilliance in this play, but it’s between long padded stretches were little happens except retreadings of the superior preceding play. I give it three captured knights, and a new king.

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