I feel guilty because I don’t feel compelled to say much about The Second Part of Henry the Fourth, and I feel like I should. Like not saying much would be letting myself, my readership (all three of you), my teachers, my parents, and well, Shakespeare himself, down. And then I think, wow, whence this pressure, this need to make everybody happy? When I started the project (now eight plays down, 30 to go), I’d just intended to read and ‘comment.’ Not read and do in-depth, ground-breaking analysis and commentary leading to a PhD dissertation. So in order to get off my own back and in honor of summer vacation, this post will be “Shakespeare Lite.”
In this sequel (or, some argue, continuation of a play cleft in half due to excessive length)Hal comes of age and decides to become king, not only in title but in person. This isn’t a given as the play begins. The character list alone leaves us as uncertain about whether or not we’re about to read a comedy or a history as whether or not Hal will rise to the occasion. Witness: Justices named Shallow and Silence, Sergeants called Fang and snare, and County Soldiers dubbed Mouldy, Shadow, Wart, Fable, and Bullcalf. Are we to take this motley crew seriously? Hard to say, at first glance.
Hal appears in fewer scenes than in Part 1 with the relentless, corrupting Falstaff, thereby distancing himself from this bad influence. Yet he does conceive and execute an elaborate schoolboy prank to punk him at the Boar’s Head Tavern, where Hostess Quickly famously asserts that Falstaff “hath eaten me out of house and home.” (II,i,74)
What are we to believe when the play itself starts out with a pack of lies that a character named Rumor plans to spread. False reports and farce abound. The comic scenes punctuate the serious business of war and state with the most bawdy, licentious, risky and racy goings on. Falstaff bobs and weaves his way out of avoiding responsibility and accountability for his misdeeds and debts. Our globe spins as the scenes flip flop and we wonder where the needle will rest when the Wheel of Fortune stops spinning.
The dying King himself shares our concerns, wondering if his errant and immature son is up for the task at hand. His insomniac lament about ungrateful children echoes Lear. “Uneasy,” he tells us “lies the head that wears a crown.” (III,i,31)
But Hal cannot remain Peter Pan forever. He needs to decide to which shoulder he’ll lean his ear closest, and who he’ll flick off the other: His father, the King, descended straight from God (IV,ii,28), or Falstaff, the hefty devil who waxes poetic in his ode to sherry, concluding that had he children he’d teach them “to addict themselves to sack” (IV,iii,124-5)
It’s touch and go until the last; a real nail biter keeps us hanging. The King certainly doubts his son: “the fift Harry from curb’d license plucks/The muzzle of restraint, and the wild dog/Shall flesh his tooth on every innocent./O my poor kingdom, sick with civil blows!” (IV, v, 130-3) But Hal does ultimately choose to leave Neverland behind and grow up. He reconciles with his dad on his death bed, and denies, Judas-like, his father figure and partner in crime, Falstaff, after his own coronation.
“I know thee not, old man, fall to thy prayers./How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!” (V,v,47-8) He scolds him to lose weight and stop drinking.
Hal rejects in Falstaff all the faults that he must shed himself as he assumes the mantle of king: “Presume not that I am the thing I was,/For God doth know, so shall the world perceive,/That I have turn’d away my former self.” (V,v,56-8) To seal the deal, Hal banishes Falstaff.
The Epilogue sets up the sequel and hints at the great man King Henry V will, in fact, become.