Henry IV, Part Two

January 29 0 Comments Category: On Shakespeare

“Then you perceive the body of our kingdom
How foul it is, what rank diseases grow,
And with what danger, near the heart of it.”

These lines, spoken by King Henry IV, symptomize the uneasiness that pervades this play.  In fact, the play opens with the entrance of Rumor (a role expanded in this production) who promises to “bring smooth comforts false, worse than true wrongs,”  thus leading us into one of the essential themes of this play–betrayal–which manifests itself in two major incidents: first, the rebels are promised that their grievances will be redressed, but once they sue for peace, Prince John executes them as rebels; second, at the end of the play, Falstaff is summarily dismissed from Hal’s presence as the young prince assumes his father’s throne.  Framed by these two “betrayals” are a host of “expectations mocked,” which began in King Henry IV, Part One when Hal, against all expectations, defeated Hotspur.  The language is filled with imagery that confirms the contrariness of the times.  Hopes, like ships, “touch ground and dash themselves to pieces,” while “in poison there is physic.” Even the comic moments find this theme pervading them–Mistress Quickly expects Falstaff to marry her, and is soon disabused of that notion.

But, from within this vortex of deception and dashed hopes, Shakespeare continues the master plan begun in King Henry IV, Part One–the making of a king.  At the end of Part One, Hal seemed to have made the transition from profligate prince to mature heir apparent; yet, in another instance of “expectations mocked,” he now appears to have shunned the orderly, Apollonian world of his father’s court for the Dionysian revels of Falstaff’s libertine domain.  There are two main reasons why Hal (now Prince Harry) finds the transition difficult to navigate.  He intuitively understands what his father has discovered, that under the heavy burden of kingly responsibilities “uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.”  The other reason is that the freedom of Falstaff’s realm is too irresistible for the young prince to ignore, particularly when faced with a kingdom embroiled in a seemingly never-ending strife.  How much easier it is for him to roam the taverns and highways than to don the majesty of kingship which “dost pinch [the] bearer . . . like a rich armor worn in the heat of day, That scald’st with safety.”

It is at his father’s bedside that Prince Harry finally resolves the doubts that have plagued him.  He recognizes that the crown, though blemished on his father’s head–for having wrested it from Richard II– will sit freely on his own, because he will have inherited it lawfully, as will his sons.  From this point on, Prince Harry assumes with grace and dignity the title of Henry V, transforming himself finally into the great king who would defeat the French at Agincourt and win for England her lost dominions.  But before making that great journey, he must first uproot himself from the attractive world of Falstaff, which he does with a chilling firmness: “I know thee not, old man.  Fall to thy prayers.”

It is important to note that the Falstaff discarded by King Henry V is rather different from the Falstaff of  Prince Hal’s youth in Part One.  In Part Two, the fat trickster displays a roughness at the edges that was noticeably absent earlier.  The wit and humor, though still present, are characterized by coarse, scatological imagery–his first words are about his urine!  The braggadocio, so endearing once, is now tempered with a constant fear of old age and death.  If Harry is to be the bright sun on England’s horizon, if he is to “mock the expectation of the world” and show that he has “turned away [his] former self,” he must banish far from himself  all the symbols of decadence and everything and everyone who would restrain him. But, despite the change in the tenor of Falstaff’s life, the laughter, conviviality, and joie de vivre have not disappeared, and Harry’s dismissal of him–while necessary for the prince’s majestic assumption–remains a rejection of an abundant world as he ascends the cold, somewhat joyless court of formality and intrigue.

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