1/ The play amusingly opens with the personification of Rumour, and the first scene begins with some fake news about the Shrewsbury battle.
It is soon corrected. The Earl of Northumberland makes a great speech upon learning of his son Hotspur’s death—the news, if he were well, might make him sick, but now that he is sick, it gives him strength. He’s going to fight.
One thing caught my attention:
“NORTHUMBERLAND [….] Let heaven kiss earth! Now let not Nature’s hand
Keep the wild flood confined! Let order die!
And let this world no longer be a stage
To feed contention in a ling’ring act!
But let one spirit of the firstborn Cain
Reign in all bosoms, that, each heart being set
On bloody courses, the rude scene may end,
And darkness be the burier of the dead!”
(Act 1 scene 1)
Stage, act, scene. Shakespeare seems to like this metaphor—I’m thinking of the “All the world’s a stage/ And all the men and women merely players” speech from As You Like It and the “Life is but a walking shadow, a poor player/ That struts and frets his hour upon the stage/ And then is heard no more” soliloquy from Macbeth.
2/ Falstaff is hilarious. See this exchange between him and the Chief Justice:
“CHIEF JUSTICE Your means are very slender and your waste is great.
FALSTAFF I would it were otherwise. I would my means were greater and my waist slender.”
(Act 1 scene 2)
Who says Shakespeare is not relatable?
3/ Act 1 scene 3, the scene of the rebels, is full of great lines—if I just quoted everything I like, it would swallow up my blog.
Take these lines about Hotspur:
“LORD BARDOLPH It was, my lord, who lined himself with hope
Eating the air and promise of supply,
Flatt’ring himself in project of a power
Much smaller than the smallest of his thoughts,
And so, with great imagination
Proper to madmen, led his powers to death
And, winking, leaped into destruction.”
(Act 1 scene 3)
Look at that: “eating the air and promise of supply”. He then makes another great speech, rather long, comparing planning for war to building a house.
Near the end of the scene is a great speech by Richard Scroop, the Archbishop of York, but I’m just going to pick out some bits. For example, this bit about Henry IV:
“The commonwealth is sick of their own choice”
That’s an interesting line.
Now look at this bit about the public and Richard II:
“ARCHBISHOP [..] Thou, beastly feeder, art so full of him
That thou provok’st thyself to cast him up.
So, so, thou common dog, didst thou disgorge
Thy glutton bosom of the royal Richard;
And now thou wouldst eat thy dead vomit up,
And howl’st to find it.”
That is quite an image. To me, the funny part is the Archbishop means to talk about the fickleness of the public, but Richard appears so small, so pathetic in his talk.
“ARCHBISHOP […] O thoughts of men accursed!
“Past and to come seems best, things present worst”.”
4/ Act 2 scene 4 is a long scene at the tavern, like Act 2 scene 4 in Part 1, but a lot has changed. Hal and Falstaff no longer hang out—in fact Hal has to ask “Where sups he? Doth the old boar feed in the old frank?” and “What company?” (Act 2 scene 2). Falstaff is very much alone, despite the company of his page, Bardolph, Mistress Quickly (the hostess of the tavern), and his prostitute Doll Tearsheet, as none of them have the wit and intelligence of Hal, and none of them have great chemistry with Falstaff like Hal.
In Act 2 scene 2 and Act 2 scene 4 of Part 1, Falstaff and Hal dominate the scene—both are quick and dynamic, and each can move the conversation in any direction and the other can go along.
In Act 2 scene 4 of Part 2, before Hal appears, Falstaff is now a much more subdued character—he seems older, sicker, more tired, no longer the centre of the scene; it’s mostly Doll Tearsheet and Pistol that do the talking and cursing and quarrelling.
When Hal reveals himself later in the scene, it only becomes more obvious that things are no longer the same—Hal has changed and Falstaff is no longer Falstaff. The fat knight can still think of an answer, but the energy is not there and he can no longer extricate himself from his words as he has earlier done about the robbery lies. There’s also more sadness in Falstaff.
There are 3 lines from him that I find particularly poignant:
“Peace, good Doll! Do not speak like a death’s-head. Do not bid me remember mine end.” (Act 2 scene 4)
“I am old, I am old.” (ibid.)
“What stuff wilt have a kirtle of? I shall receive money o’ Thursday. Shalt have a cap tomorrow. A merry song, come. ‘A grows late; we’ll to bed. Thou’lt forget me when I am gone.” (ibid.)
That last sentence especially.
Also look at this line:
“POINS Is it not strange that desire should so many years outlive performance?” (ibid.)
5/ This is Hal’s first line in the play:
“PRINCE Before God, I am exceeding weary.”
(Act 2 scene 2)
The King we know is sick and doesn’t appear till Act 3 scene 1. He has a soliloquy about his insomnia.
The images of old age, disease, and death run through the entire play. Act 3 scene 2 is clearly meant to be comic relief, about Justice Shallow, Justice Silence, Falstaff, and several recruits, but even then there are constant references to old age and death. Henry IV, Part 2 has a darker vision than Part 1, though the 2 parts are still of a piece.
I like this line:
“FALSTAFF […] Lord, Lord, how subject we old men are to this vice of lying!”
(Act 3 scene 2)
6/ I note that Prince John of Lancaster says “by the honor of my blood” and “upon my soul” whilst he’s lying in Act 4 scene 2. He has neither honour nor faith.
7/ In Henry IV, Part 1, Hal sees Falstaff as a father figure.
Then he starts to change, and in Part 2 transforms into a proper prince and then a proper king—the transformation comes with a reconciliation with his biological father and an adoption of the Chief Justice as his new father figure, and of course, a rejection of Falstaff. He changes throughout the Henry IV plays and it’s a huge change, but under Shakespeare’s pen (well, quill), it makes perfect sense.
In Part 1, Hal himself has to replace Hotspur in his father’s esteem, as the King sees Hotspur as the image of chivalric honour, the ideal son he wishes he had. In Part 2, Hal has to complete his path to becoming a proper king by rejecting his past, including Falstaff. It is inevitable, but the rejection at the end, the public humiliation, is still cruel and painful.
That’s the genius of Shakespeare: he creates a character who is a glutton, a liar, a robber, and a rogue, but makes him intelligent, witty, hilarious, and in some way lovable; it’s understandable that Hal loves Falstaff but also understandable that he has to cut off with him; the rejection is inevitable and to be expected, but it’s still devastating. Falstaff is a rich, complex character and I can see why some critics think this is Shakespeare’s greatest creation.
Another great thing about the Henry IV plays is that the characters—Falstaff is older and Hal has transformed himself—but they’re still recognisably themselves.
8/ Tony Tanner phrases it much better than I do:
“In his gross, deteriorating physicality, Falstaff almost literally ‘embodies’ all the diseases, corruptions, and degenerate appetites of the dying world, which must be somehow rejected, dismissed, purged, or just left behind. Perhaps, as has been suggested, he does figure the old ‘god’ who must be slain or banished in a sacrificial rite in order to restore health to the blighted, blasted land.” (Introduction)
He also writes about the inhumanity of the rejection, but I would have to read Henry V to see the aftermath.
9/ In Contested Will, James Shapiro mentions something interesting about the epilogue: it is made up of 2 separate epilogues.
Henry IV, Part 2 was first staged for popular audiences at the Curtain Theatre in Shoreditch. After the play ended, Will Kemp, the actor playing Falstaff, dashed back onstage and delivered the epilogue, not as Falstaff but as himself (or rather, as Shakespeare):
“One word more, I beseech you. If you be not too much cloyed with fat meat, our humble author will continue the story, with Sir John in it, and make you merry with fair Katherine of France, where (for anything I know) Falstaff shall die of a sweat, unless already a’ be killed with your hard opinions. For Oldcastle died martyr, and this is not the man. My tongue is weary; when my legs are too, I will bid you good night.”
James Shapiro then explains:
“But this epilogue wouldn’t do at court, where plays didn’t end with salacious jigs. So Shakespeare had to write an alternative one appropriate for the command performance at Whitehall Palace, where the Queen herself was in attendance. Taking centre stage himself, Shakespeare replaced Kemp and delivers his own lines (‘what I have to say is of my own making’). It’s the closest we ever get in his plays to hearing Shakespeare speak for and as himself. It’s a brassy and confident speech, one that may even have caught his fellow players off guard:
“First, my fear; then, my curtsy; last my speech. My fear is your displeasure. My curtsy, my duty. And my speech, to beg your pardons. If you look for a good speech now, you undo me. For what I have to say is of my own making. And what indeed (I should say) will (I doubt) prove my own marring. But to the purpose and so to the venture. Be it known to you, as it is very well, I was lately here in the end of a displeasing play, to pray your patience for it, and to promise a better. I meant indeed to pay you with this, which if (like an ill venture) it come unluckily home, I break, and you, my gentle creditors, lose. Here I promised you I would be, and here I commit my body to your mercies. Bate me some, and I will pay you some, and (as most debtors do) promise you infinitely. And so I kneel down before you; but indeed, to pray for the Queen.”” (Contested Will, “Four: Shakespeare”)
For centuries, this story was buried because the 2 epilogues were printed together as one. “Untangled, they tell a very different story.”
James Shapiro goes on:
“It’s inconceivable that any of the rival candidates for the authorship of the plays associated with the court – Francis Bacon, the Earls of Oxford, Derby and Rutland, Mary Sidney, to name but a few – could possibly have stood upon that stage at Whitehall Palace, publicly assuming the socially inferior role of player, and spoken these lines. And it is even harder, after reading these powerful and self-confident lines, to imagine the alternative, that the speaker, who claims to have written the play they just saw, was merely a mouthpiece for someone else in the room, and lying to both queen and court.” (ibid.)