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henry iv, part 2

12 november 2015

For a play mostly about drinking, whoring, and armed insurrection, Henry IV, Part 2 contains way more than its share of sensitive male-bonding scenes where guys worry how much other guys really care about them.

It's not that anyone says "are you using me?" or "are you just playing around?" in so many words. But Part 2 makes explicit a theme of Part 1: that Prince Hal is in fact just playing a part till he gets what he can out of his supposed friendship with Falstaff. As Warwick tells the King in Act Four, Scene 3:

The prince but studies his companions,
Like a strange tongue wherein to gain the language.
'Tis needful that the most immodest word
Be looked upon and learnt, which once attained,
Your highness knows, comes to no further use
But to be known and hated. So, like gross terms,
The prince will, in the perfectness of time,
Cast off his followers.
And that seems commendable, but it may alert the King to the possibility that Hal is just studying him too, in fact studying everybody, great or small, in an essentially heartless calculation that will some day maximize his power over others.

Hal is biding his time till he can openly hate Falstaff; but as Hal learns on a couple of occasions in these plays, Falstaff in turn despises him when he doesn't think he's being overheard, and always has some sort of pragmatic reason ready to mitigate the abuse. Meanwhile the King doesn't trust Hal and Hal seems pretty cold to the King. But what can they do about it? They're stuck in the roles that monarchy and lineage have assigned them. Also extending themes from Part 1, the King makes clear to Hal that his own position as a usurper cannot be lived down, only outlasted. He stole the crown from Richard II, and

all my reign hath been but as a scene
Acting that argument; and now my death
Changes the mood, for what in me was purchased
Falls upon thee in a more fairer sort,
So thou the garland wear'st successively. (Act 4, Scene 3)
Nobody ever really gets to be themselves. The best they can hope for is to play the same part so consistently (even across generations) that people take the role for the reality. (Uncoincidentally, a key scene in Part 1 involves Falstaff and Hal acting out pretend scenes between Hal and the King.)

But one way or another, Henry IV will be disappointed, because Hal's life plan involves suddenly changing his character note and abjuring Falstaff. There's an odd bitterness to the famous bit of business in Act 4, Scene 3, where Hal walks off with the crown before his father is dead. It's a selfish, callous thing to do (except that we know Hal hasn't really acted carelessly but responsibly). But the King believes Hal to be selfish and callous, so he'd be disappointed in him if he wasn't. A Hal who showed patience and forbearance would be a weak heir, after all. But he would also be a loving son. Not only can't you have it both ways, but either way is pretty rotten.

The main military plot of Part 2, appropriately enough, peters out in treachery rather than battle. It's a bitter play in many ways. But again, as if to consistently disappoint us, the great bitterness – Hal's repudiation of Falstaff – isn't really as mean as one always remembers. "I know thee not, old man" (Act 5, Scene 5), and that's indeed a terrible line; but Falstaff's sentence is not to be a perpetual outcast, but to go off and repent:

as we hear you do reform yourselves,
We will, according to your strengths and qualities,
Give you advancement. (Act 5, Scene 5)
But as we know from Henry V, the last thing Falstaff would ever do is reform. Finally, somebody in these plays is consistent.

Shakespeare, William. The Second Part of King Henry IV. 1600. Edited by Giorgio Melchiori. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989. PR 2811 .A2M4