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Shakespeare wrote 2 Henry IV quite soon after 1 Henry IV, perhaps in 1597, partly, no doubt, to capitalize on the enormous theatrical success of Falstaff and partly to finish the story of Falstaff’s rejection. In writing 2 Henry IV, Shakespeare drew on materials similar to those used for 1 Henry IV, notably Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles (1587) and the anonymous play The Famous Victories of Henry V (1583—1588). Moreover, he undertook to write a play that structurally is much like its predecessor, revealing more similarity between these plays than one can find elsewhere in Shakespeare. Even the three Henry VI plays do not reiterate structural patterns to the same degree. Is Shakespeare repeating himself, rewriting the earlier play, and, if so, why? Is 2 Henry IV essentially a way of giving audiences more of what they had found so entertaining in the earlier play, or is it a way of reflecting on new and troublesome issues only partially raised in 1 Henry IV? The similarities are indeed marked, though, as we shall see, their chief function may be to highlight the important contrasts that arise through a consideration of the surface resemblances.
The structural pattern runs as follows. In both plays, Shakespeare alternates between scenes of political seriousness and scenes of comic irresponsibility, juxtaposing a rebellion in the land with a rebellion in the King’s own family. In 1 Henry IV, we move from a council of war (1.1) to a planning of the robbery at Gad’s Hill (1.2). The scenes comment on each other by their nearness and by their mutual concern with lawlessness. Similarly, in 2 Henry IV, we are at first introduced to a political rebellion in the north of England, after which we encounter Falstaff and Prince Hal’s page. In both plays, 2.2 shows us Hal with Poins, setting up a future meeting to embarrass Falstaff by means of a plot, and, in both plays, 2.4 is a long, centrally located scene at the tavern, involving Hal and Falstaff in a contest of wits devised to expose Falstaff as a resourceful liar. The festivities in both scenes are brought to an end by a knocking at the door. (The act-scene divisions may not be Shakespeare’s, for they do not appear in the early quartos of either play; nevertheless, the structural location of these scenes is similar.) Between these linked scenes of comic action, we turn in both plays to the rebel camp of the Percys for a discussion of military planning against King Henry (2.3). In both plays, Falstaff goes off supposedly to fight against the rebels, but instead manages to abuse his authority as recruiting officer and to garner un- deserved honors, either through wounding the dead Hotspur in the leg or through capturing Coleville of the Dale with the aid of an inflated reputation. The battle scenes are punctuated by Falstaff’s wry soliloquies; his disputation on wine in 2 Henry IV (4.3.88—123) serves a function like that of his better-known catechism on honor in 1 Henry IV (5.1.129—40). Both plays introduce a confrontation between Hal and his father: the son is penitent for his waywardness, the father lectures on statecraft, and the prodigal son is recovered into kingly grace. Prince Hal goes on thereafter to win public honor and to prove himself his father’s true son. Even the rejection of Falstaff, with which the second play ends, finds its counterpart in 1 Henry IV in Hal’s impatience with Falstaff during the battle of Shrewsbury, his elegy over the seemingly dead body of his onetime companion, and his resolve to be henceforth a prince.
These resemblances, and still others, are further highlighted when we realize that Shakespeare continues to use in his second play the structural device of foils, or paired characters, around Hal, who help define alternative models of conduct. The father is, as before, an awesome figure of authority–one whose sternness Hal never fully adopts and yet one whose public role as king Hal must inherit. Falstaff, as before, offers himself as a companion in revelry, dissipation, and joie de vivre, and must be rejected, even though much of what he says offers insight into the coldness of King Henry and especially of Hal’s dutiful brother Prince John. Yet the chief purpose of these re- capitulations is to suggest profound differences. 2 Henry IV does not simply go over familiar material. Even the resemblances noted so far embody significant changes: the opening scene of the first play takes place at court, the second in the country; the second scene of the first play sets up the trick to be played on Falstaff, whereas in the second play this event takes place in 2.2; this same second scene of the first play is chiefly a battle of wits between Hal and Falstaff, whereas in the second play Falstaff has to cope with the pointed questioning of the Lord Chief Justice; and so on. Repeatedly, the similarities of situations reveal how much Hal has still to learn, how much Falstaff has changed, and how much more complicated the political process is than it first appeared. The foil relationships in this play focus less on honor, as in 1 Henry IV, than on two related matters: rumor or reputation, and justice.
Rumor begins the play–quite literally, since Rumor is presented to us in allegorized form as portrayed by Virgil, painted full of tongues, spreading false information about the battle of Shrewsbury just ended. Rumor takes particular delight in its most cruel trick of all–raising false hopes and then dashing them. In the scene following at the Percys’ household, we see Rumor as it manifests itself in the real world of men, beguiling Northumberland with the “news” of his son Hotspur’s triumph, only to disappoint him afterward with the stark truth of defeat and death. What is the function of the uncharacteristic allegory at the start of this play? It serves first to establish a new dispiriting tone. The rebels are in disarray, and their cause is in jeopardy. Hotspur is dead, and with him has died the bright honor of his cause. His kinsmen, always more Machiavellian than he, are now warier than ever. Northumberland is persuaded, in a later scene, to prevaricate to his allies and to withdraw to Scotland when they most need his support, waiting to come in on their side only when he can be sure of success. The atmosphere of realpolitik and of dealing in false appearances is a consequence of a world governed by rumor. The rebels’ case is never as attractive in this play as in 1 Henry IV; Hotspur’s idealism and chivalry are sorely missed.
Rumor has profound consequences for the King’s side as well, and for Falstaff and Prince Hal. Falstaff rides on false reputation through the early scenes of 2 Henry IV. He evades arrest at the hands of the Lord Chief Justice because of his presumed deeds at Shrewsbury, which we know to be illusory. His day’s service at Shrewsbury “hath a little gilded over” his “night’s exploit on Gad’s Hill,” as the Lord Chief Justice reluctantly concedes (1.2.147—8). His reputation makes possible his capture of Coleville of the Dale at Gaultree Forest, even though, by this time, Falstaff’s reputation is clearly beginning to wear thin.
Conversely, Hal discovers that his reputation for prodigality will not leave him. Despite his having lost track of Falstaff, not even knowing of the old man’s whereabouts until he agrees to revisit his onetime companion in the tavern for old times’ sake, Hal realizes that everyone assumes the worst of him. All expect his future reign to be one of continual riot. He himself characterizes his visit to the tavern, in order to see Falstaff again, as a base “transformation” like those Ovidian portrayals of Jove in lowly human disguise. Talking with Poins in 2.2.1—44, Hal professes to be “exceeding weary” of the “disgrace” it is in him to remember all his vile companions, including Poins, and he sardonically congratulates his companion on thinking like everyone else when Poins assumes that any weeping on Hal’s part for his father’s death would be no more than princely hypocrisy. “Let the end try the man,” says Hal, in what should be a plain notice of his reformation, but no one credits him with sincerity. When his father does take to his deathbed, surrounded by hushed courtiers, Hal, until now notably absent from court, enters with exaggerated offhandedness, as though eschewing the show of mourning he knows cannot be believed in him. His taking the crown from the pillow of his seemingly dead father strikes King Henry and his courtiers as one last confirmation of Hal’s desire to supplant his father, and indeed we, too, are forced to wonder at Hal’s imprudence. (The patricidal overtones in one of Shakespeare’s sources, The Famous Victories of Henry V, are much more overt than those in Shakespeare’s play.)
The structural recapitulations of 2 Henry IV, then, in which Hal first jests with Falstaff at the tavern and afterward confronts his father at court, are no mere repetitions; they stress the dreary fact that a reputation for riotous conduct persists, that the father’s embracing of his son has lapsed into renewed distrust, and that “reformation” is not the simple process Hal once supposed. Reformation is first a matter of improving one’s own conduct, but it is also a matter of improving one’s image. Hal has been aware of the need for attending to one’s image, even as early as his famous “I know you all” soliloquy (1.2.189—211) in 1 Henry IV, but he has grossly underestimated the difficulty of overcoming an unsavory reputation. This is not a happy revelation to a young man who is impatient of ceremony and public display, but it is the way of the world and an integral part of any successful kingship. King Henry’s last advice to Hal, in fact, once they have been reconciled anew, concerns the manipulations of appearances in the name of statecraft; the father urges the son to resolve civil strife by going to war against some foreign enemy. He must “busy giddy minds / With foreign quarrels” (4.5.212—13). Hal will adopt this stratagem in Henry V by warring against the French. Meantime, in 2 Henry IV, he must overcome his reputation, not only with his father, but also with the Lord Chief Justice, the nobles of the court, and his brothers. Not until the play’s end do they believe other than that Hal will turn riot loose in his kingdom. The intransigent nature of false “rumor” or reputation does much to explain why the new King must reject Falstaff so publicly and so sharply. He has, in fact, already rejected Falstaff in the sense of leaving him, but no one has taken the point–least of all Falstaff, who now presses in upon the new King with hopes of reward and license to act as he pleases. “The laws of England are at my commandment,” he exults (5.3.139—40). Only a public repudiation can meet the demands of kingship by making full use of the act’s symbolic value. Hal must reject Falstaff, not only in his heart, but also in the view of his nation. It is a distasteful act, perhaps as much to him as to us, but it is made necessary by the political exigencies of the moment.
The play’s concern with justice emerges in the first confrontation between the Lord Chief Justice and Falstaff (1.2.54—226). The one represents law; the other, license. Who is to represent and administer the law during Henry V’s reign? The Lord Chief Justice is a firm and austere figure, a deputy or substitute for the father-king–one who has presumed to imprison Hal for resisting his authority. This Lord Chief Justice does not expect to remain in office once the new King is crowned; like other serious characters in the play, he longs for reassurance in the troubled times of civil war and of change of administration under a monarchy. In contrast to this somewhat awesome parental figure, Falstaff offers hedonism and irresponsibility. His wit is, in a sense, no less engaging than in 1 Henry IV. His scenes with Shallow and Silence, as they choose soldiers for the upcoming campaign or prepare for the golden time they anticipate, are as funny as the best of Falstaff. The pairing of the Lord Chief Justice and Falstaff as foils might suggest at first that one is lacking where the other is strong and that Hal must steer between extremes.
Yet this play does not give us a genuine debate on justice, like that on honor in 1 Henry IV, in which Falstaff’s comments on honor strike home because of Hotspur’s fanaticism. The Lord Chief Justice of this play is essentially in the right, however austere, and Falstaff is essentially in the wrong, however funny. The Lord Chief Justice sees through Falstaff and patiently bides his time. Falstaff’s excesses are more pronounced than in the earlier play. We see him with Doll Tearsheet, a whore, in maudlin, drunken conversation. He is associated with images of disease–gout, the pox, or syphilis, consumption, lameness–and of purging. His lying is not as consistently clever as before. Hal recalls the brilliant lie about the Gad’s Hill robbery and credits Falstaff (perhaps ironically) with having seen through the Prince’s trick on that occasion (2.4.306—8), but, in the second tavern scene, Falstaff can only stammer uninventively that he had no idea that Hal was behind him in disguise, listening to his foulmouthed reproaches. Falstaff’s rioting with Pistol disturbs the peace, and in such brawls homicides occur, necessitating arrest and punishment (5.4). When Falstaff appears with the diminutive page, as in 1.2, we are forcefully reminded of the grossness of his body, even if he, too, laughs at this. His mooching off Mistress Quickly and his breach of promise of marriage to her, though hinted at in the earlier play, are much more open here; the humor is keen, but we cannot forget that Falstaff is victimizing a gullible woman. Lawsuits and arrests are more prominent in this play than in its predecessor. Falstaff’s abuse of authority to recruit soldiers, about which he discourses wittily in the earlier play, is here fully shown, both in its hilarity and in its lawless consequences.
From the Paperback edition.