Henry IV: Part 2, by William Shakespeare
Why is this play named the way it is? On the one hand, there is a seamless connection to the first play, of which this is an obvious sequel, but on the other hand, a great deal of this play takes place far away from the royal family and certainly far from the throne. Prince Hal, soon to become Henry V (spoiler alert?) is absent for most of this play, and when he is present his actions are even more equivocal than usual and less easy to understand, even somewhat paradoxical. And, of course, King Henry IV is dying and doesn’t have long on the throne and everyone knows and has expectations of what Henry V will do as king, which ends up being something of a dramatic irony since the audience was aware of more than the characters here, since the audience had already seen a tetrology of plays consisting of Henry VI parts one through three and Richard III. And if many people today are not fully aware of that historical past, it was at least something that was of great interest to the people of Shakespeare’s own time, since it was the instability of the Plantagenet rule and its end that led to the rise of the parvenu Tudors.
Those readers who have seen the same format of this book from previous books in the series (the Royal Shakespeare Company Shakespeare) will find little here that is different from previous volumes in terms of the structure of the book. The volume, itself a bit over 200 pages, begins with an introduction that explores the genre of the play and its complexity, looks at the way that the prince studies his companions to have a greater understanding of the common people of England that he will rule, but given the companions he chooses, it doesn’t appear as if Shakespeare has a high opinion of them. After the introduction and its thematic concerns, we have some notes about the text, some key facts, and the text of the play itself, which takes up about half of the entire space in the book. After that there is a synopsis of Part 1, removed oaths from the quarto version, a scene by scene analysis, and then the same notes on Henry IV in performance that part 1 had. The book concludes with a look at Shakespeare’s career in the theater and a chronology of his works.
There is a lot to appreciate about this play, but it is not quite as compelling as the previous version. The rebels against Henry IV are weakened by their own divisions, and even if Henry IV dies, he does so still quarreling with his heir, as Harry has his usual cloaked motives here and complex aims. Shakespeare presents an England that is far from ideal, with corruptions in local justice as well as in troop procurement. Shakespeare’s interest in good personal drama does not blind him to the interests of logistics, and it should be noted that the problems of having unmotivated troops of dubious loyalty was something that harmed England’s reputation even as far back as the sixteenth century when they were a less than stout bulwark in favor of Dutch Protestant rebels against Spain. I wonder how much subtext Shakespeare wanted his audience to be aware of. Certainly people can laugh at Falstaff, but he is a far more problematic character than many people view him as, and Shakespeare himself likely felt at least some ambivalence towards him that made him a compelling and enjoyable but also corrupt figure in a play where corruption is quite easy to find.