Today on Project Gutenberg, we have…
King Henry IV Part 2 by William Shakespeare
Another Shakespeare! And one of the history plays, no less!
I must sadly admit that Henry IV is where I’m somewhat lacking in knowledge of the Bard’s work. I’ve watched performances of Richard II (a prequel to this) and Richard III, and I’ve watched and read Henry V (a direct sequel). But this one escaped the bulk of my scrutiny when I was going through my hardcore Shakespeare phase. However, that doesn’t mean I can’t tell you a thing or two about it.
The titular Henry IV is obviously King Henry IV of England. Son of the Duke of Lancaster and originally known as Henry Bolingbroke, he led a rebellion to overthrow Richard II in 1399 and had himself installed on the throne; that event from Richard’s POV is the main focus of Shakespeare’s Richard II. Henry’s own play picks up several years later, as he nears the end of his life and tries to secure England’s future via his son Prince Henry, aka Hal, aka the future King Henry V. Hal is the true protagonist of Henry IV, since the overall story is about his coming of age and learning to take his future responsibilities seriously. These plays are also best known for being the origin of Falstaff, probably the most comically vulgar side character that Shakespeare ever wrote. And this is Shakespeare we’re talking about, so that’s an accomplishment.
H4 Part 2 is in the unfortunate position of having a more famous prequel (H4 Part 1) and a much more famous sequel (H5). It’s got less emphasis on invasions and rebellions and more on personal character development. In one plotline, Prince Hal is trying to win his father’s approval before the old king dies, and he’s not doing a great job of it. In the other plotline, Falstaff is determined to drink himself senseless and screw around, and he is doing a great job of it.
But eventually Hal is there when Henry croaks, and after a misunderstanding over a stolen crown (it makes sense in context), the two men reconcile and Hal is finally confident enough to become Henry V. This sets up his final encounter with Falstaff, in what is probably the most famous scene of this play. Falstaff, hearing the news of Henry’s coronation, goes to meet him in London. But when Henry sees him there, he issues forth the immortal unfriending:
I know thee not, old man. Fall to thy prayers. How ill white hairs become a fool and jester! I have long dreamt of such a kind of man, So surfeit-swell'd, so old, and so profane; But being awak'd, I do despise my dream. Make less thy body hence, and more thy grace; Leave gormandizing; know the grave doth gape For three thrice wider than for other men-- Reply not to me with a fool-born jest; Presume not that I am the thing I was, For God doth know, so shall the world perceive, That I have turn'd away my former self; So will I those that kept me company. When thou dost hear I am as I have been, Approach me, and thou shalt be as thou wast, The tutor and the feeder of my riots. Till then I banish thee, on pain of death, As I have done the rest of my misleaders, Not to come near our person by ten mile. For competence of life I will allow you, That lack of means enforce you not to evils; And, as we hear you do reform yourselves, We will, according to your strengths and qualities, Give you advancement. Be it your charge, my lord, To see perform'd the tenour of our word.
To say that Falstaff takes this badly would be an understatement.
Anyway, should you read Henry IV Part 2? Well, I can’t exactly speak to its quality since I haven’t read or watched it myself. But it’s Shakespeare, so you’re in good hands. Plays are usually better watched than read, so if you have the chance to watch a recording of this, you ought to do so. Orson Welles partially adapted it in his film Chimes at Midnight, which covers the whole “Henriad,” as the plays featuring Henry IV and Henry V are known. If you’re looking for a standalone production, the Jeremy Irons/Tom Hiddleston version made by the BBC as part of their series The Hollow Crown is also quite good. Bottom line, there are many ways in which you can enjoy this classic work of theater.
And then go read Henry V for an even better time.
That’s what we found today on Project Gutenberg! See you next time!