Henry IV Part 2–Prince Hal: Shakespeare’s Self-Made Man (Part 2)

While their names might suggest they are two pieces of a whole, Henry IV Part 1 and Part 2 are considered distinct plays. Whereas Part 1 presents Prince Hal’s triumph over Hotspur as the climactic assumption of the “good son” role his father wanted (Hal’s secret intent from his first scene), Part 2 recounts the intervening years between the Battle of Shrewsbury and Harry’s coronation after Henry IV’s death. However, unlike the conflict of Hotspur’s rebellion, which led inexorably to the fight between him and the prince and the latter’s reconciliation with his father, Part 2 does not surround any one action/conflict. Brilliant as are the language and the scenes, they are nonetheless often repeats of Part 1‘s dynamics. Indeed, with the right use of an Epilogue in Part 1 and a few more lines in the backdrop-laying first scene of Henry V2HIV might have been superfluous. Not meaning to speak for other readers and audience members, I can only say that I am left between wanting to reread Part 1 or skip to the end when Harry wears the crown (the thematic beginning of Henry V). The answer for why Part 2 is so different from Part 1 can be found, as so many other answers, in Aristotle.

In the eighth chapter of his Poetics, Aristotle says “the unity of a plot does not consist…in its having one man as its subject;” instead, a valid (and, thus, cathartically effective) plot “must represent one action, a complete whole” and that “that which makes no perceptible difference by its presence or absence is no real part of the whole” (trans. Bywater 635). By “action,” Aristotle means a choice by a character, along with all its necessary consequences–that is, a conflict. It is basically his law of identity, A is A–“[It] is impossible to affirm and deny simultaneously the same predicate of the same subject” (Posterior Analytics trans. G.R.G. Mure 30), applied to action. No philosophical perspective is the same, and certain actions taken according to certain perspectives must have objectively different and opposing effects. Whereas characters may have and represent different views in imitative art, it is their actions that create and move plot, which is the primary necessity of any story.

When applied to Aristotle’s perspective on what makes a legitimate plot, 2HIV‘s falls short. As great as are the characters, they cannot carry the play in the same way as the tension of Hotspur’s rebellion carries Part 1. Granted, there is a rise and fall of tension between the Lord Chief Justice’s previous arrest of Harry and Harry’s growing authority, as well as the continued conflict between Harry’s need to assume the throne in the right way and his desire for his father’s love, not to mention the growing disparity between Falstaff’s incoherence and Harry’s publicly growing discipline. However, the lack of one central conflict makes 2HIV more an intermission between the previous play and Henry V than a separate plot. If anything, the play continues the conflict between the two persona’s of Hal’s first scene in 1HIV, when he initially lays out his plan to deny Falstaff. If so, this play should be seen as an appendix to that play, rather than a second work in itself.

The question of why Shakespeare would write 2HIV, of course, it will not be answered here. With his love for the knight (which he, unfortunately, presumptuously projects on his readers) Isaac Asimov cites an excuse for Shakespeare to write more scenes starring Falstaff, saying the poet “unreformed” Prince Hal in order to show more antics between him and the knight. According to Asimov, Falstaff is “is the reason for this play” (382, 386). However, this perspective is debatable. In his first scene, we see Hal planning a joke on Falstaff by pretending with Pointz to be a waiter. Far from Falstaffian, Hal’s first line is notably similar to King Henry IV’s first lines in the preceding play: “Before God, I am exceeding weary…Doth | It not show vilely in me to desire small beer?” (2.2.1-6). This is not the Hal of 1HIV; his honesty to Pointz about his weariness and his aversion to his own desire for beer contradict Asimov’s contention that Hal has regressed back into his tavern persona. Hal’s private vulnerability before Pointz also contradicts Kathryn Kunkel’s 1993 argument that “[the] better he plays the public role of king, the less is seen of the private role previously played by the prince” (“The Crown that Ate Prince Hal” 52). Prince Harry’s display of royal self-control and sentiment in private moments would contend that it is not merely a public role. Rather than an excuse to show more of Falstaff, the play’s purpose may be to offer a chance to see Hal without the man–thus, the real Hal, as well as the tension he experiences between his roles as taverngoer and king.

Of course, as I’ve said in the previous post, this implies that Prince Hal is calculating his rise to the throne and plans to finally reject his previous persona–that being the climax of Part 2 when he publicly breaks from Falstaff. In his introduction to the 1966 edition of the play by Methuen, A.R. Humphreys writes that “only the most careless reading” could take such a view (iix). I am sure he, Asimov, and Kunkel are right. I am honest about being biased against the disgusting knight. Entertainingly clever as he is, what he would do to England if placed near Hal’s throne would undermine everything the prince is trying to preserve; furthermore, it is impossible to ignore and play off as mere joking Hal’s many implicit and explicit lines intending to denounce Falstaff.

This, as well as the subject of 2HIV‘s purpose in the canon, has enough writing behind it that any cursory JSTOR search will yield better knowledge than I can provide.

I will touch on one brief moment in 2HIV: the exchange between Falstaff and Harry’s immediately younger brother, Prince John, Duke of Lancaster. To speak unacademically from my above-admitted bias, Lancaster is an absolute badass. Fans of Atlas Shrugged will recognize him as the Ragnar Danneskjold of the play–the non-protagonist who, by virtue of his distance from the reader/audience, most extremely embodies and represents the highest value of the story: the self-controlled, clear-sighted man who does not wish to rule others and does not compromise his values (here, respect for and defense of the idea of the throne).

This, of course, is more than Lancaster probably deserves, since it is he who, after dispelling the rebellion forces with talk of mercy and compromise in 4.2, arrests the rebel leaders for treason and grants them the promised peace in execution. This may actually argue for his integrity, since criminals against the crown deserved no mercy, if the crown is one’s highest value. Also, this was before America’s Fifth Amendment (which, no doubt, affects how we might read these plays differently now than Shakespeare’s audience; see my post on Richard II about how judging a play by the idea of citizen “rights” would be anachronistic). Whether or not the act of deception is immoral in its context, within 2HIV Lancaster fills the role Hotspur did in 1HIV: he is the romantic foil of the “tavern Hal” persona of which Prince Henry must publicly repent. However, rather than being an antagonist, he is a partner of Hal’s cause, since both want to see the latter crowned in an uncorrupted way.

The difference between Falstaff and the kind of prince Hal would have been had he publicly emulated his father’s expectations for him is shown in the scene directly following Lancaster’s dispersing the rebel army. Falstaff, seeking to gain honor before the day disperses, catches a retreating young rebel, Coleville. Lancaster interrupts their exchange, inquiring “Now, Falstaff, where have you been all this while? | When every thing is ended, then you come: | These tardy tricks of yours will, on my life, | One time or other break some gallows’ back” (4.3.26-29). Like Hal, Lancaster focuses on Falstaff’s penchant for avoiding danger, as well on his future execution–inserting a jab at his corpulence as well. However, there is no backdrop of relationship between them, as there is in 1HIV between the knight and the prince. Nonetheless, Falstaff responds in jest, saying “I never knew yet but rebuke and check was the reward of valour…I may justly say with the hook-nosed fellow of Rome,–I came, saw, and overcame” (31-43). The humorous attempt to compare his capturing Coleville to Caesar’s conquering of Europe needs no comment from me. Indeed, Lancaster says “It was more of [Coleville’s] courtesy than your deserving” (4.3.44). Lancaster continues to banter with Falstaff, conceding no honor to the man. Exiting to see to his “sore sick” father (4.3.78), Lancaster says “Fare you well, Falstaff. I, in my condition, | Shall better speak of you than you deserve” (4.3.85-86). This resembles the scene in 1HIV (5.4) when, upon finding Falstaff alive, Harry and Lancaster agree to let Falstaff say he killed Hotspur (thus using him to maintain the anonymity of Hal’s valor). Lancaster, no doubt, has that exchange in mind, and in both instances he leaves Falstaff for more pressing matters.

However, Falstaff’s reaction to Lancaster is quite different from his continued affection for Hal in the previous play. After Lancaster exits in 4.3, Falstaff identifies the way by which the young man is unmoved by his cajoling: “this same young sober-blooded boy doth not love me; nor a man cannot make him laugh;–but that’s no marvel, he drinks no wine” (88-90). For the next forty lines he soliloquizes on how alcohol matures cold, sterile young men into being “very hot and valiant.” He is proud that he has enacted his own “humane principle” on Hal, thus keeping him from being humorless (and, thus, as immune to him as Lancaster). He would do well to remember that it was Lancaster, not Falstaff, with whom Hal rode at Shrewsbury. We, of course, remember Hal’s opening lines of the play; though Hal is referring to beer, his distaste for relying on alcohol would tend more toward Lancaster’s demeanor than Falstaff’s. Were Hal to have grown up in court, we can imagine him being similar to Lancaster–something we see in Henry V.

Indeed, upon being crowned, Henry does assume the public self-control characteristic of Lancaster, eventually banishing Falstaff from his presence (after two plays of foreshadowing worse for the man). The joke is and always has been on Falstaff: thinking he would eventually use the prince to create a better place for thieves like himself, he was used by Harry to provide the right cover for his ascension. Despite the fun Hal must have had in his exchanges with Falstaff’s sharp mind (we see even Lancaster do so), the knight’s humorously corrupted value system is as incompatible to Henry V’s throne as congenital drunkenness is with any rational, long-range achievement of one’s values. It is in this that Hal is a self-made man: that he publicly places himself at the lowest level in order to eventually ascend to the highest level without corruption, opposition, or dubious circumstances. If the final scene between Hal and Falstaff is the purpose for the play, it redeems the rest of the work, if only by providing a chance to see the contrast between the new king and the memory of his first scene in the tavern of the previous play. In this way, 2HIV cannot be read or fully understood without 1HIV, and thus it is debatable whether to consider it as having a plot of its own. Instead of centering on resolving a single conflict the play’s plot continues and sharpens the themes of the previous play. Nonetheless, the tension between Hal’s two personas–an implicit conflict throughout both plays–resolves, and the stage is set for Henry V, which, in form, venue, and theme, is definitely a different play altogether.