Henry IV, Part 2 | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Henry IV, Part 2 | Act 4, Scene 1 | Summary

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Summary

The archbishop of York, Lord Mowbray, and Lord Hastings gather their forces at Gaultree Forest in Yorkshire. They've discovered Northumberland has fled their cause and gone to Scotland. They are warned by a messenger that the king's army approaches, and that it numbers nearly 30,000 strong.

The earl of Westmoreland arrives. He asks the archbishop why they rebel against the king. The archbishop answers, saying Henry wronged his people by killing Richard II, the rightful king, and would not listen to their grievances.

Westmoreland tells the assembled lords that he will bring their list of grievances before Prince John of Lancaster, who leads his father's army, in the hope that it will end the rebellion with no further bloodshed. He takes the list from the archbishop and leaves.

Mowbray is suspicious, but Hastings and the archbishop believe the king has exhausted his military resources and has no choice but to end the war. Westmoreland returns with Prince John, who meets with Mowbray, the archbishop, and Hastings.

Prince John greets them. The rebels state they will fight if their demands are not given consideration. John tells them that, after looking over their articles of grievance, he believes his father has been unjust. The prince says they will send both armies away and then drink together to cement the peace.

The rebel lords dismiss their men, but John's army does not leave, not without a direct order from him. When Hastings reports the rebel army has left, Westmoreland arrests the lords for capital treason. When the archbishop accuses him of breaking faith, John answers, admitting he said he would consider their grievances, which he will, but they rebelled against the king and must pay for their crimes. He then orders that the retreating army be followed and punished. The leaders of the rebellion will be executed as traitors.

Analysis

The threat of rebellion is dealt with neatly in this scene, but Prince John's means are questionable. Prince John soothes the archbishop, Mowbray, and Hastings by saying he sides with them and his father has been unjust. After gaining their trust, he suggests they dismiss their armies and talk of peace.

However, Prince John does not dismiss his troops and waits while the rebel army disbands before arresting the lords for treason. He breaks faith with them. When the archbishop questions him, he uses a technicality—he only promised to bring their grievances before the king, not to forgive their treason.

The archbishop then asks if this seems "just and honorable" to Prince John, who doesn't seem bothered by his duplicity in the slightest. Westmoreland answers for the prince by bringing up their rebellion against the king. This serves as justification for John's shady double-dealing. It is also indicative of the political necessity and ruthlessness that has driven these wars, begun in the play Richard II and continued through Richard III.

The archbishop describes this as a particularly sick age: "we are all diseased, / And with our surfeiting and wanton hours / Have brought ourselves into a burning fever ... Our late King Richard, being infected, died." The rightful king may have been disposed, but he himself was not fit to lead. Nonetheless, Henry, as a usurper, can never be the rightful leader either.

Prince John's behavior dovetails nicely with King Henry IV's "uneasy is the head" quote from earlier in the play. Trust is not something a monarch can readily afford. These men may have supported a rebellion against Richard II, but that doesn't mean they are necessarily loyal to Henry IV. Past deeds haunt present ones and go on to impact the future. Readers are left to wonder what Prince John's behavior will call forth in the future.

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