Henry IV, Part 2 | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Henry IV, Part 2 | Symbols

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The Crown

The crown represents a monarch's power, but in Henry IV, Part 2 it carries special significance as a symbol of the responsibilities of kingship. So readers can expect that scenes referencing the crown will be tied up in the theme of power and responsibility. King Henry IV refers to the weight of his crown when he tells us how tired he is, saying, "Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown" (Act 3, Scene 1). To him the crown is not a privilege but a heavy weight of his kingly responsibility. His health is poor, and he doesn't sleep well as he's assaulted by his guilt over killing the rightful king, Richard II. It's also a covert reference to the likelihood of being deposed—of one's head not necessarily remaining on one's shoulders.

Prince Hal has similar reservations about the crown, even blaming it for his father's illness. He is afraid he's not up for the challenge of kingship after seeing what it did to his father. The crown is a burden that both father and son must bear.

Hal takes the crown when he thinks Henry has died. But Henry IV wakes and becomes furious at the thought that Hal was in such a hurry to take up his mantle as king that he stole the crown. He accuses Hal of wishing Henry dead before his time. In this case the crown is a symbol of usurping the throne, something that Henry IV is very sensitive about since he gained the throne through rebellion and murder.

Finally, when Hal returns the crown to Henry IV it does not simply represent the political passage of power, it is a physical representation of the reconciliation of father and son. He's accepting his place in the dynastic line his father founded. Hal willingly concedes the symbol of his father's power, only to receive it later, and ascends to the throne as King Henry V when Henry IV dies.

Illness

Imagery of illness pervades the play. King Henry IV's sickness runs parallel to the sickness of the monarchy and the country itself. The health of the king affects the health of the country. This is a common theme in Shakespeare's history plays. Similarly, a disorder in the monarchy, such as Henry IV's usurpation of the throne, will be reflected in a disordered society. Since Henry IV took the throne, his reign has been rife with uprisings and conflict. The king is literally the body politic, and his own health is tied to the health of his country.

The archbishop of York also draws a similar comparison. He states the English people are ill with the same sickness that infected and killed King Richard II—whom Shakespeare represents as weak and unfit to rule. The people were suffering under Richard, their own state reflecting that of the monarch. Because the kings have been unsettled and ill, so too are the people they rule. The king's health is intimately linked with the land and his subjects.

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