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Henry IV, Part 2 | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Henry IV, Part 2 | Themes


Father-Son Relationships

There are several father-son pairings in Henry IV, Part 2. The most important is that of King Henry IV and Prince Hal. Though they were reconciled at the end of Henry IV, Part 1, they are still at odds because Hal still has not disengaged fully from his old companions and still seems reluctant to take on the responsibility of rulership.

As Hal grows into the role, he sacrifices a figurative father-son relationship with Sir John Falstaff. In Part 1 he and Falstaff were close, with Falstaff giving him advice and offering his friendship, but the two only share two scenes in all of Part 2. This is in part because of Hal's distancing himself from his past as he readies himself to be king and partially because Falstaff is not necessarily a good influence on him. While Hal may enjoy the wild nights and law breaking, it is not appropriate behavior for the king of England, whom he slowly becomes over the course of the play.

When Henry IV dies, Hal—now King Henry V—must find a new father figure, something more in line with his new role. The chaotic Falstaff does not suit this role. The Lord Chief Justice, the man who watched Hal on Henry IV's orders in Henry IV, Part 1, becomes the stabilizing influence on the young king. The Lord Chief Justice represents the rule of law and order, whereas Falstaff symbolizes chaos and self-interest. One of Henry IV's biggest concerns for his son was that Hal would not temper himself and ruin all that he'd built by letting England sink into anarchy. Instead Hal rises to the occasion after Henry IV's death and makes amends with the Lord Chief Justice. Henry V even calls him "father," making the transition from one father figure to the other complete.

Appearance versus Reality

There are a number of instances of appearance versus reality in Henry IV, Part 2. Rumor opens the play by stating that he will spread false information about the outcome of the Battle of Shrewsbury. Northumberland receives the news of his son's triumph, only to find out the true outcome later in the scene. His own lords aren't to be trusted because they bring him false news.

In Act 1, Scene 2 Sir John Falstaff attempts to buy new clothes with his money. The vendors do not trust him with a line of credit because they know he will not pay it back. He strives for the appearance of wealth, but he does not, in truth, have the means to back it up. He is show, not substance, and strives to appear greater than he is. He swindles more money from Mistress Quickly (after failing in his promise to marry her and pay her back) in a series of cons.

Likewise, in Act 2, Scene 2 Prince Hal asks Poins about his father, King Henry IV, specifically if people would believe he is sad his father is dying. Poins tells him that Hal's behavior would lead people to doubt his sincerity and make them think he's a hypocrite. Hal does feel sorrow at his father's impending passing, but because of his actions in Henry IV, Part 1 he would not be seen as sincere if he expresses his true feelings.

Later in that same scene, Hal and Poins decide to disguise themselves to play a joke and spy on Falstaff. Hal dresses up as a serving man, pretending to be a commoner rather than the prince he is. While disguised, they hear Falstaff insulting both Hal and Poins. Falstaff has always been a friend to them, so it surprises them to hear what he says when they are not present. Hal and Poins encourage Falstaff in his insults until they reveal themselves, and he immediately begins to try to separate himself from his words.

Prince John of Lancaster practices deceit in his dealings with the rebels. He comes under the appearance of calling a truce and making peace. He pretends to dismiss his army as the rebel leaders dismiss theirs. Then he arrests the rebel lords for treason and orders his men to round up the retreating army. His appearance of peaceful negotiations was a lie to gain victory.

One of the few characters that seems above the deceitful dealings of most in the play is the Lord Chief Justice. As a man associated with law and order, he appears as the only man whose deeds and words consistently match. It is no wonder why, when King Henry V ascends the throne, he chooses this man as his new father figure to help guide him in what it takes to be a good monarch.

Power and Responsibility

Henry IV, Part 2 is one of Shakespeare's multiple attempts to answer the question of what makes a good king. Both King Henry IV and Prince Hal spend much of the play grappling with this question. Henry IV fears that Hal's riotous nature will ruin everything he has built, and that he will be unable to rise to the heights needed to be a successful monarch. He is focused on the transition of power from father to son.

In addition readers see the consequences of power play out in Henry IV's declining health. He is unable to sleep, pursued by guilt and fear of treason because he usurped the crown from the rightful monarch, exemplified by his line, "Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown." After Prince Hal takes the crown, thinking his father has passed and blaming the crown for his illness and decline, Henry IV immediately jumps to the conclusion that Hal can't wait to take his place—that he wishes for his own father's death to hurry along his ascension to the throne.

Prince Hal has not only a responsibility to his father but also to the people he will rule. Prince Hal must move beyond his youthful wildness and prove he can rule England. Even the other princes and the royal court are concerned about his ability based on his wild past. They assume he'll place Sir John Falstaff and his friends in a position of power because that's the only face Hal has shown to them.

Prince Hal and Henry IV speak at length of the responsibilities of rulership after their reconciliation. They bond over the effort it takes to rule wisely and well and the cost to them. Prince Hal's vow that he will be a good king and preserve his father's legacy, that he will take up the responsibility of wise governance, soothes Henry IV. Though Henry IV is relieved, it is only when King Henry V accepts the Lord Chief Justice as his mentor and renounces Falstaff do the others realize that Henry plans to rule responsibly.

Usurpation and Legitimacy

King Henry IV's rule has been plagued by rebellion, in part because of his usurpation of King Richard II. Throughout the medieval period and into the Renaissance, European monarchies were partially propped up by the belief in the divine right of kings to rule the land, something that Henry IV does not possess. He understands that Hal's rule will be seen as more "legitimate" because of his inheritance of the crown through Henry IV.

This deviation from following the right of rulership is one of the issues that bothers Henry IV so much in the play. Richard II may have been an unpopular monarch, he may have been seen as weak, but he was still the rightful king. When Henry overthrew him and took his place—instead of allowing Edward Mortimer to take the throne—he went against the line of succession. As a usurper he thus cannot invoke the divine right of kings, which worked as a powerful tool in maintaining peace and stability in England. His rule is fraught with rebellions from Wales, Scotland, and his own lords who were once his allies. Until the rightful monarchy is restored, there is a sense of uncertainty and upheaval since neither Henry nor his descendants can honestly claim legitimacy.

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