More troubled and troubling than King Henry IV Part 1, King Henry IV Part 2 is the second play in the Henriad tetralogy, continuing the story of King Henry’s decline and Hal’s reform. Though Part 2 echoes the structure of the earlier play, its is a darker and more unsettling world, in which even Falstaff’s revelry is more tired and cynical, and the once-merry Hal sloughs off his tavern companions to become King Henry V. Though probably less written about and performed, critics have nevertheless praised the play for its mature style.
The play was written soon after Part 1, probably in 1598. This text, based on the 1600 First Quarto, is supplemented by additional sequences from the 1623 First Folio. It is uncertain whether the play was conceived as a second part, a sequel, or an independent play in its own right. Unlike the popular Part 1, there were no reprints of Part 2 before the Folio, perhaps due to censorship. It uses similar source matter to Part 1, including Holinshed’s Chronicles (1587), The Mirror for Magistrates (1559) and Daniel’s Civile Wars (1595), and thematically it also echoes Part 1, in its concerns about kingship, miscalculation, trust and unrest.
Rumour opens the play with an Induction on the rifeness of slander. After hearing one such false report of victory, the rebel Northumberland learns of the death of his son Hotspur, and the defeat of his army at the Battle of Shrewsbury. Morton tells him that the Archbishop of York is taking up the fight against King Henry.
Falstaff is arrested for a debt to Mistress Quickly – but manages to wriggle out of it by promising (again) to marry her. An anxious Prince Hal is distracted from his ailing father’s by Poins’, who persuades him to help spy on Falstaff at dinner by pretending to be waiters. After they reveal themselves, Hal is summoned to court. The king broods on his position as his health deteriorates.
The rebel forces are at Gaultree Forest, led by the Archbishop of York, Mowbray and Hastings. Northumberland, a crucial ally, has opted against joining them and instead has fled to Scotland. Prince John of Lancaster, Hal’s younger brother, leads an army against them, but sends an envoy to suggest a parley. To the rebel leaders’ great surprise, Lancaster agrees to the terms of their peace – but once they have dismissed their army, he turns on them anyway, arresting them for treason. Falstaff, having recruited unfit soldiers, nevertheless manages to capture an enemy.
Henry collapses at the news of the victory. Mistakenly assuming his father dead, Hal tries on the crown at his bedside. Upon waking Henry is furious at this irreverence, but the two are at last reconciled before he dies, and Hal becomes King Henry V. In a heartbreaking moment, Falstaff travels hastily to London to see his old friend (and secure a royal favour or two), but the new king dismisses him with the famous lines: ‘I know thee not, old man. Fall to thy prayers. / How ill white hairs becomes a fool and jester!’ For all his misspent hours with the fat knight, Hal has finally thrown off his youth and embraced the responsibilities of royalty. He will rise to great heights over the course of his reign.