Did I say these No-Fear Shakespeare posts would be monthly? Seems I’ve asked this question before, and as the answer has now proved to be a resounding “no” on the part of my actions, clearly I need to just quit asking. Exploration of the work of the Bard cannot be rushed, it cannot be scheduled, and there are always outside distractions that need to be worked around but never dwelt upon. Even so, I’ve hardly been idle. I’ve discovered that it’s to my benefit to let these plays marinate into my subconscious, slowly over time. They would anyway, let’s be fair, but staying my hand to post on them helps to clarify my thoughts. So here we are, nearly four months after I posted about Henry IV, Part 1, and it’s now time to explore Part 2.
Come hither, Harry, sit thou by my bed
And hear, I think, the very last counsel
That ever I shall breathe. God knows, my son,
By what bypaths and indirect crook’d ways
I met this crown; and I myself know well
How troublesome it sat upon my head.
To thee it shall descend with better quiet,
Better opinion, better confirmation;
For all the soil of the achievement goes
With me into the earth.
— King Henry, Act IV, Scene 3
As with the previous plays, Henry IV, Part 2 continues the rise of House Lancaster during the period popularly known as The War of the Roses, some 200 years before the time of Shakespeare. One of the hallmarks of Shakespeare’s time, the Renaissance, is how inspiration is drawn from previously lost and recovered Greek works. In this case, Greek tragedies such as Aeschylus’ Oresteia provide the model for how mortal interference in Divine Right is to be punished. A king or other high-ranking political figure duly appointed by God is done so in to establish a continuity with Heaven itself, “On Earth as it is in Heaven.” To murder one of God’s appointed has consequences not only for the usurper, but for the descendants of that usurper. Richard II was haunted by a politically-motivated assassination, that of his uncle, Thomas, Duke of Gloucester. While not a king, the death of Gloucester set into motion the means by which Richard was deposed by Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Hereford, now Henry IV of England at the time of this play. Likewise, because Henry had usurped God’s anointed, he is beset with civil war and the dread fear that his son, Prince Hal, is unworthy to succeed him when the time comes. That time is soon, Henry knows, as this play opens. The knowledge of this torments him, for all that he did was in the name of a better England, and now that dream is potentially falling apart right before his eyes.
As previously discussed, I’m of the mind that entirety of The Hollow Crown cycle of plays reflects Shakespeare’s own warnings and commentary on the Tudor dynasty, represented at the time of this play by Elizabeth I. As a reminder, England is at this time a Protestant kingdom with both a heavily outspoken extreme (Puritan) faction and a closeted Catholic faction that lives in constant fear of meeting the same fates visited upon them that the Protestants met under the reign of Elizabeth’s predecessor, Mary I. It’s a classic case of “what goes around, comes around,” and while Elizabeth herself was far more moderate than her people would believe, she was paranoid, those around her were highly effective, and family history spoke for itself. Her would-be successor, Mary Queen of Scots, met her end by axe in 1587, about eleven years prior to the writing of this play. That Elizabeth was older and still without an appointed successor, Shakespeare essentially used his plays as a mirror to spotlight how God was punishing Elizabeth for being part of a usurper dynasty, for betraying the Catholic Church, and for all around being the highest exemplar of hubris in the whole of the realm. For taking no actions to right herself, and the realm as a whole, with God, England’s fate was to be ruled by Mary’s successor, King James VI of Scotland. After all that history between England and Scotland, there could be no greater punishment in the mind of a Catholic Englishman than to be ruled by a Protestant Scotsman. The Tudor dynasty and the seeds it sowed were likely as to Shakespeare as another in the line of great Biblical curses, ranking right up there with plagues and locusts. Elizabeth’s a heretic, her successor-to-be is a heretic and a savage, and the world is basically going to hell in a handbasket. Of course he wasn’t going to be quiet about it, and four hundred years later, we’re still picking his perceptions apart with fascination.
And yet… history has painted Prince Hal, the future Henry V of England, as a righteous and noble king, a hero of The Hundred Years War, and a staunch defender of the kingdom in the name of God. Before Shakespeare can essentially use him as a benchmark to show Elizabeth what she herself could have been, he must build up Prince Hal from his less-than-optimal beginnings and give rise to the seed of majesty. In the previous play, this has already begun. Themes of honor are explored, on the battlefield, in the company one keeps, and in the privacy of one’s thoughts. The seeds of doubt in his once-trusted friend, Sir Jack Falstaff, continue to grow in the mind of Prince Hal. Falstaff pretended to kill Hotspur in battle at Shrewsbury, claiming the victory that rightfully belongs to Hal, and Hal let him go along with it, saying nothing.
The choice before Hal is a simple one. Does he become a responsible ruler, or does he allow fiends and charlatans like Falstaff to abuse his authority. Falstaff and others in that circle believe they are now riding the high life, ascending to prominence and ease with Hal’s influence as a war hero and his eventual rise to the throne. In the meantime, rebels continue to haunt King Henry, for they see not only the usurper on the throne, but they also see what the king sees in his successor: corruption and folly. Keeping in mind the ongoing war with France, these are the kinds of seeds that could end England if they’re allowed to grow. Desperate times breed desperate measures and desperate men.
Shakespeare’s seed of hope is planted in Hal’s actions in the previous play. Hal is legitimately born, not a usurper himself, which makes him a great parallel to Elizabeth. Likewise, Hal has killed a usurper with Hotspur, paralleling Elizabeth’s execution of Mary Queen of Scots. He’s essentially hitting Elizabeth over the head with the obvious parallels. What’s the difference between them? For starters, Elizabeth is Protestant, as mentioned, which means she’s still not squared with God, and England will pay the price. And as a man of the Renaissance, Shakespeare is dealing with the sexism of his age. From his perception, strong women are the doom of England. We all love the idea of them, and Shakespeare has many examples in his plays, but when it hits a bit close to home for him, he’s still a man of his own time. Contradictions like this help us to see Shakespeare’s humanity and insecurities. Joan of Arc already embarrassingly kicked England’s butt and brought France into being stronger than ever. Mary I killed dozens in a religious campaign to restore England and brought England’s other prominent enemy, Spain, into the royal bedchambers. Elizabeth has sent Spain packing, but the religious intolerance continues in one form or another. And in the end she’s still a “flighty woman,” as exemplified by her unwillingness to either create or to name a proper heir. Scotland, therefore, is to be the curse of a woman on the throne. It may not be politically correct by our modern standards, but in Shakespeare’s time, it very much was the politically sound explanation for the Sword of Damocles that hovered over England at this point.
Northumberland, upon hearing the news that Hotspur has been killed by Prince Hal, vows to continue his rebellion against the throne, in league with the Archbishop and other nobles. Meanwhile, Falstaff, now full of himself after gaining his presumed heroic status, has hired a page to carry his sword. Even so, Falstaff’s credit with merchants is shady at best, and his robbery at Gads Hill has beset the Lord Chief Justice upon him. He dodges his debts to Mistress Quickly, but is encouraged to join the battle against the rebels.
The character of Poins is one of the quieter, smarter, and more dangerous of Hal’s friends, and it is to him that Hal has confided in the wake of Falstaff’s treachery. Hal has begun to have mixed feelings about his days with Falstaff, and he worries for his father, who is extremely sick. When a page brings Hal a letter from Falstaff, it is revealed to be nothing of substance, saying quite a bit without saying anything at all. Hal opts to play a trick on Falstaff, agreeing to Poins’ suggestion of dressing up as servingmen to spy on him.
In a turn of events, Lady Percy, Hotspur’s widow, convinces Northumberland not to send troops to aid the rebels. At the same time, another turn of events sees Hal and Poins overhearing conversation wherein Falstaff insults Hal when asked directly about the young prince. When Hal and Poins reveal themselves, Hal is angry, Falstaff is set awkwardly off his game. Another of Falstaff’s men brings news that King Henry has returned to Westminster, and the army’s officers are looking for Falstaff. Hal goes to his father’s side, and Falstaff goes to war. This split is irrevocable, though Falstaff doesn’t yet know it.
At Westminster, King Henry is making war plans in the middle of the night, cursing a personified sleep that “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.” He reflects on how Northumberland, a friend to King Richard, turned against Richard and aided Henry, and how Richard prophesied that this would happen to Henry. Of course, now it has, and Henry has to confront the notion that Richard was right. Warwick points out that Richard’s prediction comes only from the idea that Northumberland had betrayed his loyalties once and would simply do so again, urging the king to return to bed. The king agrees on both points, regretting that this war has prevented him from joining the Crusades in Jerusalem.
Let me pause here. Crusades? Why is this important? Traditionally, the Crusades were seen as a means of total absolution, a mortally dangerous but spiritually secured means of setting a person right with God. It’s the perfect medieval / heroic solution to every conceivable problem Henry has. It would establish him as a just and noble warrior king, it would bring England together under the banner of God, it would set a higher example for his son, and it would bring peace to his troubled soul. But alas, this path has been denied him between the war with France and the rebellion. In short, he has failed yet another of God’s tests.
Falstaff recruits Justices Shallow and Silence, who live up to their names as they recruit troops for Falstaff to lead into battle. The recruits are ragtag locals, two of which bribe their way out of service. Meanwhile, Hal’s brother John defeats the rebels through deception, convincing them to disband and then ordering their executions. One of the departing rebels encounters Falstaff and believing him to be the hero who killed Hotspur, surrenders on sight. Falstaff turns his prisoner over to Prince John, who sends the prisoner to be executed and announces he will return to London to be at his sick father’s side.
Sick though he may be, Henry still wants that Crusade as soon as the rebellion is resolved. He laments Hal, and when he receives word of the rebellion’s end, he takes a turn for the worst and returns to bed. Hal arrives and sits by his father’s bedside, contemplating the crown lying on the pillow next to the king. When the king appears to stop breathing, Hal is overcome with grief and reverence. He takes the crown, puts it on his head, and goes to the throne room, where he sits on the throne to wrestle with his destiny. Henry awakes, finding the crown gone. He is angry, bitter, and more than a bit panicked. Then he finds Hal on the throne. The royal rebuke is unleashed, bringing to bear every perception and accusation on the king’s mind. Hal is accused of being an opportunist, quick to seize the crown, relating his fears of the state of horror and misery that England will face with Hal on the throne. Hal kneels and weeps, declaring his love and stating that he saw the crown as an enemy, not as a prize. Henry is moved and hopes that Hal finds more peace in his reign than he did. When the younger princes return, Henry asks the name of the chamber where he first collapsed. He learns that it is called “Jerusalem.” While he laments that he will never see the real land, where he was prophesied to die, Shakespeare is telegraphing the peace to come as things begin to resolve not as the king believed. Instead of an exotic Holy Land, it’s just a mundane room. Is this a challenge to Elizabeth? I’m inclined to think so. “The Tudor glory is at an end, and in the end you will die in an ordinary room just like this one.”
Falstaff is feeling pretty good about himself at this point, feasting and saying that he will get stories enough from Shallow’s foolishness to make Prince Hal laugh for a year. Henry dies, and the whole of the palace worries about what will become of them and of the law of the land with Hal in charge. The prince ascends the throne as King Henry V, and an exchange with the Lord Chief Justice leaves everyone astonished but aware that Henry V will be a fair and just king. Falstaff knows nothing of this, however, and when he learns of the king’s death, he rushes to London, convinced of the good fortune that awaits him.
Henry V is coronated at Westminster Abbey, and as the procession moves past, Falstaff tries for the young king’s attention. To his confusion, fortune’s wheel turns and slaps him down hard as Henry banishes Falstaff and his friends to a distance of at least ten miles from his royal person, a condition they can remedy in steps if they reform.
The play closes with a character called Epilogue taking the stage, apologizing for the “badness” of the play. It is well-known in this time that Elizabeth was amused by the character of Falstaff, so this is a means of appeasement. Epilogue reveals that another play featuring Falstaff will be coming soon and concludes with a prayer for the Queen. Nice touch, no?
So where the previous play dealt with honor, this play touches on themes of the price of power, the struggle between order and lawlessness, and the means of reconciliation. Shakespeare sets his young protagonist on the throne, prepared to meet the destiny history has given him, pretty much dropping the gauntlet at Elizabeth’s feet, daring her to do better in the time she has left. Or perhaps he’s chastising her because she didn’t do better. Maybe he’s letting her know outright the dismal state in which she’ll leave England’s future. The means by which Prince Hal’s rise was accomplished deals with questions of maturity and through deeds of trickery, both of which Elizabeth and her court are often accused by the masses (specifically the masses who are secretly Catholic). He’s outright telling her that Elizabeth had the same means at her disposal and has thus far wasted them.
The stage is set for young Henry V to rise from former criminal prince to beloved war hero of England. The next post in this series, whenever it may be, will take us to the fields of Agincourt and the heart of patriotism.