King Henry Iv Part 2 Essay Questions

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Table of Contents

Type of Work      Composition and Publication      Sources      Background      Settings      Characters      Plot Summary
Conflicts      Tone      Climax      Themes      The Role of Falstaff      Falstaff: "the Most Substantial Character Ever Invented"
Personification      Other Figures of Speech      Epigrams      Study Questions and Essay Topics      Complete Text

Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2003
Revised in 2010, 2011, 2013, 2016..©
Type of Work

Henry IV Part II is a history play about the last days of England's King Henry IV and the accession to the throne of his son, Prince Henry (sometimes referred to as Hal or Harry), as King Henry V. The scenes involving Sir John Falstaff and his drinking companions are fictional.  

Composition and Publication

Henry IV Part II was probably written in 1596 and 1597, or entirely in 1597.It was published in 1600 in a quarto edition that does not include the first scene of the third act. This edition was printed by Valentine Simmes (1585-1622) for London publishers Andrew Wise and William Aspley. The play was published in full in 1623 as part of the First Folio, the first authorized collection of Shakespeare's plays.


Shakespeare based Henry IV Part II primarily on accounts in The Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland (Holinshed’s Chronicles), by Raphael Holinshed (?-1580?). The first edition of the chronicles was published in 1577 in two volumes. Shakespeare also drew upon information in Samuel Daniel's The First Four Books of the Civil Wars Between the Two Houses of Lancaster and York, published in 1595. There is a possibility that Shakespeare based the character Falstaff on a boastful but cowardly soldier named Pyrgopolynices in Miles Gloriosus, a play by the Roman writer Plautus (254-184 BC). 


Henry IV Part II continues the story of Henry IV Part I. At the end of the latter play, the forces of King Henry IV defeat a rebel army at Shrewsbury, on the Welsh-English border, in 1403 during a battle in which the king’s son, Prince Henry (Hal), distinguishes himself by slaying the rebels’ champion, Hotspur. Henry IV Part II focuses on the final defeat of the remaining rebel forces, the illness and approaching death of King Henry, the misadventures of the comic character Falstaff and his companions, and the transition of Hal from the carefree pub-crawler that he was in Henry IV Part I to a sober-minded heir to the throne of England.

Henry IV Part II takes place in England after the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403. The locales include London, York, Warkwarth, Westminster, Gloucestershire, Yorkshire, and Gaultree Forest. 

Rumour: Presenter of the play in the Induction, preceding Act I.
King Henry IV: King of England, now ill and suffering from insomnia and a guilty conscience for usurping the throne of Richard II. The son of the Duke of Lancaster (John of Gaunt), Henry was the first English king in the House of Lancaster, reigning from 1399 to 1413. 
Prince Henry of Wales (Prince Hal): Son of the king. He inherits the throne as Henry V. He gives up his carefree, fun-loving lifestyle when royal duties demand his full attention.
Prince John of Lancaster: Son of the king. John violates a peace pact and slaughters a rebel army.
Prince Humphrey of Gloucester: Another son of the king.
Thomas, Duke of Clarence:Another son of the king.                       |
Earls of Warwick (Nevil) and Surrey: King's counsellors.
Earl of Westmoreland: A leader of the king's forces.
Gower, Harcourt, Blunt: Officers in the king's forces.
Earl of Northumberland: A leader of the rebellion against the king.
Lady Northumberland: Wife of Northumberland and mother of the dead Hotspur. (See Background for information on Hotspur.)
Other Leaders of the Rebellion Against the King: Lord Mowbray, Lord Hastings, Lord Bardolph, Sir John Colville, and Richard Scroop, Archbishop of York.
Lady Percy: Widow of Hotspur. (See Background for information on Hotspur.)
Travers, Morton: Retainers of Northumberland.
Lord Chief Justice of the King's Bench: Judge appointed by Henry V (Hal).
Servant of the Chief Justice
Sir John Falstaff: Fun-loving companion of Prince Hal. Falstaff is rejected by Hal when the latter becomes king.
Page of Falstaff
Bardolph, Pistol, Peto: Falstaff's companions.
Poins: Companion of Hal before the latter becomes king.
Robert Shallow, Silence: Country justices. Silence is Shallow's cousin.
Fang, Snare: Sheriff's officers.
Doll Tearsheet: Prostitute at the Boar's Head Tavern in London's Eastcheap section.
Mouldy, Shadow, Wart, Feeble, Bullcalf: Falstaff's army recruits.
Mistress Quickly: Hostess of the Boar's-Head Tavern.
Davy: Justice Shallow's servant.
William Visor: Friend of Davy. Davy asks Justice Shallow for favorable treatment of Visor in a lawsuit.
Clement Perkes: Man opposing William Visor in a lawsuit.
Beadles: Messengers of a court of law.
Grooms: Men from the royal court who strew flowers on the road before the passing of the royal train carrying Hal after his coronation as King Henry V.
Dancer: Speaker of the epilogue.
Minor Characters: Lords, attendants, porter, drawers (tapsters or bartenders).

Plot Summary
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2003

Rumor spreads that Hotspur has killed Prince Hal and that the rebels have defeated the royalists. However, Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, soon learns the truth about his son Hotspur and the rebel army: It was not Hotspur who killed Hal; it was Hal who killed Hotspur. What is more, it was not the rebels who defeated the royalists; it was the royalists who defeated the rebels. Nevertheless, the rebels are far from ripe for surrender. They form a coalition that includes a defector to their cause: Richard Scroop, the Archbishop of York. He is much disenchanted with the policies of Henry IV. 

Meanwhile, fat old Falstaff lives it up in London. He has his own page to wait on him—compliments of Hal—and more than twenty yards of silk with which to fashion a cape and breeches. His prodigality soon leaves him with but eight coins in his purse. Not to worry. The gout in his big toe, which causes him to limp, will surely qualify him for a rise in his pension. 

Before Falstaff leaves for battle, his landlady, Mistress Quickly, calls the law down on him for failure to repay a loan. Even worse, he has failed to make good on his promise to marry her. When officers attempt to arrest him, a great ruckus ensues. In the end, Falstaff not only escapes arrest, but he also persuades Mistress Quickly to lend him ten more pounds. Prince Hal happens by, and he and Falstaff enjoy a bit of merrymaking until the time comes for them to embark for war. In the new campaign against the rebels, Falstaff will be under the command of Prince John of Lancaster, Hal’s younger brother. The Earl of Northumberland will not be wielding a sword in this campaign, for his wife and daughter-in-law have persuaded him to stand aside. However, if the rebels gain the upper hand, Lady Percy advises, then it would be wise for him to enter the fray. 

Meanwhile, at the palace in Westminster, King Henry IV, seriously ill, frets about the state of his country. Insomnia seizes him. He says, 

                           O sleep, O gentle sleep, 
Nature’s soft nurse, how have I frighted thee, 
That thou no more wilt weigh my eyelids down 
And steep my senses in forgetfulness? (3.1.7-10)
In Gaultree forest in Yorkshire, site of the insurgents’ camp, the archbishop and other rebel leaders despair at news that Northumberland will not be fighting at their side. Then the Earl of Westmoreland, an ambassador from royalist forces under Prince John of Lancaster, arrives to parlay with the rebels, telling them that John is willing to hear their grievances and grant concessions if the grievances are just. After the rebels present their list of complaints, Westmoreland delivers it to Lancaster. 

Lancaster then meets with the rebels and swears by his honor that he will speedily redress the grievances. Taking the prince at his word, the rebel leaders order their armies to disperse. However, as soon as the armies leave, Prince John goes back on his word, arrests the leaders, and summarily executes them. Then he orders the fleeing rebel troops to be run down. 

In another part of the forest, Falstaff somehow has managed to capture a prisoner. When Falstaff and Lancaster meet, the prince rebukes the fat knight for always being absent from the scene of battle and threatens to send him to the gallows. Falstaff then proudly displays his prize, the prisoner, saying he is a “most furious knight and valourous enemy . . . I came, I saw, I overcame”
1 (4.3.17).

After Lancaster leaves, Falstaff says the cold, unsmiling prince is the way he is because he has not cultivated the habit of drinking wine. In Westminster, the king, now very sick, broods about his son Prince Hal. Will he ever mature enough to succeed his father as King of England? Westmoreland then arrives with excellent news: The rebels have been defeated; peace reigns. However, the king’s condition worsens, and he realizes death stands near to claim him. When Prince Hal arrives to comfort his father, the king offers this advice to his son: “Be it thy course to busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels; that action, hence borne out, may waste the memory of the former days” (4.5.221-223).

In other words, if England centers its attention on conflicts with foreign countries, the people will likewise divert their attention from making domestic mischief and focus instead on making international mischief. The king then is carried to the palace’s Jerusalem Chamber. There he dies, fulfilling a prophecy that he would die in Jerusalem. 

Upon hearing that Hal is now King Henry V, Falstaff hurriedly returns to his friend’s side to reap the benefits of having a monarch for a bosom pal. However, Hal, as king, becomes a different person. He is sober, solemn, full of kingly dignity; he means business. Hal lectures Falstaff on his unprincipled ways, then banishes him on pain of death, telling him “not to come near our person by ten mile” (5.5.56). If Falstaff reforms, Hal says, “We will, according to your strengths and qualities, give you advancement” (5.5.60-61). The new king next convenes a session of parliament to discuss war with a new enemy, France. 


The main conflicts center on (1) Henry IV and his rebellious enemies, (2) Henry's concern about his son, and (3) Henry's gnawing guilt about his accession to the throne over the body of Richard II.

After suffering a loss at the Battle of Shrewsbury (Henry IVPart I), the rebel forces regroup to renew their fight against the king. While considering the threat they pose, the king also worries whether Young Hal—who proved himself an outstanding at Shrewsbury—has the wherewithal to be a future king. 

In addition, the king frets over the state of his soul. After all, he had acceded to the throne after one of his supporters killed his predecessor, Richard II. The king, therefore, believes he has blood on his hands. He hopes to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to redeem himself. He tells Warwick and Surrey, "And were these inward wars once out of hand, / We would, dear lords, unto the Holy Land" (3.1.113-144).


The tone of the play is alternately serious and lighthearted, with the comic episodes of Falstaff contrasting with the sober business of war. However, Hal bends his mind to affairs of state, becoming deadly serious. At the end of the play, when he becomes king, he chastens Falstaff, telling him he must reform his ways.

ClimaxThe climax of a play or narrative work, such as a short story or a novel, can be defined as (1) the turning point at which the conflict begins to resolve itself for better or worse, or as (2) the final and most exciting event in a series of events. The climax in Henry IV Part II occurs, according to the first definition, when Prince Hal renounces his old ways once and for all and banishes Falstaff. According to the second definition, the climax occurs when King Henry dies and his son, Prince Hal, accedes to the throne.

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Prince Hal becomes a mature, reliable, and upright leader while executing his military and governmental duties. After his father dies and he becomes King Henry V, he renounces his former self—the carousing, fun-loving Hal who mingled with rowdies to learn the ways of the common folk. To prove that he is now deadly serious about his kingly duties, he also renounces Falstaff, saying,

Reply not to me with a fool-born jest: 
Presume not that I am the thing I was; 
For God doth know, so shall the world perceive, 
That I have turn’d away my former self;
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . .I banish thee, on pain of death, 
As I have done the rest of my misleaders, 
Not to come near our person by ten mile. (5.5. 46-47 and 54-56)
What's Past Remains Past

Even the best of men sometimes have checkered pasts. Like many modern politicians, Prince Hal has engaged in reprehensible and censurable conduct, thanks to his association with Falstaff and his friends. But he leaves the past behind him—forever. If he were running for political office in modern times, he would have difficulty burying his past; for the media would surely exhume it and vilify Hal

Troubles at Home

Domestic violence strikes not only families but also entire kingdoms. Henry IV uses his army to fight citizens of his own country. In modern times, governments have often done the same—rightly or wrongly—in Russia, Northern Ireland, Vietnam, and other countries.


Henry IV experiences deep guilt for the manner in which he came to power: overthrowing the previous king, Richard II. Shakespeare says he did not merely overthrow him; he murdered him. Henry's guilt consumes him and remains with him until he draw his last breath. As he near death, he prays for remission of his sin, saying, "How I came by the crown, O God, forgive! / And grant it may with thee in true peace live" (4.5.226-227).

The Role of Falstaff

Henry IV Part I made Falstaff a popular comic character with audiences. He even became a favorite of Queen Elizabeth I. Consequently, in Henry IV Part II, Shakespeare devotes considerable attention to the fat knight, perhaps more attention than he should receive in a play that presents as the central characters a dying king and his son. However, Falstaff’s shenanigans play a key role in the play in that they (1) demonstrate the kind of life Prince Hal has led as a companion of Falstaff and (2) set up the stunning scene at the end of the play when Hal, more mature, renounces his old lifestyle and Falstaff. This scene is important because it shows that Hal has the spine to give up his carefree, irresponsible ways to take on the heavy burdens of kingship. 

As in the first play, Falstaff eats, drinks, and makes merry. And, of course, there is no end to his bragging, as in the following passage in which he hyperbolizes about himself: “I would to God my name were not so terrible to the enemy as it is: I were better to be  eaten to death with a rust than to be scoured to nothing with perpetual motion (1.2.66). Falstaff, a companion of Prince Hal, even thinks himself young like the prince, telling the Lord Chief Justice, "You that are old consider not the capacities of us that are young; you do measure the heat of our livers with the bitterness of your galls; and we that are in the vaward
2 of our youth, I must confess, are wags too (1.2.66). 

The Lord Chief Justice, well knowing that Falstaff is little more than a wheezing bag of wind, replies, "Have you not a moist eye? a dry hand? a yellow cheek? a white beard? a decreasing leg? an  increasing belly? is not your voice broken? your wind short? your chin double? your wit single? and every part about you blasted with antiquity? (1.2.66). 

Renowned Shakespeare critic G.B. Harrison, impressed with Shakespeare's handling of Falstaff, wrote the falling appraisal of the character: 

    The most notable person in [King Henry IV] is the fat knight, Sir John Falstaff, the supreme comic character in all drama. In creating Falstaff, Shakespeare used principally his own eyes and ears. Falstaff is the gross incarnation of a type of soldier found in any army, and there were many such—though on a lower level of greatness—swarming in London when the play was first written, spending the profits of the last campaign in taverns, brothels, and playhouses, while they intrigued for a new command in the next season's campaign.... Many of them were rogues who cheated the government and their own men on all occasions.... Though he [Falstaff] can quote Scripture on occasion, he is a liar, a drunkard, and a cheat; he robs the poor and flouts every civic virtue; but on the stage at least he redeems his vices by his incomparable wit and his skill escaping from every tight corner."—G.B. Harrison, ed. Major British Writers. New York: Harcourt,  1967 (Page 59).
Falstaff: the 'Most Substantial Comic Character Ever Invented'

English essayist and literary critic William Hazlitt (1778-1830) wrote that Falstaff was one of the greatest comic characters in literature. He said:

If Shakespear's fondness for the ludicrous sometimes led to faults in his tragedies (which was not often the case) he has made us amends by the character of Falstaff. This is perhaps the most substantial comic character that ever was invented! Sir John carries a most portly presence in the mind's eye; and in him, not to speak it profanely, "we behold the fulness of the spirit of wit and humour bodily." We are as well acquainted with his person as his mind, and his jokes come upon us with double force and relish from the quantity of flesh through which they make their way, as he shakes his fat sides with laughter, or "lards the lean earth as he walks along." Other comic characters seem, if we approach and handle them, to resolve themselves into air, "into thin air;" but this is embodied and palpable to the grossest apprehension: it lies "three fingers deep upon the ribs," it plays about the lungs and the diaphragm with all the force of animal enjoyment. His body is like a good estate to his mind, from which he receives rents and revenues of profit and pleasure in kind, according to its extent, and the richness of the soil. Wit is often a meagre substitute for pleasurable sensation; an effusion of spleen and petty spite at the comforts of others, from feeling none in itself. Falstaff's wit is an emanation of a fine constitution; an exuberance of good-humour and good-nature; an overflowing of his love of laughter, and good-fellowship; a giving vent to his heart's ease and over-contentment with himself and others. He would not be in character, if he were not so fat as he is; for there is the greatest keeping in the boundless luxury of his imagination and the pampered self-indulgence of his physical appetites. He manures and nourishes his mind with jests, as he does his body with sack and sugar. He carves out his jokes, as he would a capon, or a haunch of venison, where there is cut and come again; and pours out upon them the oil of gladness. His tongue drops fatness, and in the chambers of his brain "it snows of meat and drink." He keeps up perpetual holiday and open house, and we live with him in a round of invitations to a rump and dozen.--Yet we are not to suppose that he was a mere sensualist. All this is as much in imagination as in reality. His sensuality does not engross and stupify his other faculties, but "ascends me into the brain, clears away all the dull, crude vapours that environ it, and makes it full of nimble, fiery, and delectable shapes." His imagination keeps up the ball after his senses have done with it. He seems to have even a greater enjoyment of the freedom from restraint, of good cheer, of his ease, of his vanity, in the ideal exaggerated descriptions which he gives of them, than in fact. He never fails to enrich his discourse with allusions to eating and drinking, but we never see him at table. He carries his own larder about with him, and he is himself "a ton of man." His pulling out the bottle in the field of battle is a joke to shew his contempt for glory accompanied with danger, his systematic adherence to his Epicurean philosophy in the most trying circumstances. Again, such is his deliberate exaggeration of his own vices, that it does not seem quite certain whether the account of his hostess's bill, found in his pocket, with such an out-of-the-way charge for capons and sack with only one halfpenny-worth of bread, was not put there by himself as a trick to humour the jest upon his favourite propensities, and as a conscious caricature of himself. He is represented as a liar, a braggart, a coward, a glutton, &c. and yet we are not offended but delighted with him; for he is all these as much to amuse others as to gratify himself. He openly assumes all these characters to shew the humourous part of them. The unrestrained indulgence of his own ease, appetites, and convenience, has neither malice nor hypocrisy in it. In a word, he is an actor in himself almost as much as upon the stage, and we no more object to the character of Falstaff in a moral point of view than we should think of bringing an excellent comedian, who should represent him to the life, before one of the police offices. We only consider the number of pleasant lights in which he puts certain foibles (the more pleasant as they are opposed to the received rules and necessary restraints of society) and do not trouble ourselves about the consequences resulting from them, for no mischievous consequences do result; Sir John is old as well as fat, which gives a melancholy retrospective tinge to the character; and by the disparity between his inclinations and his capacity for enjoyment, makes it still more ludicrous and fantastical.(Characters of Shakespeare's Plays. London: C. H. Reynell, 1817) 


Among the most memorable passages in the play are those in which King Henry—suffering from terminal illness, guilt, and anxiety about domestic strife—uses personification to communicate his concerns. Following are two examples of such passages. In the first, sleep is personified; in the second, fortune. 

How many thousand of my poorest subjects 
Are at this hour asleep! O sleep! O gentle sleep! 
Nature’s soft nurse, how have I frighted thee, 
That thou no more wilt weigh my eyelids down 
And steep my senses in forgetfulness? 
Why rather, sleep, liest thou in smoky cribs,3
Upon uneasy pallets4 stretching thee, 
And hush’d with buzzing night-flies to thy slumber, 
Than in the perfum’d chambers of the great, 
Under the canopies of costly state,5
And lull’d with sound of sweetest melody?
O thou dull god!6 why liest thou with the vile7
In loathsome beds, and leav’st the kingly couch 
A watch-case or a common ’larum bell?8
Wilt thou upon the high and giddy mast 
Seal up9 the ship-boy’s eyes, and rock his brains
In cradle of the rude imperious surge,10
And in the visitation of the winds, 
Who take the ruffian billows by the top,
Curling their monstrous heads, and hanging them 
With deaf’ning clamour in the slippery clouds, 
That, with the hurly,11 death itself awakes? 
Canst thou, O partial sleep! give thy repose
To the wet sea-boy in an hour so rude, 
And in the calmest and most stillest night, 
With all appliances and means to boot, 
Deny it to a king? Then, happy low, lie down! 
Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown. (3.1.6-32)

And wherefore should these good news make me sick? 
Will Fortune never come with both hands full 
But write her fair words still in foulest letters? 
She either gives a stomach and no food; 
Such are the poor, in health; or else a feast 
And takes away the stomach; such are the rich, 
That have abundance and enjoy it not. 
I should rejoice now at this happy news, 
And now my sight fails, and my brain is giddy. 
O me! come near me, now I am much ill. (4.4.110-118)

Other Figures of Speech

Following are examples of other figures of speech in the play. 

Alliteration: Repetition of a consonant sound at the beginning of syllables

With that he gave his able horse the head (1.1.53)
I’ll tickle your catastrophe. (2.1.25)
Rate, rebuke, and roughly send to prison (5.2.76)
I did not think Master Silence had been a man of this mettle. (5.3.14) 
Anaphora: Repetition of a word, phrase, or clause at the beginning of groups of words
                                 O! such a day, 
So fought, so follow’d, and so fairly won, 
Came not till now to dignify the times (1.1.-28-30) 

Even such a man, so faint, so spiritless, 
So dull, so dead in look, so woe-begone, 
Drew Priam’s12 curtain in the dead of night. (1.1.85-87) 

                     You, lord archbishop, 
Whose see is by a civil peace maintain’d, 
Whose beard the silver hand of peace hath touch’d, 
Whose learning and good letters peace hath tutor’d, 
Whose white investments figure innocence,   52 
The dove and very blessed spirit of peace. . . . (4.1.48-53) 

Apostrophe: Addressing an abstraction or a thing, present or absent; addressing an absent entity or person; addressing a deceased person
                        O sleep! O gentle sleep! 
Nature’s soft nurse, how have I frighted thee, 
That thou no more wilt weigh my eyelids down 
And steep my senses in forgetfulness? (3.1.7-10)
The king addresses sleep as if it were a person.
Metaphor: Comparison of unlike things without using like, as, or than
I can get no remedy against this consumption of the purse: borrowing only lingers and lingers it out, but the disease is incurable. (1.2.73)
Comparison of impoverishment to a disease (consumption)

                His coffers sound 
With hollow poverty and emptiness. (1.3.77-78)
Comparison of poverty to the sound made by empty strongboxes (coffers)

Hang yourself, you muddy conger, hang yourself! (2.4.23)
Doll Tearsheet compares Falstaff to an eel (conger).

Thou globe of sinful continents, what a life dost thou lead! (2.4.127)
Hal compares Falstaff to world of sin.

You are too shallow, Hastings, much too shallow, 
To sound the bottom of the after-times. (4.2.54-55)
Comparison of Hastings to a sounding line used to measure the depth of a body of water
Comparison of after-times (the future) to a measurable thing, such as body of water

Paradox: Contradiction containing a measure of truth
In poison there is physic [healing]. (1.1.153)
Simile: Comparison of unlike things using like, as, or than
The times are wild; contention, like a horse 
Full of high feeding, madly hath broke loose 
And bears down all before him. (1.1.15-17) 
Comparison of contention to a horse

     This man’s brow, like to a title-leaf, 
Foretells the nature of a tragic volume (1.1.74-75)
Comparison of the man's brow to the title page of a book

You are both, in good troth, as rheumatic as two dry toasts. (2.4.24)
Mistress Quickly compares the demeanor of Falstaff and Doll Tearsheet to dry toast.

His wit is as thick as Tewksbury mustard. (2.4.108)
Falstaff insultingly compares Poins' with to thick mustard.

Quoit him down, Bardolph, like a shove-groat shilling. (2.4.79)
Falstaff tells Bardolph to throw Pistol down the stairs, as if Pistol were a coin to be tossed like a quoit.

Our peace will, like a broken limb united, 
Grow stronger for the breaking. (4.1.232-233) 
Comparison of peace to a broken limb

FALSTAFF   What! is the old king dead? 
PISTOL   As nail in door: the things I speak are just.
Pistol says Henry IV is as dead as a doornail.


In the dialogue of Henry IV Part II and other Shakespeare plays, characters sometimes speak wise or witty sayings, or epigrams. Among the more memorable sayings in Henry IV Part II are the following:

Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown. (3.1.32)
This eight-word line, spoken by the king, is one of the most pithy observations in all of literature about the burdens of leadership.

How quickly nature falls into revolt 
When gold becomes her object! (4.5.71-72)
King Henry, dying, speaks these lines after Prince Hal sees his father sleeping and, believing him dead, removes his crown and places it on his own head. 

Past and to come seems best; things present worst. (1.3.113)
Every human likes to reminisce about the good old days while also entertaining the notion that “the best is yet to come.” The here and now, however, always seems dull and wearisome. Through the Archbishop of York, Shakespeare captures this universal truth in nine words. 

Is it not strange that desire should so many years outlive performance? (2.4.114)
Poins is poking fun at old Falstaff, but he is really speaking about everyone who discovers in old age that his body can no longer do what his mind wishes.


1....I came, I saw, I overcame: These words parody the Latin words of Julius Caesar: Veni, vidi, vici (VAY ne, VE de, VE chee), meaning I came, I saw, I conquered. Caesar wrote the words in a message to the Roman Senate after he won a victory in the Battle of Zela (in present-day northern Turkey) in 47 BC.
2....Vaward: Vanguard.
3....smoky cribs: Small room heated with a smoking fire.
4....pallets: Straw-filled mattress placed on the floor.
5....costly state: Luxurious furnishings; luxurious bed.
6....dull god: Sleep; the god of sleep.
7....vile: Commoners; peasants. . . . bell: Sentry post; place where a guard keeps watch to sound an alarm (bell) against danger.
9....Seal up: Close.
10..rock . . . surge: Rock him to sleep with the motions of the sea.
11..hurly: Hurly-burly; turmoil.
12..Priam: In Greek mythology, Priam was the king of Troy.9

Study Questions and Essay Topics 

  • King Henry observes, “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown” (3.1.32). He means that those who take on the responsibilities of leadership also take on the worries that go with them. Identify several world leaders today who may be uneasy because they “wear the crown.” 
  • Prince Hal thinks his father is dead when in reality the king is only sleeping. Hal removes the king’s crown and places it on his own head. What motivates Hal to do this? Is he overly ambitious? Is he simply trying to demonstrate, after leading the life of a playboy, that he is now mature enough to assume the awesome responsibility of kingship? Explain your answer.
  • Has the attitude toward war as a glorious adventure changed since the days of King Henry IV?
  • Do you believe Prince Hal was right, at the end of the play, to scold Falstaff?
  • Who is the most admirable character in the play? Who is the least admirable?
  • Write an essay comparing and contrasting the Prince Hal of Henry IV Part I with the Prince Hal of Henry IV Part II
  • Write an essay identifying kingly qualities in Prince Hal. 

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Total Votes: 126

1. Is there a discrepancy between what the play seems to demand that we think of Falstaff and what we actually think of him?
Falstaff is a liar, a thief, a cheat, a drunkard and a glutton, and the play prepares us for his ultimate rejection by the King. We are plainly meant to side with the new King, who has so solemnly declared his intent to be worthy of the crown, in renouncing this "surfeit-swell'd . . . old . . . profane" man (Act 5, scene 5). But although Falstaff may be a disreputable character that no King could afford to fraternize with, he is nonetheless, despite all his bad qualities, a likable old rogue who wins the audience's affection. Perhaps his attractiveness lies in his willingness to mock authority and to get away with it (surely something we would all on occasion like to do). Falstaff's irresponsibility, his refusal to take anything seriously, his turning of everything to humor, appeals to that part of us that longs, but probably does not dare, to throw off all the accumulated burdens of life. As A. C. Bradley put it in his essay, "The Rejection of Falstaff," "The main source . . . of our sympathetic delight in Falstaff is his humorous superiority to everything serious, and the freedom of soul enjoyed in it." Other characters sense that quality in him, and he inspires affection in them (and so in us too) because of it. No more telling comment is made about Falstaff than that spoken by Hostess Quickly as Falstaff is about to go off to the wars: "I have known thee these twenty-nine years, come peascod time, but an honester and truer-hearted man-well, fare thee well" (Act 2, scene 4).
2. Describe the character and main concerns of Henry IV.
Henry is a practical man and a determined warrior, but he is weighed down by the series of rebellions that have assaulted his kingdom throughout his reign. These rebellions have thwarted his desire to go to the Holy Land. He knows that the cause of the prolonged civil disorder is the questionable way in which he became King, and he cannot stop himself trying to justify his earlier conduct. The issue seems to be in the back of his mind all the time. For example, in recalling his seizure of the crown, he claims to Warwick that he did not plan to do so in advance. The pressure of events forced him into it: "I had no such intent / But that necessity so bow'd the state / That I and greatness were compell'd to kiss" (Act 3, scene 1). In other words, he had no choice in the matter, or so he has convinced himself.
The subject of the legitimacy of his crown is still on his mind when he speaks to Prince Henry on his deathbed. He acknowledges that "God knows, my son, / By what by-paths and indirect crook'd ways / I met this crown" (Act 4, scene 5). And at the end of this speech, knowing that his death is imminent, he drops any attempt at self-justification and asks God's forgiveness for "How I came by the crown."
The King's second main concern, as he first reveals to Clarence and Warwick, in Act 4, scene 4, is what will happen to the kingdom after his death. He has no confidence in his eldest son's ability to manage the kingdom well, and he expects a state of anarchy to prevail. He is reassured, however, by the sincerity of Prince Henry's promise to rule wisely. He then says that the dubious way he gained the crown will not affect his son, who will come about the throne legitimately, by inheritance.
3. How does Shakespeare use prose and verse to differentiate between the types of characters in the play?
Henry IV part 2 is written partly in prose and partly in blank verse. Generally speaking, the characters from a higher social class, including all the rebel leaders and the King and his party, speak in blank verse. It is a more dignified form of utterance, appropriate for their social status. In contrast, the characters from a lower social class, such as the crew in the Boar's Head, speak prose, as do the Country Justices Shallow and Silence, and Sir John Falstaff.
Falstaff, although he is a knight of at least moderate social standing, always speaks in prose, even when he is addressing Prince John (Act 4, scene 3). He makes no attempt to vary his manner of speech according to whom he is addressing, and nor would we expect him to. Falstaff always is what he is, and he cannot be anything else. Similarly, Prince John does not lower himself to speak prose when he addresses Falstaff. This is in contrast to the practice of Prince Hal. Whenever the Prince is with Falstaff and the other low characters, he speaks prose (this is also noticeable in Henry IV, part 1). This reinforces at the level of language the fact that he is lowering himself to their level. But when Prince Henry talks to his father, he speaks in a very dignified blank verse, as he does when he makes his final speech to Falstaff, rejecting him. This is the first time in either of the Henry IV plays that Prince Henry has spoken to Falstaff in blank verse. One could even say that Prince Henry's development as a character is mirrored in the way he moves from predominantly speaking in prose to speaking in verse. It is a movement that Falstaff cannot follow.
The other character who adjusts his form of speech according to the person he is addressing is the Lord Chief Justice. He shows that he can meet Falstaff at his own level by speaking to him in prose as the two men verbally spar in Act 1, scene 2, and Act 2, scene 1. But later in the play, the Lord Chief Justice speaks in verse to the nobles and to the newly crowned Henry V.
4. Discuss Prince John's tactics at Gaultree Forest. Is he justified in tricking the rebels?
It is hard for a modern reader to avoid the conclusion that Prince John's methods reflect little credit on him. He tricks the rebels into disbanding their army but then arrests the rebel leaders, justifying his actions by saying that he never guaranteed their personal safety. Most people would agree that this is hardly an honorable way to defeat an enemy, unless one believes that in all circumstances, the ends justify the means.
Shakespeare was bound by his historical sources to present this incident, although he ascribes the perfidy to Prince John rather than to Westmoreland. But apart from Falstaff's disparaging remarks about the coldness of Prince John, Shakespeare does not censure the Prince's Gaultree trick. The rebels are silenced soon enough, of course, but Shakespeare could easily have written a snatch of dialogue in which one or more characters expressed some unease about the method by which the rebels were captured. He chose not to do so. He may have felt that the rebel cause was a dishonorable one, and that Prince John's stratagem was therefore an acceptable way for the righteous cause to triumph. After all, not a single life was lost at Gaultree, and passages such as Northumberland's rant in Act I scene 1, in which he calls for chaos to descend on the land, amply suggest the threat the rebels presented to order and good government.
5. Is Falstaff treated too harshly by the new Henry V?
Some critics have felt that Henry's cold rejection of Falstaff at the end of the play reflects badly on the new king's character. However, while it may be discomfiting for some to see the fat old knight publicly humiliated, Shakespeare makes it clear during the course of the play that the King, if he is to rule wisely, has no other choice. Falstaff stands for lawlessness and irresponsibility, and while the young Prince Hal might have enjoyed his witty company, Falstaff is obviously an unfit companion for a King.
Falstaff's punishment is not unduly severe. He is banished from within ten miles of the King's presence, but he is given an allowance for life. His incarceration in the Fleet prison, although no doubt galling for one who expected the laws of England to be at his command, is to be of short duration. (This is not explicitly stated in the text but long imprisonment in London is not compatible with the decree of banishment.)
Shakespeare prepares the audience for Falstaff's downfall in several ways. He inserts two scenes in which Falstaff is directly confronted by the Lord Chief Justice, who is presented as a worthy opponent. Shakespeare also has Falstaff assigned to Prince John's army rather than to Prince Henry, thus beginning the separation between the two, who had served together at the battle of Shrewsbury. Apart from the final scene, there is only one scene (Act 2, scene 4) in which Falstaff and the Prince appear together. And in Act 5, scene 3, in which Falstaff hears the news that the Prince has ascended to the throne, it is clear that what he represents is antithetical to good order and wise government. "The laws of England are at my commandment," Falstaff says. "Blessed are they that have been my friends, and woe to my Lord Chief Justice!" Plainly, Falstaff is getting above himself, and needs to be put in his place by a newly wise monarch.

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