Henry IV, Part II

Many passages from Shakespeare have passed into everyday speech, often without people who use them knowing their provenance. Henry IV, Part II has one such saying that became familiar to the Webner kids when we were growing up: if we brought our neighborhood friends home for Popsicles, Twinkies, Kool-Aid, or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, after Mom distributed the goodies she would look at the throng and say, with a happy look on her face, that we were “eating her out of house and home.”

I wonder if Mom knew that she was quoting Hostess Quickly’s statement in Act II, Scene one of Henry IV, Part II (about her deadbeat tavern guest Sir John Falstaff, of course!): “He hath eaten me out of house and home.”

Henry IV, Part II is full of such good lines, embedded in a sequel’s plot that is a bit schizophrenic. Because it’s a sequel, we’ll need to find out what happens with those three significant plot threads that were left unresolved at the end of Henry IV, Part I. One thread concerns the rebellion that was a significant focus of Henry IV, Part I, another follows the antics of Falstaff, and a third explores the long-delayed maturation of Prince Hal and his complex relationship with his father, the king, and with the irresistible Falstaff. Shakespeare masterfully pulls them all together for a conclusive and somewhat bittersweet ending.

The rebellion is really a minor element of the play and is resolved in short order. Lord Northumberland decides not to participate in the fight, leaving the other rebels high and dry and causing one of them to ruefully remark: “Thus do the hopes we have in him touch ground and dash themselves to pieces.” Without Northumberland’s resources, the rebels decide to parlay with King Henry’s representative, Prince John of Lancaster, who promises to redress their grievances–only to then arrest them as traitors and send them to their deaths. After being accused of breaking his word, Prince John explains his position with a nimble and almost lawyerly bit of hair-splitting:

I promised you redress of these same grievances
Whereof you did complain; which, by mine honour,
I will perform with a most Christian care.
But for you, rebels, look to taste the due
Meet for rebellion and such acts as yours.
Most shallowly did you these arms commence,
Fondly brought here and foolishly sent hence.
Strike up our drums, pursue the scatter’d stray:
God, and not we, hath safely fought to-day.
Some guard these traitors to the block of death,
Treason’s true bed and yielder up of breath.

With the rebellion quashed neatly and without bloody battle, the play is free to concentrate on Falstaff, the King, and the struggle for Hal. Shakespeare recognized that his audience would care most about that human story, not the high-level struggles of mighty lords. As in Henry IV, Part I, Falstaff is the subject of considerable attention. When we first see him, he is being insulted by a page who dutifully reports that Falstaff’s doctor believes “he might have moe diseases than he knew for.” Falstaff’s response is vintage Falstaff:

Men of all sorts take a pride to gird at me: the
brain of this foolish-compounded clay, man, is not
able to invent anything that tends to laughter, more
than I invent or is invented on me: I am not only
witty in myself, but the cause that wit is in other
men.

Falstaff remains the shrewd, unethical, self-centered rogue who delights in low company. But we see still more of Sir John’s dark side as he attempts to dodge the grip of British justice in the form of the Lord Chief Justice, cheats and then charms the widowed Hostess Quickly, dallies with Doll Tearsheet, and accepts bribes from recruits who have no wish to fight the rebel forces. He also takes advantage of the aptly named Justice Shallow, a contemporary of Falstaff’s whose recollection of his role in their ne’er-do-well past has been colored and inflated by the passage of time. After Falstaff grudgingly concedes that he and Shallow “have heard the chimes at midnight,” Falstaff later remarks:

Lord, Lord, how
subject we old men are to this vice of lying! This
same starved justice hath done nothing but prate to
me of the wildness of his youth, and the feats he
hath done about Turnbull Street: and every third
word a lie, duer paid to the hearer than the Turk’s
tribute. 

Prince Hal, after having killed Hotspur in Henry IV, Part I, seems to have backslid into his old habits, and remains deeply intrigued by Falstaff, his lifestyle, and his companions, especially Doll Tearsheet. The Prince observes that “This Doll Tearsheet should be some road” and his companion Poins responds: “I warrant you, as common as the way between Saint Albans and London.” Unable to resist the lure of Falstaff, Hal and Poins devise another ruse to trick Falstaff–as they did in Part I–this time by posing as servants while Falstaff romances Doll Tearsheet. When the unknowing Falstaff insults the Prince and Poins and the Prince and Poins reveal themselves and object to the abuse, Falstaff’s quick wit is shown again:

No abuse, Ned, i’ the world; honest Ned, none. I
dispraised him before the wicked, that the wicked
might not fall in love with him; in which doing, I
have done the part of a careful friend and a true
subject, and thy father is to give me thanks for it.
No abuse, Hal: none, Ned, none: no, faith, boys, none.

The Prince is called away to see the King, and his jesting with Falstaff ends–with some sign that the Prince is beginning to regret his unsavory activities:

By heaven, Poins, I feel me much to blame,
So idly to profane the precious time,
When tempest of commotion, like the south
Borne with black vapour, doth begin to melt
And drop upon our bare unarmed heads.
Give me my sword and cloak. Falstaff, good night.

The King, meanwhile, has become increasingly ill, and is unable to sleep. He reflects on his condition (and not incidentally shows a lack of appreciation for the harsh and difficult lives of the English commoners), in a famous soliloquy:

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,
Upon uneasy pallets stretching thee
And hush’d with buzzing night-flies to thy slumber,
Than in the perfumed chambers of the great,
Under the canopies of costly state,
And lull’d with sound of sweetest melody?
O thou dull god, why liest thou with the vile
In loathsome beds, and leavest the kingly couch
A watch-case or a common ‘larum-bell?
Wilt thou upon the high and giddy mast
Seal up the ship-boy’s eyes, and rock his brains
In cradle of the rude imperious surge
And in the visitation of the winds,
Who take the ruffian billows by the top,
Curling their monstrous heads and hanging them
With deafening clamour in the slippery clouds,
That, with the hurly, 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.

The King’s condition worsens, and even the news of the capture of the rebels and the end of the rebellion cannot fully revive him. When Hal finally visits the King on his deathbed and see the crown sitting on the pillow, next to the King’s head, the Prince similarly reflects on the burdens of leadership:

Why doth the crown lie there upon his pillow,
Being so troublesome a bedfellow?
O polish’d perturbation! golden care!
That keep’st the ports of slumber open wide
To many a watchful night! sleep with it now!
Yet not so sound and half so deeply sweet
As he whose brow with homely biggen bound
Snores out the watch of night. O majesty!
When thou dost pinch thy bearer, thou dost sit
Like a rich armour worn in heat of day,
That scalds with safety. 

Thinking that the King is dead, Hal removes the crown, places it on his head, and moves to another room to mourn. When the King awakens to find the crown is gone he thinks Hal has taken the throne before the time has come, and upbraids him:

Dost thou so hunger for mine empty chair
That thou wilt needs invest thee with my honours
Before thy hour be ripe? O foolish youth!
Thou seek’st the greatness that will o’erwhelm thee.

But the misunderstanding is resolved, and the King and Hal are reconciled before the King dies. When the news that Prince Hal is to be crowned becomes known, Falstaff and Justice Shallow head to London, expecting Falstaff’s relationship to bring them a rich reward from the new monarch. But Hal has finally grown up and accepted that the duties of the King do no permit his relationship with Falstaff to continue. When Falstaff speaks to his old friend after the coronation, the new King finally and conclusively terminates their connection, but with a trace of the humor and affection that has always marked their relationship:

I know thee not, old man: fall to thy prayers;
How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!
I have long dream’d of such a kind of man,
So surfeit-swell’d, so old and so profane;
But, being awaked, I do despise my dream.
Make less thy body hence, and more thy grace;
Leave gormandizing; know the grave doth gape
For thee thrice wider than for other men.
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;
So will I those that kept me company.
When thou dost hear I am as I have been,
Approach me, and thou shalt be as thou wast,
The tutor and the feeder of my riots:
Till then, 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.
For competence of life I will allow you,
That lack of means enforce you not to evil:
And, as we hear you do reform yourselves,
We will, according to your strengths and qualities,
Give you advancement.

We’re sad to see the new King rebuke his drinking comrade but, with everything we have seen of Falstaff over two plays, we accept that he really had no choice. Falstaff was not going to change, and due regard for the role of monarch would not allow him a significant role in government. And with the entanglements with Falstaff stripped away, and his youthful indiscretions behind him, the new King–Henry V–sets his eyes upon France. The stage is therefore set for one of Shakespeare’s greatest history plays: Henry V.