King Henry IV Part Two ends in transition, both for the English political atmosphere and for the central characters. Part of this transition takes place in the audiences’ perspective. We witness the rise of a young prince and the deterioration of an illegitimate king amidst the fog of civil war. And yet Shakespeare twists the end. The truly naive patron cannot predict precisely how these events will resolve. I did not imagine King Henry IV repenting the means of his ascension, nor did I imagine King Henry V severing his friends, nor did I imagine John Falstaff capable of so much sorrow. However, despite these twists, the resolution holds firm to the true nature of each character and one might argue that any other resolution would seem forced.
Through the first three acts, I labored through what seemed a time-abiding story. The rebellion continues with Northumberland and the Archbishop of York. As the story follows the same plot outlined in the first part, with leaders of the rebellion meeting under a banner of peace with the king’s spokesmen, the first twist pricked my ear. The rebels accept the same offer made previously to Percy from their royal opponent only to suffer a stab in the back as Prince John arrests them and sentences them to death for high treason. As opposed to Hotspur, York maintains a reasonable disposition and wisely condemns these rebellious actions as results of the time, not necessarily of Henry IV’s malice. It seems that York views these events through a transcendent mind, as a clergyman and not a soldier, and willfully plays his part in the cascading political revolution. As Shakespeare would instruct us through these two plays, Bolingbroke’s ascension revolutionized England’s political landscape and reformed the minds of nobility and royalty alike by presenting fallibility and cracking the invincibility of the throne. Henry IV’s party quells the rebels, not with honorable arms or merciful heart, but with trickery and by manipulating the integrity of an honest clergyman.
The play moves into the king’s counsel and finally his chamber where we meet him for the last time. And what a time! The audience witnesses both the sickening effect of paranoia within a king and the resurrection of a man, desperate for love and a connection with his boy as father and son rather than king and prince. As the king and Prince Henry counter over the crown, we hear the king repent the road which brought him to it, but also warn of its overwhelming power. The crown displaced his virtue with fear – fear of losing it despite its debilitating quality, like his “Precious”. The crown consumed his spirit and left him empty, caring only for its safety, like a vessel to an alien symbiont. Yet Prince Henry proves wise enough to respect the crown’s agency:
Thus, my most royal leige,
Accusing it, I put it on my head,
To try with it, as with an enemy
That had before my face murder’d my father, –
The quarrel of a true inheritor.
But if it did infect my blood with joy,
Or swell my thoughts to any strain of pride;
If any rebel or vain spirit of mine
Did with the least affection of a welcome
Give entertainment to the might of it,
Let God for ever keep it from my head,
And make me as a vassal is,
That doth with awe and terror kneel to it!
The prince, aware of the crown’s poisonous power, but unavoidably destined to wear it, may yet prove a worthy and just king, by understanding the true nature of it and prizing humanity above power.
When John Falstaff hears of Prince Henry’s coronation, he leaps from his chair, promises high positions to his friends and thanks God for presenting him with a winning lottery ticket! How like Falstaff – eeking through these plays as a rusting anchor on honor, nobility, integrity and all other virtues which righteous upbringing instills in us. But love. Falstaff never cheated love nor shamed loyalty. When King Henry V banishes him, I hear his spirit seep from his often lively mouth and envision all his putrid breath of charm flow from his nostrils. I feel the heat of his tears boiling in his eyes and his blood pause within his heart. Falstaff does not care for his lost position nor do I imagine he laments the suddenly collapsing thrill of his imagined future. But to lose Harry – to the crown – to him King Henry V’s royal procession appears as a funeral march.
But we cannot abhor the new king for this! On the contrary, we would likely do so if he abused his position and turned the court into a lavish party with Poins helping him roast Falstaff and Doll bouncing from one sack to the next. The new king enjoys the ability and privilege of washing away his past and renewing himself as a dedicated king while Falstaff must suffer alone the bed he has made for himself. As York said, these things result from the times, from the conditions of our lives and the longings of our vanity, our virtue and our hearts. All must play their role and suffer their fate.
You wave to his administrative assistant from within the elevator. The doors slide shut. You stand motionless for a time before finally pressing the button which will bring you to the lobby. When the bell rings and the doors open, you step out and the boy before you leaps out of your path just before you collide. The flicker of downtown bustle shimmers on the window panes. You tell yourself, with a grin no one can see, “Shakespeare made me sympathize with a fool before kings.”