Sunday, December 11, 2005

King Henry IV Part 2

December 4, 1998

It is considered no secret to the avid film viewer that sequels usually disappoint. Whether the sequel follows too closely to the original, or deviates too much from the original format, it is often hard for film makers to give the audience a work they feel is worthy of its predecessor. The writers of sequel have to work with characters and a format already established, and often the restrictions take their toll on the work. All too often a sequel will leave the viewers wishing they had found a better way to spend their time.

Although I was aware of the dangers a sequel faces in the theater today, I was not expecting that Shakespeare would face the sequel problem in the Renaissance Theater. Surely the “immortal bard” would not be subject to the same problems that plague ordinary writers. However the problem of sequels is one that even Shakespeare and his contemporaries had to deal with.

“The Play in two Parts is a fairly frequent phenomenon in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Sometimes, as we have seen, a Second Part was added because the First was popular, sometimes the two Parts were planned together. But in either case it often happens that the dramatist resuming his task with the same characters, taking their story further along the time-dimension, is impelled to look more detachedly at his subject than before” (Leech 28).

After Reading “King Henry IV Part 2" (along with some commentaries to help me understand it) I became aware that Shakespeare did indeed suffer from the sequel syndrome. Although “King Henry IV Part 2" contains much that is admirable, it is inferior to its predecessor because it repeats much of Part 1 and its structure is lacking.

Before beginning to point out the flaws in this work, it is worth mentioning that “King Henry IV Part 2" has much about it that is enjoyable. To hold it up against “King Henry IV Part 1" is to compare it to “one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays” (Abrams 822), and to say it falls short of this piece is to leave plenty of room for excellence. As one critic put it, “It is, however, inferior to its predecessor as a work of dramatic art, though, in my judgement, not at all so as a work of genius” (Rolfe 13). As with “King Henry IV Part 1", Shakespeare’s true genius shows through in the comic scenes, more specifically the scenes centering on Falstaff. There is one scene in which Prince Hal and Poins disguise themselves as servants (drawers) at the Tavern in Eastcheap to see how Falstaff will act unaware of their presence. When they discover him badmouthing them, and reveal themselves, Falstaff must quickly explain what he has said in a manner very similar to when he was caught in his own lies in “King Henry IV Part 1". Another interesting scene finds Falstaff in battle against the rebels. When he challenges one of them, John Coleville to a fight, the latter yields to Falstaff, afraid of him because he believed Falstaff to be behind the death of Hotspur at Shrewsbury.

Shakespeare also introduces several new characters who are of great interest. There is Ancient Pistol, a friend of Falstaff, about whom one of the other characters exclaims, “Hang him, swaggering rascal, let him not come hither: it is the foul-mouth’dst rogue in England” (2.4.69-70). Pistol “speaks almost entirely in borrowed phrases, orts, and shards of theatrical language...Pistol speaks so like a character in a play that none of the play’s other characters are able to communicate with him” (Pearlman 129). Also fascinating are two elderly justices who are “corrected and corrupted by Falstaff” (Pearlman 131).

Despite the genius of this play, Shakespeare falls into one of the same pitfalls many modern film sequels do. The play repeats too much of the first. The scene described above with Falstaff is caught badmouthing the Prince and Poins is hilarious, but in many respects the same gag that Shakespeare used earlier in the first play. Although it certainly succeeds in bringing laughs, it indicates a lack of creativity on Shakespeare’s part.

More grating is the replay of the Prince Hal and King Henry IV theme. At the end of the first play, the audience is under the impression that Prince Hal has proven himself to his father, shown his true character, and laid aside any worries about what kind of a man he will turn out to be. “However ‘unfinished’ the characterization of Hal may be in Part 1, all doubts about his princeliness are erased at Shrewsbury; and even before Shrewsbury there are hints that his relation with Falstaff will not continue” (Ornstein 153). In “King Henry IV Part 2" the relationship of Prince Hal and his father deteriorates to what it was at the start of the first play, and the audience is forced to watch the path to reconciliation all over again. Things begin to go wrong again between the two when the King learns that Hal, instead of hunting at Windsor as he expected, was “With Poins, and his other continual followers” (4.4.53). The King is once again filled with sorrow over his son’s actions. “The audience knows that King Henry has once again thoroughly misjudged his son and can only hope that the misunderstanding will soon be resolved” (Pearlman 134). The circumstances are different this time than in the first play (King Henry IV is on his deathbed at the time of reconciliation) yet it is essentially the same stuff. “Hal’s conversion from wastrel to exemplary prince has been enacted once before; now Shakespeare must try to vary action and meaning even as he stays within the lines of the pattern. Shakespeare is ingenious and imaginative but just as Hal’s relapse is less than convincing so his second conversion presents problems of great moral and dramatic complexity” (Pearlman 133).

“King Henry IV Part 2" is also lacking in structure as compared to part one. In “King Henry IV Part 1", Shakespeare carefully sets everything up to fit in a neat framework. Hotspur and Hal are perfect as foils for each other, even if Shakespeare does have to take some historical liberties to achieve this. The play ends climatically with a battle. Even though there is no sense of finality, the play closes with a climax that the plot has been building up to all along. In fact, one critic argues: “Pleading that Part 1 is incomplete because it does not represent the whole story of Hal’s ‘redemption’ is rather like arguing that “Richard III” is incomplete because it does not document the redemption of England under Henry Tudor” (Ornstein 153).

In “King Henry IV Part 2", the characters are neither paired up as nicely nor presented as smoothly. Granted things are obviously not as easy for Shakespeare here, since many of his characters are held over from the previous play. Pistol is introduced rather suddenly, and there is no account of where he had been during Part 1. This can be taken as an example that Shakespeare was not planning ahead to Part 2 when he wrote the highly structured “King Henry IV Part 1" (Pearlman 88).

Shakespeare opens Part 2 with Rumor, who sets the mood for the play. Rumor claims that he misleads the multitudes and this can be taken as Shakespeare’s claim that he will confuse his audience by filling the play with confusing falsehoods. However once Shakespeare has set the stage like this, he seldom returns to his original purpose (Pearlman 123).

Also, although in some ways Shakespeare intends for his play to take place directly after “King Henry Part 1", (the play opens with Northumberland finding out about the death of his son), Shakespeare leaves some gaps. When the work opens, we find out from a conversation between Falstaff and his page that Hal had recently been imprisoned by Lord Chief Justice for hitting him when the two got into an argument. “Sir, here comes the nobleman that committed the Prince for striking him about Bardolph” (1.2.55-56). Shakespeare gives no time frame for when this might have occurred.

In writing “King Henry IV Part 2", Shakespeare faces “the perennial problem of sequels-how to repeat without repeating” (Pearlman 123). Given the difficulty of this task, it is not surprising that Shakespeare’s work experiences the problem of many film sequels of today. Although it is interesting to note these deficiencies, one should not allow them to take away from what otherwise is a most intriguing play. Despite the small flaws mentioned in this paper, Shakespeare still presents a work of genius, and an exciting conclusion to “King Henry IV Part 1".


Abram, M. H., ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 6th ed. Vol. 1. New York: W W Norton & Company, 1993. 2 vols.

Leech, Clifford. William Shakespeare: The Chronicles. London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1962.

Ornstein, Robert. A Kingdom for a Stage. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1972.

Pearlman, E. William Shakespeare: The History Plays. Denver: University of Colorado, 1992.

Rolfe, William J. Introduction. King Henry the Fourth Part II. By William Shakespeare. 1600. New York: Harpers & Brothers, 1899.

Shakespeare, William. King Henry IV Part 2. 1600. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1966.

Professor’s comments: I thought a few times you flirted with being captured by the critics. But on the whole you found ways to integrate their conceptions into a consistent pattern of interpretation. You do have a substantial task to comment on a whole play–and in relation to another one , no less–in one short paper and, at the same time to bring in supporting details from the text that are specific and concrete while illustrating large matters of design. This is what you do best. I thought a couple of parts as marked, were particularly strong in this regard. In sum, you show considerable grasp of Part 2. But, now, what am I to do with the embarrassing errors (to/too, then/than) and the signs of shoddy, if any, proofreading? They certainly make easy the decision not to grant the highest grade, and they probably should bring the grade down another notch. But senility is setting in....
Grade: A-

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