When I was a sophomore in undergrad, I took a course on William Shakespeare’s histories and tragedies, in which we read most of the Henriad, the series of plays that follow Prince Hal (the future Henry V) through his wayward youth, maturation, and eventual triumph in battle. The plays of the Henriad feature some of my favorite bits of Shakespeare: the poetry of Richard II is a delight from start to finish, the character dynamics in 1 Henry IV are sharp and nuanced, and even my least favorite of the bunch, Henry V, includes some inspired comic relief.
However, the class skipped over actually reading 2 Henry IV. Instead, the professor condensed the major plot points down to single PowerPoint slide: Prince Hal takes the crown upon his father’s death and coldly turns asides his tavern buddy, Sir John Falstaff. Notably, all these events happen in the play’s final two acts, which only made me wonder: “What exactly happens in Acts I–III?”
This past week, I finally read 2 Henry IV, and to respond to my past self’s question, the answer is, “Not very much.” The play must arrive at the ending described above so as to set up the events of Henry V, but that ending is so short on paper that the play must bide its time before getting there. Throughout the first three acts, the characters are generally stuck for things to do: Henry IV is ill and still worried about Prince Hal’s imminent succession; the rebellion against the king has stalled out from indecision; and even joyous Falstaff, grown older and full of gout, can’t muster the same energy for his crimes and antics. All at once, so much fails to happen.
This meandering, holding-pattern quality of the first three acts makes it difficult to talk about them as a whole, so instead, I’ll look at once sequence in particular: Act II, Scene 2, lines 1–65, in which Prince Hal, the central figure of the whole tetralogy, finally appears on stage.
The scene, set in the prince’s quarters in London, is primarily a dialogue between the prince and Poins, one of the commoners the prince has spent years running wild with. Just from that set up, we see the prince stuck between two phases of his life: hanging out with his Eastcheap drinking buddy, but in the halls of royal power. On top of all that, his father is ill and he’s coming off an exhausting victory at the Battle of Shrewsbury. Little wonder, then, that he enters the scene by saying, “Before God, I am exceeding weary” (II.2.1) Poins, for his part, has a hard time believing that “weariness … attached one of so high blood,” but while the prince indeed says that “it discolors the complexion of my greatness to acknowledge it,” he cannot help but desire the base salve of “small beer” (2–6).
Up to this point, the conversation between the prince and Poins is fairly genial, but it takes a sharp turn when the prince moves the discussion from his thirst to his companion:
What a disgrace is it to me to remember thy name! Or to know thy face tomorrow! Or to take note of how many pair of silk stockings thou hast, viz. these, and those that were thy peach colored ones! Or to bear the inventory of thy shirts, as, one for superfluity, and another for use! But that the tennis-court keeper knows better than I; for it is a low ebb of linen with thee when thou keepest not racket there, as thou hast not done a great while, because the rest of the low countries have made a shift to eat up thy holland. (12–22)
On a superficial level, this little speech recalls Prince Hal’s banter with Falstaff from 1 Henry IV, but there’s a noticeable lack of verve to it. The barbs are longer, and thus limper; more generic, and thus less biting. There’s nothing so driving as Falstaff’s litany of “you starveling, you eel-skin, you dried neat’s-tongue, you bull’s-pizzle, you stockfish” (1 Henry IV, II.iv.235–236). And while the “tennis-court keeper” bit sets up a half-clever play on “holland” (Netherlands / nether regions), more than anything it makes me long for the tennis ball monologue from Henry V.
Prince Hal, it would seem, is not really in the mood for jesting. No, it’s easier to read this halfhearted series of insults as a genuine display of frustration. The tavern scene no longer enlivens him like it used to; people like Poins and Falstaff and so forth are more tiring than they may be worth. In theory, this isn’t exactly bad news for the prince. It may be the perfect time to cast aside the Eastcheap crowd and start his premeditated reformation. The goal, after all, is to make his countrymen admire him for his conversion; as he says in 1 Henry IV, “My reformation, glitt’ring o’er my fault, / Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes / Than that which hath no foil to set it off” (I.2.206–208). So what’s the hold up? Why is the prince so “exceeding weary” that even shedding what wearies him proves difficult?
For one thing, the scheme he mentions in the previous play conveniently elides the emotional reality of succession: his father must die for Prince Hal to become king. It’s a fact that the prince seems reluctant to admit, saying “it is not meet that I should be sad, now my father is sick” (37–38). It takes a good deal of throat-clearing for him to say even that much; he prefaces that statement three different times (“Shall I tell thee one thing, Poins?” ; “It shall serve among wits of no higher breeding than thine” [33-34]; “Marry, I tell thee” ). There are many reasons why Prince Hal might find his own sadness unbecoming: he’s a man, a royal, and someone about to receive a great fortune. Hence why Poins judges it “[v]ery hardly” to weep in such circumstances (41).
This leads to the second problem Prince Hal faces: he’s perhaps played the part of ne’er-do-well too convincingly. “By this hand,” he tells Poins, “thou thinkest me as far in the devil’s book as thou and Falstaff for obduracy and persistency” (42–44). But given how thoroughly Hal sunk himself into the tavern crowd in the previous play, why wouldn’t Poins or his father or anyone else in England think his behavior to be genuine, and genuinely revolting? He knows that Poins would believe him to be “a most princely hypocrite” if he were to weep for his father’s illness out in the open, for outwardly he has cared little for his father up to this point (51). Instead, as Poins says, Prince Hal has “been so lewd and so much engraffed to Falstaff” (58–59). The prince therefore has reason to doubt his prodigal son routine will even work, now that he has the chance to finally enact it.
Like just about everyone else in the play, then, the prince appears to just be going through the motions, continuing in his bar-crawling ways without much purpose. That, at least, is how I make sense of the way Act II, Scene 2 ends, with Prince Hal and Poins plotting to spy on Falstaff in disguise. Their little prank reads like a lesser version of the robbery ruse in 1 Henry IV, in the same way that Prince Hal’s insult speech here is a wearier rehash of the earlier play’s banter. The prince ends the scene by claiming that “in everything the purpose must weigh with the folly” (166–167). That claim, I think, holds true. In this scene, and in this play, there’s often very little of either.
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Thanks for reading! If you’re in the mood for more literary analyses, perhaps you would be interested in my discussion of how section breaks are used in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and John Hersey’s Hiroshima.