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Henry IV Part II
Study Guide
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Type of Work
Key Dates
Plot Summary
Role of Falstaff
Study Questions
Essay Topics
Complete Free Text
What Happens Next: Henry V
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2003
Revised in 2010..©

This page has been revised, enlarged, and moved to 


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 (Hal), as King Henry V. The scenes involving Sir John Falstaff and his drinking companions are fictional.


Date Written: About 1597.
Date Published: Henry IV Part II 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. 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?), who began work on this history under the royal printer Reginald Wolfe. 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 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 further misadventures of Falstaff, and the transition of Hal from the carefree pub-crawler that he was in 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 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 who is rejected by Hal when Hal becomes king.
Page of Falstaff
Bardolph, Pistol, Peto: Falstaff's companions.
Poins: Companion of Hal before the latter becomes king.
Shallow, Silence: Country justices.
Davy: Shallow's servant.
Fang, Snare: Sheriff's officers.
Doll Tearsheet: Prostitute at the Boar's Head Tavern.
Mouldy, Shadow, Wart, Feeble, Bullcalf: Falstaff's army recruits.
Mistress Quickly: Hostess of the Boar's-Head Tavern in London's Eastcheap section.
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, he 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 overcame1 (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. 



.......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 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.

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 vaward2 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).

.......Among the most memorable passages in the play are those in which King Henrysuffering from terminal illness, guilt, and anxiety about domestic strifeuses 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)


In the dialogue of Henry IV Part II and other Shakespeare plays, characters sometimes speak wise or witty sayings, or epigrams, couched in memorable language. 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.
8....watch-case . . . 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.

Study Questions and Essay Topics 

  • King Henry observes, “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown” (3.1.32). He means that he has insomnia, in part because 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.” uneasy.
  • 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?
  • 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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