Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.
–2 Henry IV, III.I
If you ever need proof that history repeats itself, read Henry IV, Part II. Just like Henry IV, Part I, this play focuses on King Henry IV, his son Hal, and Hal’s less than perfect friends. In Part 2, however, Shakespeare plays on the reader’s expectations. He knows we are all waiting for Hal’s reformation, waiting for Hal to “banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.” He knows we are waiting, and he makes us wait. And wait. And then wait some more.
To be perfectly honest, I didn’t really enjoy reading the play until I got to Act IV, where there are more scenes with King Henry and Prince Hal. My favorite part was when King Henry IV gives his final advice to Prince Hal, and the king recalls how he got the crown by deposing Richard II. One neat thing about reading these four plays in succession is I’ve really been able to see the layers of cause and effect running through them. Shakespeare is a master at pulling all of those loose threads together, and when Prince Hal is crowned King Henry V, the imagery immediately calls to mind Richard and Henry Bolingbroke–the hollow crown, the empty cycle of kings replacing kings.
The final, gut-wrenching moment of the play is Hal’s banishment of Falstaff. Falstaff finally gets what he deserves, Hal finally becomes the royal figure he is meant to be, and yet it is an incredibly painful moment. It was terrible to read, but it was even worse to watch. It’s amazing to me that Shakespeare could write a play in which very little actually happens, but the emotional impact is still so far-reaching.
For me, that emotional impact was felt even more when I watched The Hollow Crown’s adaptation. Tom Hiddleston does a great job of transforming from Prince Hal to a very serious Henry V. His transformation is utterly convincing, and throughout the mini-series’ adaptation there are moments where his posture or expression subtly shows what’s going to happen. Jeremy Irons also does a great job playing Henry IV at the end of his life.
While I’m genuinely enjoying reading these history plays, I’m really, really glad there’s only one left in this tetralogy. It will be nice to have a break from Shakespeare for a while! 🙂 I did read, however, that the second half of The Hollow Crown will be airing in 2016, so I’m sure I’ll be tackling the next tetralogy sometime in the new year.
I’ll close with this quote from the introduction of my version of the play. I think it sums up the emotional aspects of this play:
Having wearied us with the sordid nature of the political world, with repetitions that never seem to advance anything but the passage of time, with cliché, with venial political and personal sins, with the abuse of justice, the abuse of reputation, with old men, with making us beg for the reformation that has so long titillated us that we have virtually lost the desire for it, for something new, Shakespeare makes us repent of our own impatience with a vengeance that seems close to cruelty.
[…] the order in which Shakespeare wrote them. After muddling through Richard II, 1 Henry IV, and 2 Henry IV, I’ve finally finished off the whole set with Henry […]