Shakespeare is credited with writing about three dozen surviving plays, and Henry IV, Part 2 is unique among them in being a sequel to an earlier play of his, Henry IV, Part 1. Like many of the movie sequels that are so familiar to us today, Henry IV, Part 2 reproduces the plot structure of its popular antecedent with considerable fidelity. Like Part 1, Part 2 puts on stage Prince Hal, son of King Henry IV and heir to the throne, who remains committed to the plan he disclosed early in Part 1 of distancing himself from his father’s court and of concealing his potential greatness as a future ruler by consorting with tavern dwellers. Among Prince Hal’s companions again appears Sir John Falstaff, whose delightfully witty set speeches have perhaps even greater prominence in this sequel than they did in Part 1. Falstaff ’s part was apparently a strong attraction when the play was first printed, as strong as the fat old knight continues to be for many today, for the title page of the play’s first printing included reference to “the humours of sir Iohn Falstaffe.” And the title page went on to name his lieutenant, the “swaggering Pistoll,” a loud, quarrelsome brawler whose speeches are often a fascinating combination of bits from classical mythology and, occasionally, also from plays written by Shakespeare’s predecessors. As in Part 1, Prince Hal’s relationship with his tavern companions is complex: he and Falstaff seek to best each other in conversation, while Falstaff tries to ingratiate himself with Hal and Hal disdains him.
But Part 2 adds to Falstaff ’s companions some fresh characters, the rural justices Shallow and Silence and Shallow’s household. In years past Shallow and Falstaff were young men together in London. Now the rich, old Shallow is helping the impoverished and unscrupulous Captain Falstaff recruit troops to crush yet another of the rebellions against the rule of Henry IV. In Shallow and Silence, Falstaff thinks he detects opportunities to be exploited in filling his purse, and he tries to ingratiate himself with them just as he does with Prince Hal, while also attempting to maintain a sense of his superiority over them. Part 2 then joins to the verbal competition between Prince Hal and Falstaff a struggle between Falstaff ’s talents as a parasite and Justice Shallow’s wiliness in his own self-promotion.
Political rebellion, while certainly a major feature of Part 2’s plot, does not loom as large as it did in Part 1, which climaxed in an apparently decisive combat between the rebel champion Harry Hotspur and the victorious Prince Hal defending his father’s claim to the throne. In Part 2 there are no glorious champions on either side of the conflict, and combat is supplanted by deception, cunning, and treachery. Part 2 is, in many ways, much darker and more grim than Part 1. As the title page to Part 2 candidly reports, this play is “continuing” the story of Henry IV “to his death.” But however much Part 2 is just a sequel, it is nonetheless a powerfully moving work of dramatic art. Its fascination for many lies in its unblinking representation of much in life from which we ordinarily shield ourselves: exhaustion, disappointment, betrayal, hypocrisy, old age, and death.