While much of Henry IV Part 2 feels like a transitional play to take you to Henry V, it is a worthwhile transition with interesting characters in its own right. It is a transition for Henry IV from King to corpse, Hal from Prince to King and England from inward turmoil to outward seeking.
The early part of the play focuses on King Henry IV’s efforts to retain the throne from internal threats. Hard on the heals of victory against Percy, Prince John is sent to deal with the trouble.
He does so using deceit and trickery. Giving his word and quickly ignoring it, he ensnares the opposition, capturing its leaders and killing off its dispersed soldiers. There are few more cowardly strokes captured by Shakespeare’s pen.
Of all this, Prince Henry is blissfully unaware as he is pulled into his old world while never quite entering it again. The old relationships are under review. Falstaff is being checked at every point and while there are no direct consequences, Prince Henry find’s his abuse at Falstaff’s hand less funny. Poins is suspect as well.
His father still worries over him. Is the change enough for Hal to be king? King Henry IV holds tight to a crown he is never fully sure he deserves; Prince Henry takes hold of a crown which means the loss of his father. But take hold of the crown he must, but, unlike his father, he does not cling to the crown.
On what should be the best of days for Henry IV, news of his enemies capture, he succumbs to sickness. He is put to bed with the crown kept beside him on the pillow. Hal thinks him dead, awakened in the watched of the night, and takes up the crown to wrestle with this weighted circle:
Coming to look on you, thinking you dead, And dead almost, my liege, to think you were, I spake unto this crown as having sense, And thus upbraided it: ‘The care on thee depending Hath fed upon the body of my father; Therefore, thou best of gold art worst of gold: Other, less fine in carat, is more precious, Preserving life in medicine potable; But thou, most fine, most honour’d: most renown’d, Hast eat thy bearer up.’ Thus, my most royal liege, Accusing it, I put it on my head, To try with it, as with an enemy That had before my face murder’d my father,
Shakespeare, William (2011-09-07). The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Kindle Locations 47884-47888). Latus ePublishing. Kindle Edition.
King Henry IV, seeing true love and worthy heir after all, places the crown on Hal’s head and, having released his burden and charge, dies. Henry V takes up the mantle, but without his father’s angst. He sees himself rightfully on the throne; not a usurper. While Henry IV would have never agreed to being one, he was never free from the accusation in his own mind as well as some others.
Now we see Henry come into his own; willing to listen and change but only in line with his own counsel and goals. The Lord Chief-Justice retains his role despite fear that he is unloved by Henry V due to his efforts to imprison Falstaff. Hal’s old life is gone, buried with his father. He does not forget those of less gentle conditions, but he holds them to the same standards of all.
His consistency of character will carry him well into Henry V. Seeing his character develop in Henry IV Parts 1 & 2 show the genius of Tom Hiddleston’s portrayal in Henry V. It is a stark break from Olivier and Branagh; it is the context of these plays that shows why.