Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder (or is that Absence makes the old mind wander)

The Second Part of Henry the Fourth.

The title alone gives one the impression that the play is going to focus on the king. Now since it can be argued that The First Part dealt mainly with Prince Hal, the whole “part two” concept could give the impression that The Second Part, too, will focus on the heir apparent.

And yet the royal family makes no appearance in Act One. It’s not like it’s a short first act, either; its average length (for a history) is nearly 20% of the play.

It’s a weird construction. We simply don’t get to see our royals for huge chunks for the play.

Prince Hal doesn’t appear until the second scene of Act Two, a full fifth of the way through the play. And when we do see him, it isn’t a royal appearance. He’s with Poins and craving “small beer” (II.ii.6), denouncing his “disgrace” (II.ii.12) at being accompanied by Poins. He speaks not of conquests or rebellions; it’s a low, common discussion, with only a brief tangent in talking of his father’s illness. But even that is simply to contrast his feelings with how it would appear if he were to show those feelings: he knows he’d be seen as a “hypocrite” (II.ii.55).

While Hal will make a cameo appearance in Act Two, Scene Four, spending over a third of his time on stage in the scene, hidden from the action, he disappears from the tavern and the play just as quickly.

Once Act Two is over, we finally get to see our titular king. We’re nearing the midpoint of the play, and we’re only now seeing our king for the first time. We’ve been estranged from our king, and even his speech reflects his lack of connection to his subject, to us. He speaks of the “sleep” (III.i.5) his subjects (we) have, but he cannot. We may see him, hear him speak, but he is not one of us, he’s not connected to us.

When he leaves the stage at the end of Act Three, Scene One, nearly an additional QUARTER of the play will pass before we see him again, sickly, tended to by his sons (all but Hal). It’s not until the last scene of the act that father and son are reunited. But that, too, is short-lived, and Henry dies after the close of the fourth act.

Hal is back on stage for Act Five, but even then it’s only for short bursts: a hundred lines in Act Five, Scene Two, and the brutal 30-line dismissal of Falstaff in Act Five, Scene Five.

It’s a weird construction. We simply don’t get to see our royals for huge chunks for the play.

If you take Act One out of the picture, however, the dramatic structure is interesting (and in a way, it works and makes sense). Hal’s scenes bookend the play, as Henry’s appearing is like a flash of lightning, flashing brilliantly, then fading form view. Hal then takes control of the world of the play, if not its dialogues, in the final act.

But you can’t take Act One out of the play, and so the structure is still very weird…

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