Act Two: Our Titular King is Still Missing in Action

The second act of The Second Part of Henry the Fourth takes us back to the tavern in Eastcheap, where Mistress Quickly is demanding that Officer Fang (a great name, no?) arrest Falstaff for non-payment of his bills. What follows is a mixture of Quick-Lay’s inadvertent bawdy references (“He stabbed me in mine own house” [II.i.13-14] and “my exion is entered and my case so openly known to the world” [II.i.28-29]), and Fang’s not-so-inadvertent ones (“I care not for his thrust” [II.i.18]). When Falstaff enters, the officers (now accompanied by the Chief Justice) attempt to do their duty, and he tries to talk his way out of it, only to be confronted by this new accusation by Quickly:

Thou didst swear to me then, as I was washing thy wound, to marry me and make me my lady thy wife. Canst thou deny it?

— II.i.88-90

While Falstaff does, in fact, deny it, claiming that “poverty hath distracted her” (II.i.103-104), and made her mad, we’ve got to wonder if she is the “Mistress Ursula” (I.iii.234) to whom Falstaff admitted to propose marriage at the end of Act One, Scene Three.

There is much banter back and forth, interrupted by the news that “Harry Prince of Wales // (is) near at hand” (II.i.131-132). With such news, much is forgotten and forgiven, and even the woman who claims to have been engaged by Sir John asks the fat man if he will meet with “Doll Tearsheet” (II.i.159) at supper (and what a perfect name for a whore!).

When Act Two, Scene Two begins, we finally see Prince Hal, talking to Poins (his robbery co-conspirator from The First Part), saying that weariness “discolors the complexion of (his) greatness to acknowledge it” (II.ii.4-5). Also detracting from his greatness is his thirst for “small beer” (II.ii.6). This kind of conceit and desire for cheap beer (as opposed to fine ale or wine or harder liquor) is not exactly befitting the hero we saw in Hal at the end of The First Part of Henry the Fourth. [and the crowd mutters, “What happened?” I’m not sure at this point, but I have some theories, and we’ll get to them (and some critical opinions) as the month progresses…

Hal realizes this “not princely” (II.ii.9) desire for beer, and it sends him into a discourse on how “not princely” his relationship with Poins is (“What a disgrace it is to me to remember thy name” [II.ii.12-13]), spurring him onto an almost stream-of-consciousness speech, moving from Poins, to the shirts he wears, to their fabric, to its use as swaddling clothes, to midwives who deliver the babies in the swaddling clothes.

And I’ve got to ask: is Hal drunk here? if the speech was in verse, with lofty diction, I might say he’s making a philosophical discourse on the class system in England. But it’s not: he’s rambling. So, if he’s drunk, he’s more pathetic here than in The First Part. Tempering this, though, is his own self-knowledge:

But I tell thee, my heart bleeds inwardly that my father is so sick: and keeping such vile company as thou art hath in reason taken from me all ostentation of sorrow.
The reason?
What wouldst thou think of me, if I should weep?
I would think thee a most princely hypocrite.
It would be every man's thought; and thou art a blessed fellow to think as every man thinks: never a man's thought in the world keeps the road-way better than thine: every man would think me an hypocrite indeed.

— II.ii.44-56

He is sad that his father is sick (is that why King Henry has been absent from class, thus far this school year?). But he cannot show it because it will make him look like a hypocrite (keeping bad company until his father is sick–and by extension, Hal is about to become king–and only then making a show of sadness. Like Hal the actor in The First Part, The Second Part’s Hal is acutely aware of how his PERFORMANCE will be received.

Bardolph arrives with the letter Falstaff has sent to Hal (and a comic mash-up of self-consciously intended high language and low content). Hal asks where Falstaff is; the answer is simple, the tavern. And that is where Hal and Poins head.

Act Two, Scene Three takes us back to the rebels (STILL no Henry), where we find Northumberland readying for his military excursion. Both his wife and Lady Percy, his daughter-in-law (Hotspur’s widow), want him to stay at home. His wife is resigned to his leaving (“I have given over. I will speak no more” [II.iii.5]), but Lady Percy (true to form from what we saw in The First Part) cannot hold her tongue. She tells Northumberland that he shouldn’t go to war: he didn’t go to war for his son, he shouldn’t now. Hotspur’s death she puts squarely on the father’s shoulders. And just as her words were at least somewhat successful with her husband, she is able to convince the old man to “fly to Scotland” (II.iii.50) until such time as rebel numbers make a battle with the king’s forces a proposition that has at least a fighting chance.

The last scene of the second act takes us back to the tavern in Eastcheap, and just as the last play’s Act Two, Scene Four tavern scene is long, so is this one. Here, we finally get to meet Doll Tearsheet, Falstaff’s mistress who are we kidding… she’s his whore. And she can trade bawdy quips with Falstaff like no other, as she claims she is “meat” (II.iv.119) for Falstaff, meat that Falstaff claims “make fat rascals” (II.iv.39)… ah, yes: “the chubby” as erect penis reference… It works through the centuries. [and you know we’ll get to all the bawdy later this month in the blog…] And though they fight (“You two never meet but you fall to some discord” [II.iv.52-53] is how Mistress Quickly puts it, foreshadowing Much Ado: “There is a kind of merry war betwixt Signior Benedick and her: they never meet but there’s a skirmish of wit between them.” [Much Ado About Nothing, I.i.56-59]), there is obviously affection between the two:

Thou dost give me flattering busses.
By my troth, I kiss thee with a most constant heart.

— II.iv.262-264

It’s a loving moment between the two, marred only by the mocking commentary made by Hal and Poins from a hidden position.

Using yet another reference to The First Part (completing the Francis “Anon” bit), Hal and Poins reveal themselves to Falstaff. What follows has the banter reminiscent of The First Part, but without the bounce of idle times. Here, instead, Hal takes Quickly’s side in the demands that Falstaff pays his bills. While there are jokes–and Falstaff is still, as always, able to talk his way out of it–the tone is not as fun. And removing any last vestige of fun is Peto’s entrance with news of King Henry is in London, and the army’s moving north.

In the last play, this news was blown off; not here. Hal immediately admits his wrong in going back to the tavern (“I feel me much to blame, // So idly to profane the precious time” [II.iv.352-353]… and note the return to verse here), and then tells his fat companion of old, “Falstaff, good night” (II.iv.357).

And it there is a feeling finality here, but Hal gives Falstaff no time to respond with his early exit. So the only farewell we see Falstaff give is to Doll, met with a tender heart-breaking response: “If my heart be not ready to burst — well, sweet Jack, have a care of thyself” (II.iv.370-371).

Maybe it’s better to end with that good-bye than the prince’s.

And the second act ends, still with the king in absentia.

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