One of the major focuses of 2 Henry IV is reflecting on the past and dealing with the consequences. We see much more of the older characters as power shifts from one generation to the next, so it is helpful to get a refresher on what transpired up until this point. It all started with Henry Bolingbroke deposing Richard II to become Henry IV. Shortly after the deposition, Henry Percy, Hotspur, rebelled against Henry IV and was defeated. There is also the fallout from Prince Hal’s previous unseemly behavior. Having a basic understanding of these events is critical to appreciating the full scope of the play.
Deposing Richard II
Richard II was pretty unpopular with just about everyone, especially the powerful nobles. He lived a lavish lifestyle and so he imposed high taxes and demanded blank bonds from his nobles. He firmly believed in the divine right of Kings to rule, so he didn’t spend much time thinking about anyone but himself. However, he crossed the line when he seized Bolingbroke’s inheritance while he was in exile. This immediately put the property of every other noble family at risk. Northumberland and his family, along with other nobles, helped bring Bolingbroke back from exile and fight for what was rightfully his. Eventually, Bolingbroke sought and gained the throne. It is worth remembering that Northumberland was the one who demanded that Richard confess his crimes, which would mean that Richard acknowledges his fall as legitimate. The Archbishop of York was the only one who openly expressed his discontent at the time. Remembering who was on what side and why Richard was ultimately deposed is important to keep in mind as characters interact.
2 Henry IV takes place immediately after the Battle of Shrewsbury, so the events of the rebellion are fresh in everyone’s mind and the immediate consequences are being felt. First though, let’s remember what led to the rebellion. The newly crowned Henry IV faced immediate threats from Wales and Scotland. Unfortunately, war is expensive and the royal coffers were empty. This meant that he couldn’t pay those fighting for him in a timely manner. Hotspur attempted to keep his valuable prisoners, so the ransom could help cover the debts he’s owed. However, because those prisoners were taken in the name of the King, Henry believed that he had the right to them. In addition, Henry refused to ransom Hotspur’s brother-in-law, Mortimer. This was suspicious because Mortimer was named the heir to the throne under Richard. These drove Hotspur, Northumberland, and others to ally themselves with their previous enemies in Wales and Scotland. Then, when it came time to fight, Northumberland didn’t show up because he was sick. This hurt his son badly and contributed to his ultimate loss.
Prince Hal’s Unseemly Behavior
Hal is on the path to redemption after spending most of his youth drinking away the hours in a tavern in Eastcheap. He kept company with drunkards, thieves, and whoremongers. He claims it is so his return to grace would be even more triumphant. However, he has formed close bonds with those he spent his time with. Falstaff is a father figure to the young Prince and Poins has become a trusted confidant. He seems hesitant to cut these people out of his life as he starts to act more honorably. Henry IV notices that he is still spending time with these unsavory people and it creates a lot of tension between Henry and Hal. Henry frequently expressed his disappointment in his son and wished he acted differently. He was hesitant to give Hal the chance to fight in the rebellion, but ultimately he made amends with his son on the battlefield. The looming tension is still there and we can’t help but ask if Henry has really forgiven Hal, or if Hal has really changed?
Now that we have reviewed the key events of the past, we can look forward to the future with the rest of the characters.