That's right: Henry IV, Part II is so bad that Shakespeare felt compelled to end it with a heartfelt apology, calling his own play "displeasing" and promising his audience he'll do better next time. I can't tell you how validated I felt when I finally got to this epilogue, having waded through five acts of dynastic slop, to have Shakespeare say, "Yeah, my bad on this. Really phoned it in." You have to read the speech for yourself— it goes a long way to redeeming the rest of Part II.
EPILOGUE (spoken by a dancer)
First my fear; then my courtesy; last my speech.
My fear is, your displeasure; my courtesy, my duty;
and my speech, to beg your pardons. If you look
for a good speech now, you undo me: for what I have
to say is of mine own making; and what indeed I
should say will, I doubt, prove mine own marring.
But to the purpose, and so to the venture. Be it
known to you, as it is very well, I was lately here
in the end of a displeasing play, to pray your
patience for it and to promise you a better. I
meant indeed to pay you with this; which, if like an
ill venture it come unluckily home, I break, and
you, my gentle creditors, lose. Here I promised you
I would be and here I commit my body to your
mercies: bate me some and I will pay you some and,
as most debtors do, promise you infinitely.
If my tongue cannot entreat you to acquit me, will
you command me to use my legs? and yet that were but
light payment, to dance out of your debt. But a
good conscience will make any possible satisfaction,
and so would I. All the gentlewomen here have
forgiven me: if the gentlemen will not, then the
gentlemen do not agree with the gentlewomen, which
was never seen before in such an assembly.
One word more, I beseech you. If you be not too
much cloyed with fat meat, our humble author will
continue the story, with Sir John in it, and make
you merry with fair Katharine of France: where, for
any thing I know, Falstaff shall die of a sweat,
unless already a' be killed with your hard
opinions; for Oldcastle died a martyr, and this is
not the man. My tongue is weary; when my legs are
too, I will bid you good night: and so kneel down
before you; but, indeed, to pray for the queen.
So just how boring is this play you ask? Well, here is the entire plot summary: Henry IV's enemies talk about organizing another rebellion, but they never get around to it. King Henry IV dies, and Prince Hal becomes King Henry V. The end.
That truly covers everything of significance in this play. Characters talk a lot of smack, but nothing ever materializes, and the plot atrophies into nothing. I have to say, I love that Shakespeare wrote stinkers like this—it's why I wanted to read ALL of his plays, instead of just the classics. But one of the problems with being the best writer in the English language is that your duds seem way worse simply because they have your name attached. No doubt I would be a lot more forgiving of this play if it was written by some goon, because it does have occasional flashes of brilliance.
Indeed, just as the play ends on a high note, it also gets off to a great start. The very first stage direction is "Enter Rumour, painted full of tongues." Not sure what "painted full of tongues" is supposed to mean, but whatever it is, I love it unconditionally. Rumour delivers a captivating monologue about the power of hearsay, culminating in this kickoff: "They bring smooth comforts false, worse than true wrongs."
The "smooth comforts false" refers to a rumor that Hotspur defeated Prince Hal in the previous play's climatic battle. Poor Lord Northumberland, Hotspur's father, is elated to hear that his son is alive and victorious, only to have Hotspur's death confirmed by a different messenger later. I empathize with him very much, because I also would have loved to have seen Hotspur take Hal down. Hotspur was awesome. Hal is a knob. Alas, the gods have seen fit to make it so.
Unfortunately, the play quickly squanders its initial momentum on Henry IV and his constant whining. Did you know that it is way harder to be the king than to be a peasant? Henry IV is strongly of this opinion, and it is so infuriating. He even has the audacity to berate the sleep gods for visiting his most destitute subjects, while he lies awake in his gigantic king-size bed.
It's like, dude. That's called guilt. You are unsettled because you deposed the last king, and now you're empathizing a little with the guy. Don't go blaming Mister Sandman for your karmic chickens coming home to roost. (Note to self: trademark "karmic chickens"). Check out the King's pity party for yourself.
King Henry IV: How many thousand of my poorest subjects
Are at this hour asleep! O sleep, O gentle sleep,
Nature's soft nurse, how have I frighted thee,
That thou no more wilt weigh my eyelids down
And steep my senses in forgetfulness?
Why rather, sleep, liest thou in smoky cribs,
Upon uneasy pallets stretching thee
And hush'd with buzzing night-flies to thy slumber,
Than in the perfumed chambers of the great,
Under the canopies of costly state,
And lull'd with sound of sweetest melody?
O thou dull god, why liest thou with the vile
In loathsome beds, and leavest the kingly couch
A watch-case or a common 'larum-bell?
Wilt thou upon the high and giddy mast
Seal up the ship-boy's eyes, and rock his brains
In cradle of the rude imperious surge
And in the visitation of the winds,
Who take the ruffian billows by the top,
Curling their monstrous heads and hanging them
With deafening clamour in the slippery clouds,
That, with the hurly, death itself awakes?
Canst thou, O partial sleep, give thy repose
To the wet sea-boy in an hour so rude,
And in the calmest and most stillest night,
With all appliances and means to boot,
Deny it to a king? Then happy low, lie down!
Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.
King Henry IV: Will fortune never come with both hands full,
But write her fair words still in foulest letters?
She either gives a stomach and no food;
Such are the poor, in health; or else a feast
And takes away the stomach; such are the rich,
That have abundance and enjoy it not.
You're right, your highness. Poor people should count their lucky stars. I mean, imagine having food but being too guilt-ridden to eat it. That's much worse than straight-up starving to death. Henry's entitled attitude is totally enraging, but it's the good kind of rage. Shakespeare captures how out of touch monarchs can be with the suffering of their own subjects, and he makes the titular character really fun to hate.
The taker of the Hate Cake, however, was Prince Hal, who becomes Henry V at the end. In my review of Part I, I wrote that Hal was a burgeoning sociopath who views everyone around him as mere stepping stones. He frequently went out of his way to hurt or humiliate his father and friends, plus he compares himself to the freaking sun with no irony whatsoever. Given that his ego is massive enough to attract a couple planets, perhaps the metaphor is apt.
Point being: I didn't think it would be humanly possible to hate this nutballs prince any more, but he proved me wrong in Part II. For example, he removes the crown from his dad's head as soon as he thinks he has croaked (which he hasn't). Evidently, Prince Hal feels no grief over his father's passing, or respect for the man's time as king. He's just like, "gimme that shiny headband already."
When Henry IV wakes up, he is understandably upset that his son made off with the crown instead of mourning his loss. He scolds Hal, saying, "How quickly nature falls into revolt/ When gold becomes her object." Hal manages to convince his father to forgive him before he dies for-realsies, but the crux of the matter remained clear: Hal gives precisely zero thought to anyone but himself. If he wants to steal a crown off his father's still-warm corpse, that's what he's going to do. He's truly an apex dickhead.
True to form, his first act as Henry V reinforces that he is the biggest jerk in all of Christendom. Falstaff has banking on Hal using his new status as king to help pay off some of Falstaff's debts. He brags to all of his friends that he knows the freshly crowned monarch, assuring them that Henry V is sure to stop and chat on his inaugural precession through the streets of London.
But Falstaff is in for a rude awakening, and this "chat" ends up being one of the most venomous takedowns ever penned. Behold:
Falstaff: My king! my Jove! I speak to thee, my heart!
King Henry V: I know thee not, old man: fall to thy prayers;
How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!
I have long dream'd of such a kind of man,
So surfeit-swell'd, so old and so profane;
But, being awaked, I do despise my dream.
Make less thy body hence, and more thy grace;
Leave gormandizing; know the grave doth gape
For thee thrice wider than for other men.
Reply not to me with a fool-born jest:
Presume not that I am the thing I was;
For God doth know, so shall the world perceive,
That I have turn'd away my former self;
So will I those that kept me company.
When thou dost hear I am as I have been,
Approach me, and thou shalt be as thou wast,
The tutor and the feeder of my riots:
Till then, I banish thee, on pain of death,
As I have done the rest of my misleaders,
Not to come near our person by ten mile.
For competence of life I will allow you,
That lack of means enforce you not to evil:
And, as we hear you do reform yourselves,
We will, according to your strengths and qualities,
Give you advancement. Be it your charge, my lord,
To see perform'd the tenor of our word. Set on.
So what play am I reading next? FRAK. Henry V.
YOU DON'T MAKE IT EASY, SHAKESPEARE.
Underrated Characters: I really enjoyed the minor characters Doll Tearsheet, who I assumed was Falstaff's prostitute, and the Widow Percy, the late Hotspur's wife. Doll proves that there are hot messes in every century, and Shakespeare actually writes the stage direction "she comes blubbered" for her. Hal sums her up perfectly, saying, "This Doll Tearsheet should be some road." Hilarious character. On the other end of the spectrum is Lady Percy, who delivers a powerful smackdown to her father-in-law about abandoning Hotspur. WORTH NOTING.
A Holy Gross-Out: The Archbishop character has some, shall we say, colorful ways of insulting his enemies. For example, this speech: "So, so, thou common dog, didst thou disgorge/ Thy glutton bosom of the royal Richard; / And now thou wouldst eat thy dead vomit up/ And howl'st to find it." Ewwww.
The Bardolph Identity: There are two characters named Bardolph running around in this play. One was a real historical figure, but the other is just some joker in Falstaff's gang. Why do they have the same name? Because Shakespeare was apparently hungover when he wrote this play.
Battle of the Best Line: Despite the play's overall badness, it was sprinkled with a lot of great one-liners. Here's a roundup of my favorites.
Poins: Is it not strange that desire should so many years outlive performance?
Bardolph: Is't such a matter to get a pottle-pot's maidenhead?
Prince Hal: "Doth it not show vilely in me, to desire small beer?" and, "Away, you rascally Athena's dream, away!"
Falstaff: "I am not only witty in myself, but the cause that wit is in other men," and "I'll tickle your catastrophe."