The sense of darkness and sickness continues into the beginning of Act 3, and he image of the king in his nightgown, unable to sleep and complaining of a continuing insomnia, may set up a comparison with the dwindling of Falstaff. His final line of the soliloquy, “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,” seem to point to the irony of all the contest for rule. What has the crown done for Henry, what did it do for Richard? And he laments the overturning of friendships, the loss of Northumberland to him. Interestingly, he denies that he had an intent to seize the throne, but that “necessity” required it. He admits Richard’s prophetic foretelling of the current state of things. Warwick tries to reassure him that Richard made a reasonable guess, and Henry agrees they have to accept necessity now and oppose the archbishop and Northumberland. The whole sense of power and the desirability of rule is thrown into doubt at the end of the scene when we hear more of Henry’s sickness and Glendower’s death. Henry reminds the “dear lords” of his long-deferred intention of a crusade to Jerusalem. We don’t yet see the irony of that, of course.
The scene of Justice Shallow and Justice Silence rather effectively underscores the theme of impotence and death just before we get more of Falstaff’s recruiting methods. Time has taken away most of what they remember, and doubts arise even about those memories. Falstaff cannot even remember Silence’s name. Disease and frailty seem to predominate in the roll call of recruits. The role of money in the recruits’ buying out of the press is made explicit. Orson Wells’ appropriation of Falstaff’s response to Shallow and Silence’s memories of Jane Nightwork, “We have heard the chimes at midnight,” wonderfully sums up the debility of the old men, including Falstaff. But is also seems to wash back over the political world. At the end of the scene, Falstaff’s soliloquy laughs at the memories and what the two old justices really were in their youth, and all this leaves in doubt the reality not only their memories, but of what the nobles are and what they hope to accomplish. The melancholy comedy leans forward into the scene that follows.
I sense some strain in Part 2 in the thematics of showing the move toward Hal’s reformation. The unfinished business of Part 1 remains so through much of Part 2, and up to end of Act 4 we’ve seen little of him. So much weight falls on 4.3 and continues into 5.
Act 3 is much shorter than both Act 2 and Act 4. Is Shakespeare running out of material?
In 3.1 it’s not only the king who is ill, but the nation itself. Henry speaks of “diseases” in the kingdom, which echoes Falstaff’s diseases, both obvious and hidden. The sleepless king’s head is “uneasy,” but it does not lead him to show any care for the meanest of his “vile” subjects in their “smoking cribs.” In this respect he in unlike Lear, and may not have learned much. His claim that it was “necessity” that led him to overthrow Richard seems to be another instance of unwillingness to admit the truth. Once again he gets more bad intel. And his plan, once the rebellion is crushed, to go on a crusade suggests that he feels the need of penance.
In 3.2 I’m not sure why we need more of Falstaff’s recruiting. Didn’t we get enough of that in the early play, with the same kind of gruesome jokes? It’s support for the idea that 2 Henry 4 is meant to be a free-standing play. When Feeble says “A man can die but once.” do we think of Hotspur? There is presumably some relation between the appearance of Justices Shallow and Silence and the earlier appearance of the Lord Chief Justice, but I can’t work it out. Shallow is a sort of pale imitation of Falstaff, with his self-aggrandizing lies. But he perhaps also makes us remember what Rumor said about what’s true and what’s not. Silence is true to his name after line 37, when he stops speaking. But how are we to understand his speech in the first part of the scene. I think this is another scene that goes on too long.
Act 4 likewise really has only two long scenes, though they are broken up in modern editions into five scenes. The first three scenes are set in the same place, the rebel camp. Northumberland’s letter (the one he sent in 2.3) arrives with bad news. The king’s army is sighted, and this leads to a formal “parley,” in which this group of rebels (who had not been involved in the earlier fighting) present their petition for redress of grievances, which Westmoreland promises he will deliver to Prince John. Only Mowbray is dubious.Oddly 4.2 goes through the same grievances, apparently for the benefit of Prince John, though he has presumably read them already. Whereas the gathering of opposing armies in 1 Henry 4 leads to the Battle of Shrewsbury, this time it quickly leads to a promise to redress grievances and a joint agreement to stand down. And instead of Hal as the key leader of the royal forces, it’s Prince John. But as soon as the rebel army disbands, John “breaks his faith.” In agreeing to peace, his mouth is full of “honor” — “the honor of my blood” (55), I will maintain my word” (67) — and he cynically appeals to “mine honor” (114) when he says he will redress grievances but execute those who present them. So much for “honor” in this new world — in contrast to 1 Henry 4. I think this scene is deeply troubling. Shakespeare arranges things to keep Hal off stage, and uncontaminated. In sneering at the rebels, John calls them “shallow” — “You are too shallow . . .” (49) and “Most shallowly did you these arms commence” (118). Why Shakespeare invites us to remember Justice Shallow I don’t know.