In 4.3 Falstaff in his small world does what John has done in a larger one: he arrests a “traitor.” I don’t know why Falstaff gets a long soliloquy in praise of sherry. He promises to revisit Shallow and play a trick on the old fool.
4.4 and 4.5 are really one scene, shifting now from the battlefield to the court. In 4.4 the king gets good news, but still feels sick. I’m not sure why Shakespeare introduces two more of the king’s sons, Clarence and Gloucester, unless it’s to emphasize the one brother who is not there. In 4.5 Hal finally appears there, having been summoned as far back as 2.4. The king, sleepless in 3.1, is at last sleeping deeply. So deep that Hal thinks he is dead. Why does he not rouse the king’s attendants? As if he has overheard the king speak of the uneasy head that wears the crown, Hal, noticing the crown on the pillow, continues the thought that the crown only “pinches” the bearer. At least he doesn’t actually remove the crown from the king’s head, but he puts it on. A weighty and symbolic moment: Hal sees kingship as his responsibility, but also as his “due.” It’s an odd mix — I don’t think we had previously suspected that Hal wanted to be king, though I had my doubts in 2.4 when Hal as much as admits that he cannot sincerely weep that his father is seriously ill. Hal also reflects that the crown is now his to leave to his own first son. And then he exits! Is he dazed and grieving? Does he know what he is doing?
This leads to a big scene (though it’s a continuation of 4.5) in which the king rebukes Hal, Hal submits, and the two are reconciled. This seems a reprise of what happened in 1 Henry 4. Now the king concedes his “crooked ways” in gaining the crown, assures Hal that it will more securely pass to Hal’s son, and advises Hal to engage in “foreign quarrels” so as to distract his subjects from internal dissension. Seems like we are back in 1.1 of the earlier play. But the ending of the scene undercuts Henry’s idea that he will go on a crusade and die in Jerusalem.
By the end of Act 4 we have been given reasons to be troubled by the actions of Henry, Hal, and Prince John. Henry is about to die, and Hal has all but crowned himself. But the play isn’t over yet.
Sickness and disease become a running theme in the play, culminating in Henry’s death, but certainly relevant to Prince John’s betrayal of the rebels after they have dismissed their army. The Archbishop of York says at 4.1.54 “We are all diseased.” And it’s a disease that goes back to Richard, who died of some version of the disease that now infects them all.
Prince John’s treachery is the most disturbing thing in the play. We don’t get any elaboration of the condemnation of the Archbishop to death — the play seems to speed over it — but historically I think much was made of it, and there was a sense of profanation in executing a prelate, even a prelate who had appeared in arms. The whole matter seems deeply disturbing, and the play allows a judgment on its hypocrisy in Prince John’s summation, “God, and not we, hath safely fought today.” Falstaff’s later condemnation in John’s not drinking wine might be amusing, but hardly an adequate judgment. The scene of Falstaff with Coleville, interrupted by Prince John, is puzzling; Falstaff seems foolish, and the jokes about his girth are now tedious. The praise of sack would have been effective perhaps in one of the tavern scenes, but here is just odd and out of place. Was it a Falstaff piece Sh. had in his desk drawer?
4.3 strikes me as the thematic center of the play, and there the ambiguous character of Henry’s reign is clearly laid out. But the best of it seems the idea of usurpation, which it introduces. Henry has been comforted by the idea that his usurpation of the crown will be somehow redeemed by his leaving the crown to his own first-born son. So when that son “seizes” the crown the irony of usurpation arises once again. Hal of course had not meant a usurpation, and in fact had blamed the crown for his father’s unhappiness. But the whirlygig of time has brought the two of them to something like a recapitulation of the seizing of the crown in Richard’s abdication. I remember that there Richard had seemed to offer the crown to Bolingbroke, but then drew it back and insisted that he “seize the crown.” The taking of the crown gives us similar moment, even though Hal’s intention was seemingly innocent in intention. When the two of them are reconciled, Henry can admit the troubled nature of his whole reign. And he can admit that his project of the crusade was simply an attempt to distract potential opposition — and at the same time give Hal his famous advice about troubling giddy minds with foreign quarrels. Then we learn, and Henry does too, that the chamber where he will die is called “the Jerusalem,” for an added irony.