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Essay on Shakespeare Henry the Fourth, Part II, Act II

This paper examines Shakespeare’s use of the word/concept “wholeness” in the second act of this play. (4 pages; 1 source; MLA citation style.


Shakespeare wrote two plays that deal, in essence, with the maturation of a young man from a rogue into a king. Prince Hal who “hangs out” with Sir John Falstaff, participates in street brawls and robberies, who drinks and gambles and womanizes, becomes, in the end, one of England’s greatest kings.

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In this paper, we’ll examine the word “wholeness” and the ways in which Shakespeare uses it in Act II of Henry the Fourth, Part I.


As in the first act, I’ve been unable to find the word “wholeness” used in Henry the Fourth, Part II, Act II. Nor have I found a pattern of usage of any of the word’s common synonyms. Once again, then, we have to explore the text itself and the ideas presented to discover Shakespeare’s meaning with regard to wholeness, rather than taking a linguistic approach.
Act I deals not with wholeness, meaning either “complete” or “undiseased”, but with its opposite: divisiveness. There is an armed rebellion in the kingdom, and Prince Hal is playing the part of a young punk; i.e., assuming a dual identity, which we can view as a sort of “split personality”—even though his actions are deliberate and not the result of illness. The act is full of doubles of all kinds.

Shakespeare doesn’t use the word “wholeness” in the second act, so as we did with Act I, we have to look at the larger picture to see how the concept might apply.

There are three main actions in this act: the robbery; Hotspur’s scene with his wife; and the moment when Falstaff, at the prince’s urging, pretends to be the king. The first shows us Hal, Falstaff and the others playing pranks on each other; the second shows us a different view of Hotspur than we’ve seen previously, and the last also shows us a different view of Prince Hal. When Falstaff says “… banish plump Jack, and banish all the world,” Hal replies, “I do, I will.” (II, ii, 480-481). Falstaff is joking but Hal is deadly serious and it’s a very chilling moment in theatre, for we know that Hal will, in the end, turn his back on Falstaff and break the old man’s heart. The point of the overview, though, is that we are seeing these characters and situations from very different, and ever-changing viewpoints, and it’s only when we put them together that we are able to see the coherent whole.

The first of the “puzzle pieces” is the robbery, and it’s very funny because Falstaff does just what Points says he will: he exaggerates the number of men he fought, and the bravery with which he struggled. The number of ruffians grows with every line Falstaff speaks! It’s a great comic moment and shows us several things: Falstaff loves to spin a story; he tells the most outrageous lies; and Hal knows him well. We also see that Falstaff is essentially a coward, whereas Hal has physical courage: it is quite possible he could have been injured or killed in the skirmish. Even though he expected the others to run, they might well have decided to fight.

It’s possible, I believe, to suggest that together Falstaff and Hal have qualities that would make a “whole” man: Hal’s brains and courage coupled with Falstaff’s cunning and joviality. But while Hal does see Falstaff as a sort of mentor, and follows him on various escapades (thus learning a lot about human nature and about the people he will eventually rule), Falstaff learns nothing from the young prince. Thus, it is fitting that Hal thrives while Falstaff withers.

Likewise, Hotspur’s scene with his wife gives us a glimpse into some of this man’s other qualities, besides his impulsiveness and hatred of the king. This scene is often played with a heavy emphasis on the sexuality that the couple shares and we see Hotspur as a loving husband, not merely a rebellious subject of a despised king.

The third example, in which Hal allows Falstaff to lecture him about his licentiousness, also gives Hal a chance to take some potshots at Falstaff, which he does, calling him a “swoll’n parcel of dropsies, that huge bombard of sack, that stuff’d cloak-bag of guts” among other colourful epithets. (II, ii, 450-452). Although the exchange is good-natured, it ends, as I said, with Hal’s “I do, I will” line, which tells Falstaff that their companionship is going to end (or would, if the old man were paying attention and could imagine such a thing). But it also marks a turning point for the prince, for it is here that he begins to repudiate his ways, which he will continue to do in Act III.

In perhaps the most important moment in Act III, this theme is continued in a long scene between Prince Hal and his father, in which their reconciliation begins. The king begins to understand that he has misjudged his son, and Hal begins to understand the nature of the burden he will carry as king. He is becoming a “whole” man, a growth that will continue through the rest of the play.


Henry the Fourth, Part I, Act II doesn’t contain the word “wholeness” or any of its synonyms, but if we look at the action, we can clearly see that wholeness and its opposites are strong subjects here. Further, these ideas of fragmentation, differing viewpoints, and eventual reconciliation remain important themes throughout the entire play.


Shakespeare, William. Henry the Fourth, Part I. The Riverside Shakespeare. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1974: p. 847-885.

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Essay on Shakespeare Henry the Fourth, Part II, Act II. (2021, Mar 05). Retrieved July 11, 2021, from