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Henry IV Part Two (1597-8)

Henry IV Part Two (1597-8)

Hundred Word Summary

Northumberland hears of his son’s defeat at Shrewsbury, and resolves to retreat to safety north of the border.

Meanwhile in London Prince Hal is amusing himself at Falstaff’s expense, disguised as a waiter to eavesdrop on his vacuous dinner-table conversation.  But Falstaff will soon be off to war.

The king’s health is declining, but his younger son Prince John outwits the rebels, engaging their leaders’ consent to an armistice before having them executed.

The King’s death brings Falstaff back to London, only to be blanked by his old friend Hal and arrested by his new rival the Lord Chief Justice.


Table of Contents



Many of Shakespeare’s plays feature antagonism between fathers and daughters.  Most often this theme is explored in the Comedies (like “Much Ado About Nothing” or “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”) but it also emerges in more serious texts like “Romeo and Juliet” and “Othello”.

“Henry IV Part Two” features a sobering relationship between a father-in-law and his late son’s wife.  It’s sobering because Northumberland is part of the reason she’s a widow.  In “Henry IV Part One” he promised to bring his troops to fight side by side with his son Hotspur at Shrewsbury, but backed out.  Hotspur didn’t survive.

The main theme of Part Two – as is often the case in literature – is transformation.  In this play, that means the change that comes over the heir to the throne as his father’s health declines and the prospect of power comes closer.  It’s about how Henry changes from boy to man.

This transformation is reflected in his relationship with two older men – both of whom are father-figures, or substitutes for the real father from whom he’s estranged.  On one side is Falstaff, a jovial man-child, generous, selfish, dishonest, kind-hearted, untrustworthy, hard to dislike.

On the other side sits the Lord Chief Justice.  This plain-speaking, level-headed, incorruptible official is the counterpoint to Falstaff.  Whereas the latter is guided entirely by his appetites for wine, women and song, the former is led by his integrity and “th’impartial conduct of my soul”.

The gathering importance of the Chief Justice reflects the direction of Henry’s life as his father weakens and responsibility looms into view.   The change is personified in their characters, and Henry’s rejection of Falstaff in Act Five, harsh as it seems, reflects his new role in the life of the realm.

But what of Falstaff?  Shakespeare wasn’t finished yet with this irresistible scoundrel.  His death is mentioned in “Henry V” – and it is said that this development so distressed the Queen that she requested the Bard go back in time and come up with a new vehicle for the old rogue.  So was born “The Merry Wives of Windsor”.  But that’s for another day.


Scene by Scene



Rumour may be driven by “jealousies” and “conjectures”, but it is still almost impossible to resist.

Rumours reach Northumberland that his son Hotspur has defeated the King in battle at Shrewsbury.

Act One Scene One

Bardolph has heard from someone who has heard from someone else that Hotspur triumphed.

But Travers reports that he has heard the opposite, that Hotspur’s rebellion has “met ill luck”.

Morton reports that he saw Hotspur defeated by Prince Hal, and his soldiers “Fly from the field”.

Worcester has been taken prisoner, Douglas killed, and now Northumberland is to be arrested.

Northumberland is outraged at the news, but Morton reminds him that defeat was predictable.

Nonetheless the Archbishop of York, still angry about Richard II’s fate, is continuing the fight.

Act One Scene Two

His pageboy tells Falstaff that the Doctor has tested his urine and judges him free of sexual diseases.

But the tailor will not make any clothes for Falstaff because his credit (or “security”) is so poor.

Falstaff runs into the Lord Chief Justice and, when summoned by him, makes every effort to escape.

The Chief Justice reminds Falstaff he “sent for” him unsuccessfully before the Battle of Shrewsbury.

Falstaff learns that he is to be despatched in the King’s army to fight the armies of Scroop and Percy.

When the Lord Chief Justice departs, Falstaff tries to borrow £1,000 from him but to no avail.

Act One Scene Three

Meeting at York, the rebels believe their chances of deposing the King depend on Northumberland.

Bardolph argues they should not join battle until they have Northumberland’s soldiers in place.

They agree that Northumberland’s failure to appear at Shrewsbury resulted in the rebels’ defeat.

Bardolph says the rebellion must be planned as an architect would plan the construction of a house.

Hastings notes that the King must divide his men between three fronts – France, Wales and England.

Scroop reflects on how the King has lost popularity since he unseated his predecessor Richard II.

Act Two Scene One

In her tavern in Cheapside Mistress Quickly has arranged for the arrest of Falstaff for unpaid debts.

The Lord Chief Justice arrives to discover that Falstaff has also reneged on a promise to marry her.

He denounces Falstaff for “wrenching the true cause the wrong way” and orders him to pay his debt.

But Falstaff persuades Mistress Quickly to pawn her “plate and tapestry” to lend him more money.

Two thousand of the King’s men are heading north, and Falstaff is told he will soon be joining them.

Act Two Scene Two

Back from battle, Hal regrets the time he spent in days gone by with the likes of Falstaff and Poins.

But he admits that they have provided a distraction from reflecting too much on his father’s illness.

A letter arrives from Falstaff, informing Hal falsely that Poins hopes the Prince will marry his sister.

Hearing Falstaff will be dining later with Mistress Quickly, Hal decides to disguise himself and serve.

Act Two Scene Three

Hotspur’s father is encouraged by his wife and daughter-in-law not to participate in further wars.

His daughter-in-law reminds him that he had a chance to help save his son and failed to take it.

Northumberland agrees that much as he would like to join the rebels, he will “resolve for Scotland”.

Act Two Scene Four

At Mistress Quickly’s tavern, Falstaff teases Doll Tearsheet about catching sexual diseases from her.

But Doll reminds him that he is “going to the wars” and says “nobody cares” whether he survives.

Falstaff’s friend Pistol arrives but Mistress Quickly is reluctant to let him in, in case he starts a fight.

When he enters, Pistol threatens the two women, but is driven out by Falstaff armed with a sword.

Doll takes care of Falstaff (“let me wipe thy face”) whom she sees as being “as valorous as Hector”.

Hal and Poins arrive in disguise in time to hear Falstaff denounce Hal as “a shallow young fellow”.

As his criticisms grow more detailed, he is watched while he enjoys the pleasure of Doll’s attention.

Hal reveals himself and tells Falstaff he heard his insults, but Falstaff denies he offered any abuse.

He claims his audience are “wicked” and he tried to protect the Prince from them by criticising him.

News arrives that the King is at Westminster and that various military men are looking for Falstaff.

Prince Hal departs at once, followed by Falstaff, pointing out how “men of merit are sought after”.

Act Three Scene One

The King, appearing for the first time in the play that bears his name, reveals that he cannot sleep.

Why should sleep be denied to a King, he asks – except that the cares of office leave him “uneasy”.

He reveals the source of his unease: the schisms that have broken out among the ruling classes.

Warwick replies that Scroop and Percy will be defeated, and Glendower is already reported as dead.

The King is reassured despite his “sickness”, and looks forward to his campaign to the Holy Land.

Act Three Scene Two

In Gloucestershire two middle-aged gentlemen farmers are recalling their youth alongside Falstaff.

Falstaff appears and begins the selection process for the soldiers he will take to the coming wars.

Shallow exchanges reminiscences with Falstaff, focusing on a prostitute they both knew in London.

In Falstaff’s absence, Mouldy attempts to evade the muster while Feeble accepts death as certain.

Falstaff looks for “the spirit” of the man in making his selection, and picks Shadow, Feeble and Wart.

Reflecting that Shallow is now a rich man, Falstaff resolves to borrow money from him on his return.

Act Four Scene One

Bishop Scroop announces that Northumberland will not be joining the rebellion against the King.

A messenger arrives to reveal that the King’s forces, 30,000 in number, are “scarcely off a mile”.

Westmoreland arrives from the King’s army to question Scroop’s motives in joining the rebellion.

Scroop replies he has been unable to secure an audience for his grievances and so had no choice.

Westmoreland announces that the King has agreed to meet their grievances where they are valid.

Hastings reveals his suspicions about the offer, but is rebuked for asking “so slight a question”.

Scroop hands his “schedule” of grievances to Westmoreland, who pledges to show it to the King.

Doubts about the trustworthiness of the King’s offer persist, but Scroop blithely waves them away.

Act Four Scene Two

Prince John, leader of the King’s armies, rebukes Scroop for trading his pulpit for politics and battle.

But he accepts the grievances of the rebels, and “by the honour of my blood” will see them enacted.

The rebel leaders send word for their armies to be paid and disbanded, then drink a toast to peace.

When word arrives that the rebel soldiers are heading home, their leaders are instantly arrested.

John dismisses talk of bad faith, and reassures the rebel leaders he will “redress [their] grievances”.

But the price of rebellion will have to be paid, the rebel armies pursued and their leaders executed.

Act Four Scene Three

Falstaff is arresting Sir John Coleville when Prince John arrives to rebuke him for always being late.

Coleville admits he is a rebel, and Prince John despatches him to York to face the executioner.

Falstaff begs the Prince to praise him at court – he agrees to “better speak of you than you deserve”.

Alone, Falstaff reflects on the efficiency with which “sherris” inspires a man to courageous deeds.

Now the armies have disbanded, Falstaff arranges to return to his friend Shallow to borrow money.

Act Four Scene Four

With the rebels defeated, the King enjoins Prince Thomas to support Prince Hal “after I am dead”.

The King is sad to learn that Hal is with his usual company, but Warwick predicts he’ll outgrow them.

News arrives from Prince John that the rebels have been defeated and their leaders executed.

News comes too that Northumberland has been “overthrown” – but the King’s health is now fragile.

Act Four Scene Five

Fresh from his disreputable companions, Hal arrives at Westminster to find his father close to death.

Weighing up the crown in his hands, he laments the heavy burden the office imposes on its holder.

Yet he is full of affection towards his father, “tears and heavy sorrows” as well as “filial tenderness”.

Hal wanders off with the crown in his hands, leaving the King to deduce that he has taken it by force.

He imagines himself as toiling like a bee to provide for his sons, only to be “murd’red for our pains”.

Hal returns to learn his father believes he is impatient for his death since “thou lov’dst me not”.

The King foresees a time when Hal’s friends – “apes of idleness” – will run the court and country.

But Hal is overwhelmed with grief at his father’s impending death, which he blames on the kingship.

He underlines to the King that trying on the crown gave him no pleasure, but taught him humility.

The King advises Hal to launch a crusade to the Holy Land in order to give “giddy minds” a focus.

Then he asks God for forgiveness for the way he won the crown, and prays for peace for the future.

Learning that he is to die in a room called “Jerusalem” the King sees an ancient prophecy come true.

Act Five Scene One

Falstaff is visiting his old friend Shallow at his home in Gloucestershire, hoping to borrow money.

Shallow evidently has plenty to think about, and servant Davy mistakes Falstaff as “the man of war”.

Falstaff expects to have plenty of good stories with which to amuse Hal once he’s back in London.

Act Five Scene Two

The Lord Chief Justice accepts that Hal does not favour him, and expects his reign to go “hideously”.

But he says he is always “Led by th’impartial conduct of my soul”, and if he is to lose his life, so be it.

Hal appears, now Henry V, promising his brothers he will “be your father and your brother too”.

The Chief Justice agrees he once punished Hal for breeches in the law; he would do the same again.

Hal says the Chief Justice did right and will keep his post – and moreover act “as father to my youth”.

He adds that many people underestimate his ability to be a good king because of his past antics.

Act Five Scene Three

Falstaff’s party are making merry at Shallow’s house when Pistol arrives “from the court with news”.

He tells Falstaff “thy tender lambkin now is king” – implying that Prince Hal is now Henry V.

Falstaff heads straight for London, showering promotions as he goes and cursing the Chief Justice.

Act Five Scene Four

In London Mistress Quickly and Doll Tearsheet have been arrested, and are keen to see Falstaff soon.

Doll pretends to pregnancy to escape the law but the beadles believe her ‘bump’ is only a cushion.

Act Five Scene Five

In London Falstaff and his friends arrive for the coronation procession, ready to greet the new King.

Falstaff prepares his friends to look out for the friendly face the King will show when he greets him.

But the King is no longer Prince Hal: “I know thee not, old man” he tells Falstaff when they meet.

He tells Falstaff he has “turn’d away my former self” and tells him to keep his distance “ten mile”.

A saddened Falstaff admits he must now pay back the thousand pounds he borrowed from Shallow.

The Lord Chief Justice arrives with Prince John and orders Falstaff be removed to the Fleet Prison.

Prince John predicts that within a year the English state will bring “swords and native fire” to France.


The Dancer announces that the next play will feature not only Falstaff but also “fair Katherine”.


Thinking Aloud


A small number of Shakespeare’s plays contain a Prologue, a kind of introduction: “Romeo and Juliet” begins by summarising the events that are about to be enacted on the stage, and the play that follows this one, “Henry V”, also opens with a reference to the theatre and the stage.  In “Henry IV Part Two”, however, Shakespeare’s focus is on Rumour and its damaging effects, and he personifies it as a source of “comforts false”.  This very point will then be illustrated in 1.1, as news arrives at Northumberland’s castle that the battle of Shrewsbury has been won, before the real picture emerges and the fake news exposed: the battle was lost and his son Hotspur killed.


Still, the news about the battle comes as no surprise to audiences of “Henry IV Part One”.  Hanging over Northumberland throughout this sequel is the fact that he promised his son Hotspur that if he went toe to toe with the King, he would support him – but then he pulled out at the last minute.  So Hotspur, having organised a coalition of forces also involving Glendower (by whom he was also let down), went into battle against Henry IV at Shrewsbury knowing that defeat was pretty much inevitable.


Falstaff makes his first appearance in 1.2 – not of course his first appearance in Shakespeare (he is among the most prominent characters in “Henry IV Part One”), and not his last, since “The Merry Wives of Windsor” was written specifically as a vehicle for him: see the Introduction above.  Audiences of the former play will recognise Falstaff as one of the most corrupt, most selfish, most cowardly characters in Shakespeare or any other writer.  Yet somehow he manages to engage our affection.  Why?  Not easy to say, except that he is good company and a continual source of wit and good humour.  First among those drawn to him is the King’s son and heir Prince Hal, though Falstaff’s friendship is an addiction he must escape if he is to restore his good reputation in serious times.


Throughout “Henry IV Part One” Shakespeare explores the contrast between Hotspur and Prince Hal.  Initially Hal’s roistering in the company of Falstaff suggests he has much to prove, but at the Battle of Shrewsbury he is presented as the better soldier and emerges victorious.  A second contrast was drawn (implicitly at least) between Falstaff and Henry IV, exploring their influence on the young prince – somewhat to the King’s disadvantage.  In this play (as the Introduction notes) a contrast is developing early between Falstaff and the Lord Chief Justice: on one side the evasive and untrustworthy if entertaining scoundrel; on the other the level-headed, plain-speaking, incorruptible senior law officer.  Prince Hal is increasingly drawn away from the former and toward the latter.


When Prince Hal hears that Falstaff is to dine later with Mistress Quickly and Doll Tearsheet, he decides to disguise himself as a waiter and serve at Falstaff’s table.  This practical joke echoes a similar trick played on Falstaff in “Henry IV Part One”, where Falstaff plots to conduct a highway robbery, and is then separated from his ill-gotten gains by the Prince heavily disguised.  The audience, with dramatic irony a prominent technical feature of all Shakespeare’s plays, is able to share Hal’s amusement at Falstaff’s humiliation.


Much of this play looks back to “Henry IV Part One”, and the three-way conversation in 2.3 between the Earl of Northumberland, his wife and his daughter-in-law is a reminder that many of the characters in this play have previous.  Beneath Lady Percy’s strong advice to stay out of the wars being planned against the King lies the accusation that he let his side down when he failed to bring his men to Shrewsbury and is therefore partly responsible for the death of his son: “him did you leave”, she says accusingly, and a little later “so came I a widow”.  Not surprisingly, the Earl accepts the logic of her argument.  He’ll to Scotland, he concedes.


There are numerous scenes in Shakespeare’s plays in which one character’s words are overheard by another.  Sometimes this is simply eaves-dropping, as when Polonius hides behind the curtain in “Hamlet” in order to listen in to the Prince’s conversations.  At other times the aim is to influence events, as happens in “Much Ado About Nothing”, where conversations are contrived to be overheard by a third party (Beatrice, Benedick) in the hope that they might fall in love with one another.  In 2.4 Prince Hal disguises himself as a waiter to eaves-drop on Falstaff purely for his own amusement.  Needless to say, when you listen in to others’ conversations, you might be told what you don’t want to hear, and so it proves in this scene, where Falstaff is dismissive of the Prince and his companions.


Around two centuries before Shakespeare was writing his Histories, William Langland (c. 1332 – c. 1386, a Mercian like Shakespeare, from the English West Midlands) published “Piers Plowman”: this poem explores the difficulties of living a good life in a fallen world.  In the fifth “chapter” of the text, the seven deadly sins (Envy, Anger and so forth) are invited to repent of their sins, and Glutton’s account is worth revisiting for the light it throws on Falstaff.  Glutton claims he was on his way to church when he was waylaid by women working at a tavern, who induce him to join them.  Glutton is a hard drinker and his recovery from this session lasts two days, at the end of which he wakes up and wants more.  Rebuked by Repentance, he is quick to promise that he will abstain in future.  Three Falstaffian characteristic emerge: Glutton is not to blame – he was misled by the women; Glutton is happy to invest time in his self-indulgence – indeed, happy to waste time; and Glutton is happy to make promises regarding future conduct so long as his immediate needs are met.  Familiar territory, suggesting perhaps that in the creation of the character of Falstaff, Shakespeare was strongly influenced by Langland’s poem.


King Henry’s first appearance in 3.1 of the play that bears his name presents a vivid contrast between the King on one side and Falstaff on the other.  Whereas Falstaff’s language is littered with obscenities, the King speaks in complex formal English, laced with elevated imagery.  And whereas Falstaff’s focus targets his own desires and weaknesses, the King is preoccupied with the whole of society, the way it is governed, the course of history, the nature of friendship and rivalry – so that a short scene deepens into an intense reflection on history and humanity.  Once again the contrast between Prince Hal’s two father figures is a powerful sub-text, and a further example of Shakespeare’s range.


The trick played on the rebels by Prince John in 4.1 and 4.2 may have been inspired in Shakespeare’s mind by a contemporary crime known as “Equivocation”. This criminal offence, framed to force Roman Catholics to disclose their loyalties, may be defined as “telling less than the whole truth”.  In the religious context, it was possible to attest honestly that one had not attended a Catholic mass if one added privately “since last Thursday”. Nothing untrue has been said, but the whole truth has been avoided.  Prince John equivocates when he agrees to implement the rebels’ grievances: what he doesn’t mention at this point is that the rebels themselves are off to the executioner.  How far this kind of trick enhanced the reputation of the royal house for straight dealing is another matter.


It seems that whenever Falstaff is greeted by a character who knows him, his shortcomings are front and centre of the conversation.  When Prince John encounters him in 4.3, for example, he is quick to raise familiar questions about Falstaff’s integrity and courage: “Now, Falstaff,” says the Prince, “where have you been all this while? / When everything is ended, then you come.”  It’s a damning indictment, but a true one.  When there’s work to be done, Falstaff is at the back of the queue.  But once there is praise to be shared, Falstaff moves up the line.  When you’re back in London, he begs the Prince, speak well of me.  The Prince agrees: I shall speak “better of you than you deserve,” he tells him – though any discussion of Falstaff’s virtues will surely be met by the kind of scepticism mentioned above.


When Prince Hal takes the crown in his hands as his father lies dying, his insight is striking: the crown is a burden, he says, literally a heavy weight to bear.  In one sense this returns the audience to his father’s aphorism voiced earlier: “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown”.  But it’s also a literary figure, a kind of metaphor known as a metonymy. The crown is presented as implying something much more than itself: the cares of office, perhaps, the heavy responsibilities of the throne.  In standing in for these responsibilities, the crown comes to imply them, to mean them.  Compare for example, “Number Ten” (which means, not a building, but the job of Prime Minister) or, indeed, “the Palace”, which in the modern world of monarchy, means “the Queen” rather than her home – as in, “the Palace has announced that the Prime Minister has resigned”.


As he approaches death, the King asks God to overlook the way he gained the throne.   “How I came by the crown,” Henry exclaims, “O God, forgive”.  Behind this brief hope there is a world of history, philosophy and even theology.  Briefly, Henry IV gained the throne when he deposed his cousin Richard II – and probably had him murdered.  But Henry is also conscious of the medieval doctrine of “the Divine Right of Kings”, which asserts that kings are chosen by God, and to depose a king (as he deposed Richard) is to challenge God’s authority.  As he prepares to meet his maker, it’s understandable if Henry feels a certain anxiety about his fate in the next world.  Prince Hal’s reply, incidentally, in which he says of the throne “You … gave it me; / Then plain and right must my possession be”, suggests he feels more confident than his father about his right to rule.


With the loss of his father, Prince Hal gains the throne, and the first two scenes of Act Five reinforce this change in an indirect but effective way: by reflecting on two older males in Hal’s life.  His father is dead, but while Falstaff – Hal’s first father-figure – makes merry in the West Country, preparing witticisms for his friend the King, Hal is in London preparing for power alongside the Lord Chief Justice – once his enemy, but now “father to my youth”. In short, Hal’s transformation from roistering scoundrel to King of England is personified in his rejection of Falstaff and his subsequent embrace of the incorruptible Chief Justice.


When Falstaff hears that Hal is now King, he races back to London, sure he will be what Pistol called him, “one of the greatest men in this realm”, and ready to tame the Lord Chief Justice.  Alas, the audience are better informed than Falstaff, since we know already that the Lord Chief Justice is to replace him in the young King’s affections.  Somehow it is typical of Falstaff that he should be so optimistic and cheerful, yet so misguided. At the same time, the cold rejection he suffers from his old drinking partner Prince Hal in the aftermath of the coronation is surely more than he deserves, even if the new King believes it is necessary.  For Falstaff to be removed to the Fleet Prison on the say-so of the Chief Justice adds insult to injury. 


Who’s Who / Characters



Among the best-loved of Shakespeare’s inventions – except among those characters who have to cope with his solipsistic and self-serving instincts without being seduced by his charm and good humour.  Prince John knows him well: you’re always late when you’re needed, he tells him, and the Lord Chief Justice simply has him arrested.  But others’ patience attests to his kind heart and generous instincts, and rogue though he may be, his starring role in three plays was the author’s response to popular demand, and the public’s capacity to forgive before they condemn.

Lord Chief Justice

The embodiment of the law in all its impartial authority, the Lord Chief Justice is willing to die in order to uphold “truth and upright innocency”, reflected in the fearless way he addresses the new King in Act Five Scene Two.  Past tension between himself and the former Prince Hal arose out of the young man’s disrespect for the law, he argues, and Hal is persuaded: “You are right,” he tells him, “and you weigh this well”.  Any rivalry between the Chief Justice and Falstaff ends at this line.

Prince Hal

Initially Prince Hal is presented as in thrall to the infantile antics of his group of friends, Falstaff most prominent among them, and his love of practical jokes sees him disguised as a waiter to serve in the Boar’s Head and eavesdrop on Falstaff’s dinner-table talk. But by the play’s close he is an adult by his own admission, telling his three younger brothers “I’ll be your father and your brother too”, and reinforcing the point by dismissing Falstaff as “a fool and jester”, banishing him “on pain of death”. “Presume not that I am the thing I was”, he tells Falstaff at the play’s end – his transformation complete.

Quick Quiz

  1. Which human activity is personalised in the Prologue?
  2. Who accompanies Prince Hal in the practical joke he plays on Falstaff at the Boar’s Head?
  3. Where does Northumberland escape to when he resolves to avoid battle with the King?
  4. In which act does Henry IV appear for the first time?
  5. How in 4.2 does Prince John say Falstaff’s life will end if he does not mend his ways?
  6. Give the name of the room in which Henry IV dies?
  7. How much money does Falstaff borrow from Justice Shallow?
  8. What news does Pistol deliver to Falstaff in the final act?
  9. What does the beadle say Doll has concealed under her dress when she’s arrested?
  10. Who delivers the Epilogue?




Act Three

On the gallows



The King’s death

A cushion

A dancer

Last Word


If “Henry IV Part One” is a tale of two Harrys – on one side, the king’s high-living son Prince Hal, and on the other, the rebellious Harry Hotspur – then “Part Two” is a tale of two father figures: the incorrigible Falstaff on one side, the incorruptible Chief Justice on the other.

In these ways, Shakespeare simplifies English history and gives it a human face.  But how much history would his original audiences have known?  Certainly, some very recent events would have been fresh in their minds: the Spanish Armada, for example, was just a decade before.

But the conflict Shakespeare describes was two centuries past, and much had happened in the interval: the loss of the French territories, the ruinous Wars of the Roses, the break with Rome, the six wives of Henry VIII, the wave of martyrdoms under Bloody Mary.

It’s probably fair to say that most of the history worth debating in Elizabeth’s day was too sensitive to be discussed, at least in public.  And it’s striking that Shakespeare, though he lived in interesting times, scrupulously avoids the most contentious episodes.

But in plays like these – the tetralogy of “Richard II”, the two plays focused on Henry IV, and then “Henry V” – the audience was educated as well as entertained.  We think of Shakespeare’s theatre as offering diversion and amusement, but in the days before universal education and enlightening history programmes in the media, Shakespeare’s explorations of British history would have left his audiences more than merely entertained.

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