Henry IV Part 2

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Themes and Colors
Lies, Honesty, Morality Theme Icon
Disease Theme Icon
The Right to the Throne Theme Icon
Time Theme Icon
Warfare Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Henry IV Part 2, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Disease Theme Icon

Henry IV Part 2 is a play tainted by literal and figurative diseases. Its characters are as sick of body as they are of soul, and its atmosphere as heavy with actual illness as its language is thick with illness’ metaphors. King Henry IV’s physical sickness stands at the heart of the play. The characters around him initially assume that his sickness is just the side-effect of an anxious spirit and that his body will start to feel better as soon as he can put his mind at ease about the festering rebellions in England. At first, this does seem to be the case when, complaining about his insomnia, Henry IV attributes it to the anxiety surrounding his royal responsibilities. Yet even after King Henry IV receives the good news that the rebels have been arrested in Act IV scene 4, his condition doesn’t improve. In fact, it worsens and, just as England seems poised to enter the years of peace Henry has been longing for, Henry himself seems poised to die. Indeed, King Henry IV soon passes away, setting the stage for the rise of King Henry V and the plot of the final play in the Henriad (Henry V).

Yet even as the play firmly establishes that King Henry IV’s own sickness is not connected to the health or weakness of his kingdom, the play also repeatedly figures his kingdom as a diseased body with ailments of its own. The Archbishop of York describes the English people’s response to King Henry IV’s reign: “thou, beastly feeder, art so full of [Henry IV], that thou provokes thyself to cast him up.” But, he goes on to explain, the population’s vomitous inclination isn’t just specific to Henry: “so, so, thou common dog, didst thou disgorge thy glutton bosom of the royal Richard; and now thou wouldst eat they dead vomit up, and howl’st to find it.” King Henry IV himself calls his kingdom diseased: “O my poor kingdom, sick with civil blows!” Further, the Archbishop describes his and the other rebels’ cause as a sickness: “we are all diseased, and with our surfeiting and wanton hours have brought ourselves into a burning fever, and we must bleed for it; of which disease our late king, Richard, being infected, died.”

Throughout the play, other characters are likewise plagued by physical and metaphorical disease. In Henry IV Part 1, Northumberland claimed to be too physically sick to assist the rebels at Shrewsbury, but, berating him at the start of Henry IV Part 2, Lady Percy suggests that he was only feigning sickness. Northumberland then demonstrates that he is spiritually sick of the rebels’ cause by refusing to join forces with them yet again. Later, Bullcalf complains about a cold caught while celebrating the royal coronation and Falstaff repeatedly complains of pains in body and spirit, groaning about his overweight, slow-moving body, sending his urine off to be tested for (presumably venereal) maladies, and calling his looseness with money a “consumption of the purse,” a “disease…incurable.” Even Falstaff’s logic seems to suffer from sickness when he perversely attributes Prince Hal’s health to unhealthy behavior: it is the prince’s overindulgence in wine, Falstaff deduces, that has made Prince Hal so “very hot and valiant.”

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Disease Quotes in Henry IV Part 2

Below you will find the important quotes in Henry IV Part 2 related to the theme of Disease.
Act 1, Scene 1 Quotes

In poison there is physic; and these news,

Having been well, that would have made me sick,

Being sick, have in some measure made me well:

And as the wretch, whose fever-weaken'd joints,

Like strengthless hinges, buckle under life,

Impatient of his fit, breaks like a fire

Out of his keeper's arms, even so my limbs,

Weaken'd with grief, being now enraged with grief,

Are thrice themselves. (13–22)

Related Characters: Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland (speaker)
Related Symbols: Sickness
Page Number: 1.1.150-159
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Northumberland has just gotten some bad news: the rebel troops have been defeated by Henry IV, and many of his friends and family members have probably been killed. Northumberland tries, desperately, to spin the bad news as good, arguing that bad news will energize him and force him to fight even harder, in much the same way that a poison can sometimes provide a sick man with strength and fortitude. This is just one of many references to sickness and disease in the play--both the literal diseases of the characters, and the overall sickness of a nation filled with rumors, mistrust, and discord.

Northumberland's speech establishes him as something of a rhetorician: he's trying to use verbal cleverness to save face, despite the clear evidence that he's suffered a major defeat. We're reminded of Falstaff, who also uses language to spin humiliations as blessings--the difference being that Falstaff used his language for relatively-peaceful, selfish reasons, whereas Northumberland tries to use language to continue his rebellion.


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Act 1, Scene 2 Quotes

Do you set down your name in the scroll of youth, that are written down old with all the characters of age? Have you not a moist eye? a dry hand? a yellow cheek? a white beard? a decreasing leg? an increasing belly? is not your voice broken? your wind short? your chin double? your wit single? and every part about you blasted with antiquity? and will you yet call yourself young? Fie, fie, fie, Sir John! (155-160)

Related Characters: The Lord Chief Justice (speaker), Sir John Falstaff
Related Symbols: Sickness
Page Number: 1.2.181-189
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Falstaff--now an elderly, feeble man--tries to convince the Chief Justice, a local authority, that he's really young and healthy. In a bullying, aggressive tone, the Justice tells Falstaff that he's clearly old, fat, and weak.

It's important to note that the Justice's descriptions of Falstaff's body convey a sense of withering and shriveling up. In the past, Falstaff "inflated" himself with language and rhetoric--and yet his body itself seems to be getting smaller (except for his belly) as it approaches death. There's something heroic about Falstaff's attempts to deny his own weakness: he's like Don Quixote, using imagination (and delusion) to transcend his old age. And yet at the end of the day, Falstaff is delusional: he refuses to accept the cold, hard facts of his time and sickness.

A man
 can no more separate age and covetousness than a'
can part young limbs and lechery: but the gout 
galls the one, and the pox pinches the other; and 
so both the degrees prevent my curses. (198-200)

Related Characters: Sir John Falstaff (speaker)
Related Symbols: Sickness
Page Number: 1.2.234-238
Explanation and Analysis:

Falstaff here continues the discussion of his own disease and his decaying body. Falstaff makes the point that he has suffered from every disease because he's lived a long, successful life: as a young man, he was lustful, and therefore he has venereal disease now. As an old man, he's been greedy and gluttonous, resulting in gout. In short, Falstaff's diseases "tell a story"--he's had a rich life, full of sin but also adventure.

Falstaff's monologue shows his attempts to use language and humor to transcend his own weaknesses. Despite the pain he's probably experiencing, Falstaff finds ways to joke about his problems. For all his amoral, selfish nature, these roguish denials and rhetorical tricks make Falstaff remain (usually) a sympathetic character.

Act 1, Scene 3 Quotes

The commonwealth is sick of their own choice:
Their over-greedy love hath surfeited…
…Thou, beastly feeder, art so full of [King Henry IV]
That thou provokes thyself to cast him up.
So, so, thou common dog, didst thou disgorge
Thy glutton bosom of the royal Richard;
And now thou wouldst eat thy dead vomit up. (87-98)

Related Characters: The Archbishop of York (speaker), King Henry IV
Related Symbols: Sickness
Page Number: 1.3.91-103
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the Archbishop of York, a rebel sympathizer, advises the rebels to begin their attack on Henry IV very soon. The Archbishop argues that the people of England are ready for a new king: everywhere, he can sense that the people are "stuffed" with Henry IV, and are on the verge of vomiting him up.

The Archbishop makes an interesting point when he compares Henry IV to his predecessor, Richard II, whom Henry IV dethroned. In a way, Henry IV is a victim of his own rebellion. By overthrowing Richard, Henry set the precedent for rebelling against the English monarch whenever the people feel "sick" of him--something that would have been nearly inconceivable before Richard's time. Now, Henry IV must suffer the same fate as his predecessor, it would seem: be overthrown by an angry, unruly people.

Act 3, Scene 1 Quotes

…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 the crown. (26-31)

Related Characters: King Henry IV (speaker)
Page Number: 3.1.26-31
Explanation and Analysis:

In this famous speech, Henry IV finds himself unable to enjoy his life as a king. He has unlimited power over his subjects, and yet he lives in constant fear of being deposed by a jealous rival. Henry IV concludes that being a king isn't much of a gift at all--while he's wide awake late at night, even the lowliest commoners in England get to enjoy their sleep.

Henry IV's speech is interesting in that it echoes a speech given by Richard II in Shakespeare's earlier play. Previously, Henry was a rebel, overthrowing Richard--now he's come to the same fate as Richard: he must spend the rest of his life anxiously defending his position. One important aspect of this is that Henry can't enjoy the "game" of politics--he considers it an heavy duty to have to defend his throne from enemies. In this respect, Henry IV will differ greatly from his son, Henry V, who savors every political battle he fights.

Then you perceive the body of our kingdom,
How foul it is, what rank diseases grow
And with what danger near the heart of it. (38-40)

Related Characters: King Henry IV (speaker)
Related Symbols: Sickness
Page Number: 3.1.38-40
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Henry IV approaches his loyal followers, Warwick and Surrey, and tells them that England has become "diseased." England, Henry suggests, has a great "cancer"--a mass of rebels that is rapidly growing, sapping the country of life.

Henry's speech has another implication as well. In some ways, Henry himself is to blame for England's present "disease." By overthrowing Richard II, Henry has set a dangerous precedent for rebellion and insubordination--by sloppily overthrowing the king and failing to control his own people, Henry IV has brought about his own misery, and contributed to the country's sickness. It's up to Prince Hal to restore the kingdom's health.

Act 4, Scene 1 Quotes

…we are all diseased,
And with our surfeiting and wanton hours
Have brought ourselves into a burning fever,
And we must bleed for it; of which disease
Our late king, Richard, being infected, died.
But, my most noble Lord of Westmoreland,
I take not on me here as a physician,
Nor do I as an enemy to peace
Troop in the throngs of military men;
But rather show awhile like fearful war,
To diet rank minds sick of happiness,
And purge the obstructions which begin to stop
Our very veins of life. (54-66)

Related Characters: The Archbishop of York (speaker), Earl of Westmoreland
Related Symbols: Sickness
Page Number: 4.1.57-69
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the Archbishop of York shows himself to be a cunning rhetorician and a great manipulator of other people. York has been asked why he has allowed himself to become involved with a "base insurrection" against Henry IV. York phrases his answer in scientific, medical terms: he says that England as a whole is diseased, and needs to be dispassionately "bled" (a reference to the common medical practice of removing "excess" blood from the sick). In short, York argues that Henry IV's reign is bad for England, and York himself is just a conservative, returning society to its old ways.

Even though it's pretty obvious that York is a radical for rebelling against the king, York skillfully presents himself as the guardian of the "old order." Much like Falstaff and Hal, York is able to "spin" any question to his advantage.