Shakespeare lived in a time of great transformation for Western Europe. New advances in science were overturning ancient ideas about astronomy and physics. The discovery of the Americas had transformed the European conception of the world. Increasingly available translations of classical texts were a powerful influence on English literature and art. Christian and pagan worldviews interacted with each other in rich and often paradoxical ways, and signs of that complicated interaction are present in many of Shakespeare's works. England, having endured centuries of civil war, was in the middle of a long period of stability and peace.
Not least of the great changes of Shakespeare's time was England's dramatic rise to world power. When Queen Elizabeth came to power in 1558, six years before Shakespeare's birth, England was a weak and unstable nation. Torn by internal strife between Catholics and Protestants, an economy in tatters, and unstable leadership, England was vulnerable to invasion by her stronger rivals on the continent. By the time of Elizabeth's death in 1603, she had turned the weakling of Western Europe into a power of the first rank, poised to become the mightiest nation in the world. When the young Shakespeare came to London looking to make a life in the theatre, England's capitol was an important center of trade, learning, and art. In the few decades that he made his career there, the city's financial, intellectual, and artistic importance became still greater, as London continued its transformation from unremarkable center of a backwater nation to one of the world's most exciting metropolises. Drama was entering a golden age, and the young Shakespeare was to be that age's greatest writer.
Henry IV, Part 2 (from now on referred to as 2 Henry IV) is one of Shakespeare's earlier plays, written sometime in the 1590s. It is one of Shakespeare's history plays, which chronicle the lives and exploits of England's kings from Richard II to Henry VIII. Its structure shares some features with 1 Henry IV, but the differences separate this play in tone and focus from its predecessor.
A paradigm of English history popular in Shakespeare's time saw Henry IV's reign as the beginning of division and the wars between the houses of Lancaster and York. The division ended with King Henry VIII. Although Shakespeare did not wholly embrace this paradigm, elements of it work their way into his histories. Certainly, the death of Richard II is seen as a crime that must be paid for by his successors. The price is civil war and instability.
Because Shakespeare took no interest in the publication of his plays, his drama got into print in uncertain and unreliable ways. It is difficult to say which plays, if any, come to us straight from Shakespeare's manuscripts. Corrupt texts abound. 2 Henry IV has a particularly troubled publication history. As a history play, it was subject more than most to censorship and revision by hands other than Shakespeare's. The play was first printed in quarto in 1600. It appeared again in 1623 in the collection known as the First Folio. There are many discrepancies between the two versions. Modern printings pick and choose from both, presenting a combination of both texts. This study guide uses the New Folger Library edition of the play, printed by Washington Square Press.