Henry IV, Part 2: Act 1


Rumor establishes the link with 1 Henry IV, with confusing accounts of the battle at Shrewsbury. The stage direction says he’s covered with tongues, but maybe also with ears as well, as other such figures were. He tells us what really happened, but indicates his desire to tell the opposite. And he confirms our suspicion that Northumberland was “crafty-sick.” Then immediately we get the cross currents of false and true reports, until Travers comes in with the first actual report, then Morton spells it out for Northumberland rather starkly and seems to implicate Scroope, the Archbishop, in saying he turns insurrection into religion and Richard’s blood “scraped from Pomfret stones” into a relic. Neither Hotspur’s death nor the archbishop’s status seems to do much to dignify the rebellion. The “aptest way for safety and revenge” is what Northumberland hopes to counsel his followers.

And again Falstaff’s health seems to mirror the political world. The page says his urine carried to the doctor might have more diseases than he knew. But Falstaff’s monologue goes off in its usual comic direction. And he’s the focus of humor, he says, as well as the generator of it, a line that I think recurs in Verdi’s Falstaff. These scenes of Falstaff holding forth remind me of comedian monologues that simply unroll into joking for its own sake. The Lord Chief Justice comes in and is forced to play straight man for Sir John. One of Falstaff’s jokes is that he is young and the justice is old, which is a joke that I think Falstaff pursues at other moments. Much of what Falstaff’s jokes consist of is simply denying or turning around the obvious reality: “God send the prince a better companion,” the LCJ says, and Falstaff immediately replies, “God send the companion a better prince! I cannot rid my hands of him.” Perhaps the relevance of the scene is Falstaff’s current poverty, like the rebels’ low fortunes. The final joke is Falstaff hitting up the LCJ for a loan, with a mild joke from the latter about Falstaff’s being unable to bear crosses. But Falstaff is sending out letters, presumably to beg for loans from everyone he can think of, including an old mistress. This scene isn’t the equal of the best from 1 Henry IV, but its virtue is that a director can trim and shape it as he likes with no harm to the narrative.

In the following scene with the Archbishop, the dominant note begins as caution, and a recognition that Hotspur had not been cautious. Nevertheless they seem to talk themselves into further confrontation with the king, particularly the Archbishop, who marvels at the idea that the public is changeable, first enamored with Bolingbroke and sick of Richard, now back in love with Richard. But he draws no practical lesson from this, just that people are fickle, and the past and the future always seem better than the present. So what should Mowbray and Hastings advise: gather the army and set on.


I wonder whether “Rumour” introduces the play not only to remind the audience of what happened earlier in the story of Henry and his son, and to make clear the role of good intelligence and misinformation, but to invite the audience to reconsider what it has been told about Henry 4 and the “famous victories” and “glorious reign” of Henry 5.

As you say, 2 Henry IV picks up the story after the Battle of Shrewsbury, but the world of the play, as established in the first act, seems much darker: the rebels now openly refer to their project as “rebellion” and even “insurrection.” The passionate and embittered Northumberland says that “the times are wild” and wants to overturn everything: “let order die.” Without reference to the rightful heir, they will “pluck a kingdom” down and “set another up.”The rebels are contemptuous of the “commonwealth,” and clearly have no genuine concern for the welfare of the common people. What the rebel leaders want now is “revenge.”

We now hear confirmation from the rebels that Hotspur was impatient and hasty. But we also hear that he was not just a freelancer: when he was killed, the morale of the other rebels collapsed, so Hotspur was in fact a leader and an inspiration.

The play develops some crucial details from the end of 1 Henry 4. Scroope, who had held back, is now ready to fight, and lend his allies the support of “religion.” But he will act more cautiously than Hotspur. And the rebels know that Henry has divided his forces, thinking that this indeed provides them an opportunity. I took that not as overconfidence, but as a sign that Henry may have made a tactical mistake.

It’s striking that Henry and the Prince make no appearance in the first act. It’s all rebels and Falstaff. That de-centers Hal. The long exchange between Falstaff and the Chief Justice picks up one important event from Part 1, the robbery at Gad’s Hill. The metaphorical noose around Falstaff’s neck seems to be tightening, even though, as the Chief Justice says, as if recalling Hal’s own words, Falstaff’s reported service at Shrewsbury has “a little gilded” his actions at Gad’s Hill. But the exchange also surprisingly mentions  another important event that I think was not mentioned in Part 1: that Hall has “struck” the Chief Justice. This apparently took place during an inquiry into the robbery, and was part of Hal’s wild and irresponsible conduct. Was it not mentioned in Part 1 so that it could be brought up now, in Part 2, as a sign that, despite what you  might conclude from Hal’s battlefield service, he is not fully reformed?

Falstaff is still irrepressible and more than holds his own with the embodiment of English justice, but I wonder whether we already begin to agree with the Chief Justice that “the better part” of Falstaff is “burnt out,” old, diseased, and infamous. He must know that the Chief Justice will not lend him a penny, but still asks for a loan, as if out of habit. His fate seems  linked with that of the rebels. Just as Northumberland will turn the “poison” of bad news to “physic,” Falstaff, so he thinks, will “turn diseases to commodity.”

Dusty Griffin & Michael O'Connell