Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University


Typically dated around 1598 but probably coming from the mid-1580s (Ogburn and Ogburn 710), this play may have emerged when the material grew too massive to be covered in a single play. The source is Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland (1587). Three rebellions against King Henry have transformed into two phases of a single rebellion as Shakespeare compresses the time from the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403 to the death of the King in 1413 into this play (Asimov 381).

Thematically, the play involves issues of looking back, exploring the effects of time, of self-examination, construction of identity, the immanence of death. Yet it supposedly suffers in popularity compared with Henry IV, Part 1. "Boldly, Shakespeare unreformed Prince Hal. Once again he had to be made to go through the mill" (Asimov 382; cf. Wells 146). So Part 2 may be an "inferior repetition" of Part 1, "but it was necessary if the incomparable Falstaff was to be brought back, and that meant it was worth the price" (Asimov 382).

The Oxfordian perspective is that the play "is based upon events of 1585 and 1586 ... the campaign in the Low Countries and the Babington plot" (Clark 733). Shallow may partly be Sir Henry Wallop, Justice of the Peace for Hampshire (Ogburn and Ogburn 718). Barkley, Pistor, and Mynne as Bardolph, Pistol, and Nym may have given way in revision to Marlowe, Peele, and Kyd (Ogburn and Ogburn 717).


A personified Rumor helps link the two parts of the Henry IV plays. But it's Rumor! with a cheeky albeit grim challenge:

Open your ears; for which of you will stop
The vent of hearing when loud Rumor speaks?
(Ind. 1-2)
Rumor brags about holding sway "from the orient to the drooping west" (Ind. 3). So after being brought into his confidence with his admissions that he's a liar, we're told incorrectly that Hotspur killed Prince Hal, Douglas was victorious over Henry, and the rebellion succeeded. This may have generically represented overzealous messengers of the time period, eager to break news first (Asimov 383) -- similar to networks and stations declaring elections prematurely.

Rumor also seems obliquely insulting to the general theatergoing audience, the "wav'ring multitude" (Ind. 19) constituting "my household" (Ind. 22). And already the theme of illness appears, with a mention of Northumberland having been "crafty-sick" (Ind. 37).

Introducing a play with a personification like this seems creaky and old-fashioned at this point, and (unlike the case in The Spanish Tragedy) this character will not appear again. So why did Shakespeare resort to an obsolete gimmick made even weirder by it being an unreliable narrator and one who announces his unreliability?



A Lord Bardolph (not the same character as the low-class Bardolph) asks a porter, "Where is the Earl?" (I.i.1). He wants to speak with Northumberland, the head of the Percy clan, a powerful baronial family in the north of England, who failed to show up at the rebellion to support his brother and son. Bardolph reports to him the incorrect good news that the revolt was successful. A retainer named Travers enters a moment later with the opposite and grim truth. Morton resolves the conflicting reports with his first-hand account, and discussion dwells on the effects of differing types of news.

Yet the first bringer of unwelcome news
Hath but a losing office, and his tongue
Sounds ever after as a sullen bell,
Rememb'red tolling a departed friend.
Northumberland temporarily gives himself over to grief, paradoxically remarking,
In poison there is physic, and these news,
Havng been well, that would have made me sick,
Being sick, have (in some measure) made me well.
But his son Hotspur has been killed, and a moment later he is raging:
Let heaven kiss earth! now let not Nature's hand
Keep the wild flood confin'd! Let order die!
And let this world no longer be a stage
To feed contention in a ling'ring act;
But let one spirit of the first-born Cain
Reign in all bosoms, that each heart being set
On bloody courses, the rude scene may end,
And darkness be the burier of the dead!

Restraint over "stomy passion" (I.i.165) is advised, and Morton tells also of royal forces moving even now against Northumberland. However, Richard Scroop, the Archbishop of York, has been raising an army to help fight Henry IV's forces.

The issue of conflicting reports urges one to suspect Shakespeare of being topical, but this is the best anyone has come up with so far: "In much the same way as Northumberland heard the news of Harry Percy's death from one of his retainers just returned from the battlefield, Philip of Spain heard of the capture of one of his chief plotters" (Clark 734).


Sir John Falstaff is accompanied now by a page, a diminutive fellow sent by Prince Hal, possibly as a visual joke in his physical contrast when accompanying Falstaff. The page reports that the doctor's assessment of Falstaff is poor, based on an examination of urine. (Whoa! Look how far medical science has come!) Throughout this play we find an emphasis on illness (Wells 147), sickness afflicting both individuals and the nation itself (Wells 148). At the doctor's reported attempt at humor, Falstaff remarks on his self-aware role as a comic inspiration or humor magnet: "I am not only witty in myself, but the cause that wit is in other men" (I.ii.9-10). The page also reports Falstaff's credit not being honored, and that Bardolph is going to buy Falstaff a horse. The Lord Chief Justice, who had no qualms about sending the Prince to do jail time at one point and whose ears the Prince has boxed, has summoned Falstaff to appear. Falstaff feigns deafness (I.ii.66, 117) -- a defense against Rumor? -- but the Justice is persistent. Falstaff tries diverting the discussion by touting his own military importance, pretending concern about the Justice's health and the King's (I.ii.95, 107), and issuing an insincere moralistic and platitudinous heap of rhetoric (I.ii.165ff). The Lord Chief Justice scolds Falstaff for misleading the Prince; Falstaff should be acting his age. But Falstaff claims he must join the King's forces against the remaining northern rebels. The Justice wishes him well, and Falstaff hits him up for a thousand pounds (I.ii.223; cf. I.ii.193).

The attention to the sum of a thousand pounds, as it appears so often in other plays too, brings to mind the Earl of Oxford's annuity, granted by the notoriously stingy Queen with no explanation given and in wording identical to the formula for the granting of secret service money. More than coincidentally, the vicar of Stratford Parish in Warwickshire, the Reverend John Ward, reported in his 1661-63 diary the local rumor that Shakespeare had "supplied the stage with two plays every year and for that had an allowance so large that he spent at the rate of £1000 a year, as I have heard." Hank Whittemore points out that Shakspere's Stratford cash estate amounted to no more than £350, and that the remuneration here is oddly called an "allowance" rather than an "income" ["A Year in the Life: 1586." Shakespeare Matters 2.4 (Summer 2003): 29-30].

Bemoaning his empty purse as another kind of disease or "consumption" (I.ii.236), Falstaff gives his page letters to be delivered to Hal, Prince John, and an old Mistress Ursula to whom he is vaguely engaged. Plagued by gout, Falstaff remains optimistic about his own irresponsibility: "A good wit will make use of any thing. I will turn diseases to commodity" (I.ii.247-248). Though fighting against rebel forces, Falstaff is a rebel himself -- against seriousness and pious authority.

Hal is allowed only one scene in Part 2 "on anything like the old terms" (Asimov 387). The Lord Chief Justice tale is apocryphal, emerging in about 1531 (Asimov 388). Sir Nicholas Dawtry was on the scene again in the mid-1580s, and some Oxfordians detect a caricature of him in Falstaff, and in Sir Tophas in Lyly's Endymion (Clark 738). Falstaff's "new-healed wound" alludes to Dawtry's received in 1584 (Clark 739). And Dawtry was a prolific letter-writer; hence the page being sent with several to deliver (Clark 739). But the elder Ogburns detect a depiction of the gouty, resourceful, but unprincipled Burghley (Ogburn and Ogburn 717). And, as always, Oxford inhabits all his characters. It is thought he had gained some weight when he was in his early 40s (Ogburn and Ogburn 930).


The Archbishop of York, Mowbray, Lord Hastings, and Lord Bardolph hold a council of war. The key question is Northumberland's support -- they don't want to end up short on troops as Hotspur did, fatally. Hastings thinks they're okay: Henry faces trouble from Glendower in Wales, from the French, from the north, and besides, his treasury is depleted. So was Elizabeth's in the mid-1580s: "Her generosity with Alençon, and her expenditure on the fleet and troops that accompanied him to Antwerp, had depleted her store materially, and the campaigns in Ireland and Scotland had been costly" (Clark 737). The Archbishop calls for a list of grievances against Henry's misrule to be written up.

If Northumberland still represents Philip of Spain, he did rage in about 1586 about English comedies at his expense, hence the "injuries" (I.iii.13-14) here (Ogburn and Ogburn 723).

We witness another derogatory railing against the fickle common people, from the Archbishop here:

The commonwealth is sick of their own choice,
Their over-greedy love hath surfeited.
An habitation giddy and unsure
Hath he that buildeth on the vulgar heart.
O thou fond many, with what loud applause
Didst thou beat heaven with blessing Bullingbrook
Before he was what thou wouldst have him be!
And being now trimm'd in thine own desires,
Thou, beastly feeder, art so full of him,
That thou provok'st 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,
And howl'st to find it. What trust is in these times?
They that, when Richard liv'd, would have him die,
Are now become enamor'd on his grave.
Thou, that threw'st dust upon his goodly head
When through proud London he came sighing on
After th' admired heels of Bullingbrook,
Cri'st now, "O earth, yield us that king again,
And take thou this!" O thoughts of men accurs'd!
Past and to come seems best; things present worst.

Act II

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