Act One: Rumor, Rebels, and an Old Fat Man

As I noted yesterday, The Second Part of Henry the Fourth doesn’t begin with a scene with the current king or even the next one. Instead, we get an Induction (an introduction), spoken by “Rumor, painted full of tongues” (I.induction, opening stage direction). Bizarre as it sounds, it’s a great opening: “Open your ears, for which of you will stop // The vent of hearing when loud Rumor speaks?” (I.induction.1-2). [Man, is that insight into the human condition, or what!] Rumor goes on to discuss his worldwide state, and then presents the news from the end of The First Part of Henry the Fourth, “King Harry’s victory … (at) Shrewsbury” (I.induction.23-24). Rumor then chides himself:

                                   But what mean I
To speak so true at first? my office is
To noise abroad that Harry Monmouth fell
Under the wrath of noble Hotspur's sword,
And that the king before the Douglas' rage
Stooped his anointed head as low as death.

— I.induction.28-32

We’ve seen the battle in the previous play; this is a false report, one that “bring(s) smooth comforts false, worse than true wrongs” (I.induction.40).

We can only see those “smooth comforts false” by seeing Rumor’s effect on the rebels, and thus Act One, Scene One takes us to Northumberland’s castle. Northumberland had not attended the Battle of Shrewsbury under the excuse of illness. Whether this was true or “crafty-sick” (I.induction.37), we’ll never know; what we do know is that without that military support, his son, Hotspur, was doomed to failure.

Northumberland waits for news in these “wild” (I.i.9) times. A Lord Bardolph (NOT Falstaff’s drinking buddy, though it is deliciously ironic that the name is shared) arrives to deliver “certain news” (I.i.12). Of course, when he delivers it, we know it’s false rumor: Hotspur has slain Hal. Northumberland wants verification, and his servant Travers arrives with news; but Lord Bardolph says that he “overrode (Travers) on the way” (I.i.30). [isn’t it great that Rumor runs faster than the truth…] Travers delivers the truth, later substantiated by Morton, and Northumberland wants only blood, but not just that of the royals but of everyone:

                       Now let not Nature's hand
Keep the wild flood confined! let order die!
And let this world no longer be a stage
To feed contention in a lingering 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!

— I.i.154-161

It’s a cataclysm of death Northumberland wants, and he sends out his nobles to find other like-minded “friends with speed” (I.i.215).

You’d think that after such a call for rebellion, we’d next see those against whom these rebels will fight.

And you’d be wrong.

Instead, Act One, Scene Two takes us to London where we find Falstaff and the page Prince Hal has hired for him. The old fat man makes jokes about the size of his young page (“giant” [I.ii.1]), but his tone is somewhat serious as he believes that Hal “may keep his own grace, but he’s almost out of (Falstaff’s)” (I.ii.26-27). This is not the loving, caring relationship Falstaff felt for the young prince at the beginning of the last play. The tone is darker, and we’ll see that it won’t get much lighter.

Falstaff is then accosted by the Chief Justice, a member of the king’s party, accusing him of “the robbery” (I.ii.58) at Gad’s Hill in The First Part of Henry the Fourth. The Justice’s own servant, though, comes to Falstaff’s defense saying that Falstaff

hath since done good service at Shrewsbury; and, as I hear, is now going with some charge to the Lord John of Lancaster.

— I.i.59-61

Falstaff’s exploits are famous (after all, he took credit for killing Hotspur… though this is not stated here), and have bought him some leniency. It is interesting, however, that Falstaff is no longer in Hal’s company; instead, he has been assigned to Hal’s brother John.

While the Justice tries to bring Falstaff to account for his part in the robbery, Falstaff evades the subject with some fine comic verbal two-stepping, changing subjects from his own failing hearing (“Boy, tell him I am deaf” [I.ii.64]) to the king’s poor health (“this same whoreson apoplexy” [I.ii.105]) to WEIGHTY wordplay:

Well, the truth is, Sir John, you live in great infamy.
He that buckles him in my belt cannot live in less.
Your means are very slender, and your waste is great.
I would it were otherwise; I would my means were greater, and my waist slenderer.

— I.ii.133-140

And here, we get to see some of the Falstaff of The First Part, quick-witted and fun, going so far as to compare his youth to the Justice’s old age:

You that are old consider not the capacities of us that are young; you do measure the heat of our livers with the bitterness of your galls: and we that are in the vaward of our youth, I must confess, are wags too.

— I.ii.170-173

It’s a ridiculous statement, but hilarious because of its ridiculousness. The Chief Justice is flummoxed, and Falstaff delivers to be what he considers to be his coup de grace: he recognizes the lawman as one whom Hal gave a “box on the ear” (I.ii.189). This ties into a historical legend that Hal accosted a royal lawman (and was punished for it later), and thus shows Falstaff’s close relationship with the prince. Only what Falstaff considers to be his trump card, the Justice can beat, as he says, “Well, the king hath severed you and Prince Harry” (I.ii.198).

Falstaff is left to ponder his upcoming military campaign with John of Lancaster and Westmoreland against Northumberland, his repeated (“weekly” [I.ii.235]) wedding proposals to a heretofore unmentioned Mistress Ursula, and his old age (“A pox of this gout! Or a gout of this pox!” [I.ii.237-238]), as the scene ends.

The third and final scene of this first act takes us (again) not to the royals, but to more of the rebellion: The Archbishop of York (Richard Scroop) and Thomas Mowbray, the son of the Mowbray whose duel with Bolingbroke was interrupted by King Richard II (in his play of the tetralogy), confer with Hastings and Lord Bardolph, on the best plan of action against King Henry, whom they refer to as “unfirm” (I.iii.73), and militarily divided between three fronts–against them and Northumberland, against Glendower, and against the French. The time, it would seem, is ripe for rebellion.

And the first act ends… with King Henry and Prince Hal nowhere in sight…

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