Rumor: Patient Zero

When I think of Shakespeare, I think of WORDS. And The Second Part of Henry the Fourth is no different. In it, I find such now-commonplace terms as:

  • my heart bleeds (II.iii.45)
  • helter-skelter (V.iii.94)
  • dead? As nail in door (V.iii.120-121)
  • I heard a bird so sing (as in “A little bird told me” V.v.107)

But like Love’s Labor’s Lost before it, this play seems almost explicitly conscious of its focus on words. Why else begin the play with a lone actor on-stage, “painted full of tongues” (Induction, opening stage direction):

Open your ears; for which of you will stop
The vent of hearing when loud Rumor speaks?
I, from the orient to the drooping west,
Making the wind my post-horse, still unfold
The acts commenced on this ball of earth:
Upon my tongues continual slanders ride,
The which in every language I pronounce,
Stuffing the ears of men with false reports.
I speak of peace, while covert enmity
Under the smile of safety wounds the world:
And who but Rumor, who but only I,
Make fearful musters and prepared defence,
Whiles the big year, swoln with some other grief,
Is thought with child by the stern tyrant war,
And no such matter? Rumor is a pipe
Blown by surmises, jealousies, conjectures
And of so easy and so plain a stop
That the blunt monster with uncounted heads,
The still-discordant wavering multitude,
Can play upon it. But what need I thus
My well-known body to anatomize
Among my household? Why is Rumor here?
I run before King Harry's victory;
Who in a bloody field by Shrewsbury
Hath beaten down young Hotspur and his troops,
Quenching the flame of bold rebellion
Even with the rebel's blood. 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.
This have I Rumored through the peasant towns
Between that royal field of Shrewsbury
And this worm-eaten hold of ragged stone,
Where Hotspur's father, old Northumberland,
Lies crafty-sick: the posts come tiring on,
And not a man of them brings other news
Than they have learned of me: from Rumor's tongues
They bring smooth comforts false, worse than true wrongs.

From the opening words of the play, we’re dealing with communication here. But not just communication, but UNRELIABLE communication.

hmmm, unreliable communication in a Shakespearean history… shocking, I know…

In Act One, Scene One, the wrong information is delivered by Lord Bardolph (funny that his name mirrors one of Jack Falstaff’s companions). There seems to be an unrevised remnant in the scene, though, when Northumberland’s servant Travers refers to Lord Bardolph as “Sir John Umfrevile” (I.i.34). What a great name for the deliverer of false reports: UMF (a meaningless sound) — REVILE (“to degrade; to assail with opprobrious or abusive language” [Oxford English Dictionary Second Edition on CD-ROM (v. 4.0)]). Regardless of the name, rumor in the form of Bardolph/Umfrevile can “overr(i)de” (I.i.30) and outrun the truth.

Later, when we’re with the rebels in Act One, Scene Three, our Lord Bardolph/Umfrevile speaks of “conjecture, expectation, and surmise” (I.iii.23), assumptions that one of his cohorts, Hastings, makes when he refers to “Harry Monmouth…who is substituted ‘gainst the French” (I.iii.83-84). As we’ll learn, Prince Hal has not been delegated (substituted) to fight the French, so it’s yet another rumor that’s borne out to be false (though it is a wonderful piece of foreshadowing toward his military exploits in the next play).

It’s not just the rebels who suffer from false information. When, in Act Three, Scene One, the king fears the “fifty thousand strong” (III.i.96) army of Northumberland, Warwick responds,

It cannot be, my lord.
Rumor doth double, like the voice and echo,
The numbers of the feared.

— III.i.96-98

Rumor, again, doubles and echoes. Henry’s son, John of Lancaster, “promise(s the rebels) redress” (IV.ii.113) of their complaints, but he still arrests the men on capital treason; the rebel leaders (and the audience) are left to wonder if the prince has “thus br(oken his) faith” (IV.ii.112), and become a nullifier of his own words, a hypocrite. Hal, too, is worried about seeming “a most princely hypocrite” (II.iii.51) for showing sadness over his father’s illness while still out partying with the commoners; this is the kind of behavior that would lead to the world’s “rotten opinion” (V.ii.128) of him.

Lest we think that rumor and false information plagues only the upper classes, remember that the lower classes are represented by Jack Falstaff, a liar who ironically says of Justice Shallow, “Lord, Lord, how subject we old men are to this vice of lying!” (III.ii.296-297). From what we’ve seen in this play and the last, Falstaff is, in a sense, Patient Zero of false reportage, and it is he who must be cured.

In the final scene’s kiss-off of Falstaff by the newly crowned Henry V, the former Prince Hal states that his rejection of Falstaff is “our word” (V.v.75). Two things: Note the royal second person… it’s only after Hal cuts off Falstaff that he begins to use that type of pronoun and modifier. Secondly, it’s his “word” … not rumor, not reportage, but his WORD that must be acted out.

If the rejection seems brutal (and it is, though pragmatically necessary), then there is still a chance for Falstaff to redeem himself. Prince John says that the king

hath intent his wonted followers
Shall all be very well provided for,
But all are banished till their conversations
Appear more wise and modest to the world.

— V.v.98-101

Yes, Falstaff is banished. But when his “conversations,” his use of words, “appear more wise and modest,” then he’ll be back with the king.

As if to give the audience more hope that this might take place, we’re given an epilogue–one which apologizes for his “speech” (Epilogue.1,2,3) and “tongue” (Epilogue.15,29), and that begs the audience to “pray for the queen” (Epilogue.31)… ALL uses of words–that tells us the next play will have “Sir John in it” (Epilogue.25). So there IS hope that John will amend his speech and be reunited for the king.

SPOILER ALERT: it’s not going to happen in Henry the Fifth. There’s no cure for Patient Zero.

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