Rumor, personified, enters and addresses the audience. He speaks of his own nature, and his power to infect men in all parts of the world. He recounts the climax of 1 Henry IV, in which young Prince Hal defeated Harry Hotspur and the forces of King Henry IV (formerly Henry Bolingbroke) defeated the rebels in the fields near Shrewsbury. But Rumor will spread the false news that the rebels were victorious and King Henry and Prince Hal were killed.
Lord Bardolph arrives at the door of Northumberland, who pleaded sick as an excuse to avoid attending the battle. Lord Bardolph brings great news, heard from the mouth of someone who was at the battle. King Henry is wounded. His forces and must trusted allies and advisors have fled the field. Harry Percy (Hotspur) has killed Prince Hal. The audience knows that none of this news is true. Travers, servant to the Earl of Northumberland, enters with very different news. The rebels have been routed, and Hotspur is dead. The Earl is not certain whom to believe, but Morton, another man loyal to Northumberland, enters. From Morton's face, the Earl knows he should fear the worst.
Douglas lives, as does the Earl's brother. It takes longer for Morton to give the worst news to the Earl: Harry Hotspur, the Earl's son, is dead. Morton was an eyewitness to the battle. The Earl, saying that at times bad news and sorrow are a great cure, throws down his crutch. Grieving, he prepares for battle. His men try to persuade him to temper his grief with reason; too many are counting on him for him to give way to rage and grief, however justified. Morton gives wise advice: the Archbishop of York is powerful, and he has great grievances against King Henry, most notably the death of King Richard II, which was brought about by King Henry. The rebels at Shrewsbury fought with their bodies, but their souls feared the label, "rebel." With a powerful clergyman at their side, the rebels will fight with body and soul united.
Here is Sir John Falstaff, being mocked by his page and responding with the usual mix of self-mockery and hurt pride. The Lord Chief Justice enters, accompanied by a servant. The Justice confronts John about the Gad's Hill robbery; Falstaff deals with the lord through a combination of lies, insolence, and ignoring him. Falstaff has been separated from Prince Hal by the King, but he has earned some distinction in the fighting at Shrewsbury. He also has orders from the Prince to go to York, where he will join with Prince John. So the Lord Chief Justice will not arrest him, but it is clear that the two men dislike each other. The Chief Justice mocks Falstaff's age and appearance, while Falstaff aggravates the Chief Justice by refusing to take him seriously. The Chief Justice finally exits, and Falstaff bemoans the emptiness of his purse. He tries to figure out a way to scam some more funds.
We are in York. The Archbishop, Lord Bardolph, Mowbray, and Hastings plan strategies against the king. Between them, the men assembled command twenty-five thousand men. They wonder if they are strong enough to defeat King Henry if Northumberland does not show. The men cannot afford to count on aid that may not come; such hope led to Hotspur's defeat at Shrewsbury. Hastings points out that though King Henry commands far more than twenty-five thousand men, his forces are divided in three: he faces war on three fronts against rebels, the Welsh, and the French. He cannot afford to abandon any of these campaigns, and so the rebels will be safe from the possibility of facing his full army. The Archbishop says that at last King Henry will pay for the death of Richard II.
Act I Analysis:
Rumor helps to remind the audience of the events and characters of 1 Henry IV. 2 Henry IV begins in the middle of a great struggle that will decide the fate of Britain. Henry IV and Prince Hal have won a decisive victory, but the war is not yet over. Although the last play opened on a high note for the king's forces, Rumor opens this play by speaking against the king and the prince. Although the audience would be aware of the triumph of the last play, Rumor functions as a reminder that the positions of the king and young Prince Hall are not yet secure.
After the induction, the play begins with Northumberland receiving news of the defeat of his forces and the death of his son. In many ways this early scene sets the tone for 2 Henry IV, which is a darker play than its predecessor. Loss is one of the central themes. While 1 Henry IV ends with the triumph of Shrewsbury and the death of Hotspur (a death which has tragic dignity), this play ends with Hal's betrayal of Falstaff. The betrayal is tragic, but it does not allow the old knight to keep his dignity. Loss in this play is more sentimental, more painful. The deaths we remember come with the undignified sufferings of old age, rather than the heat of battle.
Old age and time are an important theme. The play is full of sick old men: Northumberland (pretending sickness), King Henry (ill and dying), Falstaff (sick from hard-living and betrayal).
We open with the defeated half of a symmetry Shakespeare has set up: Northumberland and Hotspur are a mirror version of King Henry and Prince Hal. Some of these parallels were historical, but Shakespeare altered history to make the parallels more striking. Although the historical Hotspur was significantly older than Prince Hal, Shakespeare makes them the same age. The move makes them young rivals; it also means that Hotspur, as Hal eventually will (after the exploits recorded in this play and Henry V), dies a young death. Northumberland feigning sickness is a mirror to old King Henry, sick and dying. All four men have the same Christian name.
The death of Hotspur, as set up here, becomes the death of Hal's double. The illness of Northumberland foreshadows the fatal illness that will strike down King Henry. The defeats of half of the pair therefore resonate for the other half; for the winners, victory seems incomplete, qualified by loss and death. Both King Henry and Northumberland seem far less vital and strong than in the last play; they are a far cry from the strong leaders and stern patriarchs they seemed in 1 Henry IV.
With this darker tone, Falstaff and his antics seem more out of place. Falstaff has many funny and clever speeches in this play, but at times his humor seems desperate, more pathetic than amusing. Although we open lightly enough, the Chief Justices detailed description of Falstaff's age and increasing obesity becomes more cruel than humorous. Falstaff speaks more about the indignities of aging; although 1.2 is comic in tone, it sets up a certain momentum. Falstaff is going to change from a funny and out-of-shape rogue to something more pathetic, more vulnerable. The first time we see Falstaff, he is asking his page about the urine sample he gave to his doctor (urinalysis was one of the chief diagnostic tools of medieval and Renaissance doctors). So our first impression is a reminder of medical problems, doctors, the marks of failing health.
The strategy session of the rebels builds suspense by giving us an exciting war room scene and giving us a sense of expectation: the Archbishop reminds the men of the death of Richard II. Atonement is a theme of the play, as connected to Henry IV's usurpation of the throne. Remember that Prince Hal's father, Henry IV, usurped the throne of Richard II: the murdered Richard II is depicted by Shakespeare as a good but unkingly man, unprepared for the responsibilities and difficulties of rule. He is a victim of his own passivity and the treachery of others. The death of Richard II is the original crime for which atonement is long, bloody, and complicated. It must be worked through in generation after generation of kings, ultimately resulting in the establishment of a secure and stable royal family. The division between the Houses of Lancaster and York begins with Henry IV's insurrection and usurpation of the throne (1399), and unity comes with the start of the reign of King Henry VIII (1509). Although Henry V (Prince Hal) is not destined to be the king who brings long-lasting stability and security to Britain, his reign is depicted as a great one by Shakespeare. But first, he will have to deal with the effects of his father's usurping of the throne.