“I am not only witty in myself, but the cause that wit is in other men.”

Henry IV, Part Two

Act One

By Dennis Abrams



King Henry IV of England

Prince Henry (known as Hal), later crowned King Henry V

Hal’s brothers:  Prince John of Lancaster; Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester; Thomas, Duke of Clarence

The King’s supporters:  Earls of Warwick, Surrey and Westmoreland; Harcourt; Gower; Sir John Blung


Earl of Northumberland and his wife, Lady Northumberland

Kate, Lady Percy, Hotspur’s widow

Travers. Northumberland’s servant, and Morton, a messenger

Rebellious nobles:  Archbishop of York; Lord Bardolph; Mowbray; Lord Hastings; Sir John Coleville


Sir John Falstaff, one of Hal’s companions

Falstaff’s followers:  Edward (Ned) Poins, Bardolph, Pistol and Peto; and his Page

Mistress Quickly, hostess of an Eastcheap tavern

Doll Tearsheet, a prostitute

Shallow and his companion Silence, elderly country justices

Davy, Shallow’s Servant

Soldiers recruited by Falstaff:  Mouldy, Shadow, Wart, Feeble, and Bullcalf

Rumour, the presenter



Though presumably Part II was written shortly after 1 Henry IV, another play featuring Falstaff, The Merry Wives of Windsor, may have come between the pair.  (I decided that even if it did come between the two, it was better, for our purposes, to read Parts One and Two consecutively).  At any rate, a composition date of late 1597 – early 1598 is generally accepted.



2 Henry IVuses the same set of sources as its predecessor (See my post for Act One of Henry IV, Part One).  Other details might derive from a source itself by John Stow, The Governor (1531) by the Tudor courtier Thomas Elyot, as well as another work, John Eliot’s Ortho-epia Gallica (1593)


TEXTS:  In contrast to 1 Henry IV, only one quarto printing (Q1, 1600) is recorded before the play appeared in the 1623 First Folio.  Some passages appear in F alone.


Act One:  The action continues directly from Henry IV, Part One:  Northumberland is frantic to hear news of the rebellion.  And while initial reports (or rumors) seem good, the truth soon arrives – the rebels have been defeated and his son Hotspur is dead.  Northumberland is devastated, but Morton and Lord Bardolph assure him that the fight is not over; the Archbishop of York and others are mustering their forces, and the King’s position is not as unassailable as it might appear.  Falstaff, meanwhile, is being severely lectured by the Lord Chief Justice for his influence on Hal, the heir to the throne.  Completely unperturbed by the accusations against him, Falstaff asks for financial support – to no avail.


Many have wondered how exactly the two Henry IVs fit together:  did (book 4( the playwright plan a two-part structure from the beginning, or was he spurred by the success of Part I (and the overwhelming immediate popularity of Falstaff) to pen a follow-up?  The so-called “structural problem” of Henry IV, whether it is one play or two, is one that still troubles scholars, but perhaps that is really because it is, in essence, both.  Dramatically speaking, what really matters is that 2 Henry IV is dominated by the fallout from events that have already taken place, particularly events that have occurred in Part 1.  Though Shakespeare gives no suggestion that time has elapsed between the two parts – quite the opposite in fact (given that Northumberland is waiting to hear the news from Shrewsbury), there is still, I think, an unmistakable sense that things have changed.

Part II turns the fact that it is a sequel into a morbid theatrical preoccupation.  With Hotspur dead, it becomes blindingly obvious that the play’s central occupation – Henry Bolingbroke’s usurpation of Richard II’s throne – is a quarrel for old men only.  The visibly wilting Northumberland (already ill at the end of Part One), is almost a different character from the proactive politician of the first play, and the news of his son’s death only serves to further destabilize him.  Though he attempts to make light of his sickness, casting away his crutches and claiming that “these news,/Having been well, that would have made me sick,/Being sick, have in some measure made me well,” it is clear that he is no longer really in control.  Struggling to assert his youthful strength, he cannot; in “robbing” Hotspur of his youth, Hal has also all but finished off his rival’s father.


From Garber:

“The play begins with the appearance of Rumour, ‘painted full of tongues’ – presumably wearing a garment adorned with tongues, to suggest the ubiquity and multiplicity of rumors in the world, just as in the famous ‘Rainbow portrait’ of Queen Elizabeth (attributed to Isaac Oliver c.a.1600) the Queen would be depicted wearing a cloak adorned with eyes and ears, implying that she sees and hears everything.  The goddess Rumor (or Fama) was a memorable figure in Virgil’s Aeneid (book 4), Ovid’s Metamorphoses (book 12), and Chaucer’s Hous of Fame.  In Virgil, she is ‘a vast fearful monster, with a watchful eye miraculously set under every feather which grows on her, and for every one of them a tongue in a mouth which is loud of speech, and an ear ever alert.’  (Aeneid, book 4, lines 180-183).  Transformed into a dramatic character, she is not only a striking visual figure but also a useful mode of narration linking this play to the previous one by reminding the audience of the King’s victory at Shrewsbury and the death of Hotspur.  The play’s Rumour is also, with her many tongues, a reminder of the Tower of Babel, and the chaos it brought to humanity.  ‘Upon my tongues,’ says Rumour, ‘continual slanders ride,/The which in every language I pronounce’  Once, according to the Book of Genesis, ‘the whole earth had one language and few words,’ and men gathered together to build a tower with its top in the heavens.  But the Lord, seeing this act of pride and ambition, thwarted their intentions, determining to ‘confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.’  The project failed, and confusion came upon the earth.  It is a similar kind of confusion that has descended upon England as Henry IV Part 2 opens, a confusion closely related to the question of language, which, as the medium of political role-playing, was one of Prince Hal’s principal areas of study in Part I.  Late in Part 2, Warwick will make the same point:

The Prince but studies his companions,

Like a strange tongue, wherein, to gain the language,

‘Tis needful that the most immodest word

Be looked up on and learnt…

But the moral Warwick draws from his figure of speech about the Prince’s language lessons is a far harsher one, for once Hal learns the ‘strange tongue’ that is the lingua franca of his low companions, those words – which is to say, those companions, — will come to ‘no further use/But to be known and hated.’  Warwick’s word ‘known’ echoes the opening line of Hal’s soliloquy in Part I, ‘I know you all’ in which the young Prince outlined this very strategy.

Rumour appears in this play as the principle of disorder in language, the proliferation of false tongues (‘Stuffing the ears of men with false reports’) and, characteristically, Rumour produces a lie:  the false report that Hotspur lives, and that Prince Hal is dead.  This lie is the pattern and the prefiguration of the larger lie that the play as a whole will have to refute:  the lie that Hal is still an incurable wastrel, and that under his kingship order will die.  ‘Let order die!’ is the desperate declaration of Northumberland, the father of Hotspur (Harry Percy), when, at least he receives the news of his son’s death.  ‘The times are wild’ he says – and, according to Rumour, he himself is ‘crafty-sick,’ feigning illness to avoid the rebels and battlefield.  In another sense, however, his faked sickness is a real one, though one he himself has not recognized or diagnosed.  For virtually everyone in this play is sick.  ‘[W]e are all diseased,’ says the Archbishop of York, ‘of which disease/Our late King Richard, being infected, died.’  (4.1.54-58).  The disease that afflicts them all is the lingering curse of anarchy and usurpation, of having offended God.

This opening scene, which shows Northumberland receiving first the false rumor of his son’s victory and then the true report of his death, gives way to a second scene, in which we encounter Falstaff, whose very name begins to echo the theme of falsehood set in train by Rumour.  And Falstaff’s first words in this play confirm the diagnosis of rampant and persistent illness, as he inquires about a doctor’s report on his urine and then begins to descant on deafness, consumption, old age, and the probability of venereal disease.  The whole world of the play is, in effect, sick of a social disease, of which Falstaff becomes, increasingly, the sign and the emblem of disintegration.  He is now accompanied everywhere he goes by a tiny page, and he lumbers about the estate very much like Don Armado, the braggart soldier in Love’s Labour’s Lost who was pursued, and taunted, by the tiny and witty Moth.  Since we will learn later in the play that Falstaff, ‘now Sir John,’ was once ‘a boy, and page to Thomas Mowbray’ the sense of a falling-off from that heroic generation of warriors is underscored.  Mowbray, encountered in the trial-by-combat scene in Richard II, was exiled from England and died a hero’s death in the Crusades, fighting an external war on behalf of his lost country.  Falstaff, by contrast, larger than lift and very much in England, is still loudly seeking for a horse, the horse he never got in Part I when Hal provided him with a ‘charge of foot,’ or infantry.  As scene 2 opens his confederate Bardolph has gone to Smithfield, the site of London’s central meat market, to buy a horse for him, and as the play ends we hear Falstaff, galvanized by the news of Hal’s succession to the throne, call out, ‘Let us take any man’s horses – the laws of England are at my commandment.’

Henry IV Part I presented a psychomachia, Prince Hal’s choice between Falstaff and Hotspur as alternative models.  In Part 2, although Falstaff’s status in the world has gone up (he has his sword and buckler borne before him by a page, and he wants twenty-two yards of satin for his cloak and breeches), the man is shrunk, or rather swollen, into a mere metaphor of himself.  Where in Part I he descanted on the concept of honor, if only to question and reject it, in this play his corresponding long soliloquy is not on honor but on sack.  Sack, a white wine imported from Spain and the Canary Islands (compare Sir Toby’s ‘cup of canary’ in Twelfth Night, generally designated a sweet wine of the sherry class, despite the fact that ‘sack’ probably derives from sec, ‘dry.’  In Part I Falstaff talks about ‘sack and sugar’ as the comforting drink of old age, so perhaps even a sweet wine is not sweet enough for him.  In any case, the change from ‘honor’ to ‘sack’ is a parodic example of material culture, the devolution from principles to potables.  The Falstaff of this play is a living emblem of appetite.  He is instantly recognizable, even to the rebel knight Coleville, by his huge stomach:  ‘I have a whole school of tongues in this belly of mine, and not a tongue of them all speaks any other word but my name.’  His belly declares his name as clearly as if he were a character in a modern political cartoon – as, in some measure, he already is.  The tavern over which he presides is now frankly a brothel, a bawdy house, inhabited not only by the Hostess, Mistress Quickly, but also by the whore Doll Tearsheet.  The whole world of Part 2 is decaying and darkening.  Indeed, Falstaff himself must begin to face the inevitability of death, although he will not believe it.  ‘[W]hen wilt thou leave fighting o’days, and foining o’nights, and begin to patch up thy body for heaven?’ Doll Tearsheet asks him, and he replied, ‘Peace, good Doll, do not speak like a death’s-head, do not bid me remember mine end.’  His allusion here is to the memento mori tradition, derived from the medieval period but newly energized in early modern Europe, in which Martin Luther wore a death’s0head ring and the poet John Donne would sleep, by choice, next to his own funeral effigy.

Just as Falstaff’s belly says his name, declaring his identity with a ‘whole school of tongues,’ names in general in this play show us a great deal about its shrunken character.  Many characters could almost be described ,as Lord Bardolph describes the rebel troops, as ‘the names of men instead of men.’  The surnames of the women in the brothel – ‘Quick-lie,’ ‘Tear-sheet’ – proclaim their owners’ profession, in the style of ‘humors’ associated more frequently with the city comedies of Shakespeare’s contemporary Ben Jonson, whose characters rejoice in names like Subtle, Face, Lovewit, Dol Common, Morose, and Epicene.  In Henry IV Part 2 we encounter not only Doll Tearsheet and Mistress Quickly but also sergeants called Fang and Snare, and foolish justices called Shallow and Silence – ‘Silence’ being a very suitable name, as Falstaff notes, for a justice of the peace.  Yet Justice Silence is far from silent:  when he is drunk he sings ballads.  The play seems to be moving, quite deliberately, in the direction of types and humors, not as a way of abandoning dramatic realism, but rather to mask the difference between the worlds of Part I and Part 2.  Falstaff’s ragged army recruits have names like Feeble, Mouldy, Shadow, and Wart, one-dimensional names, although these bravely sorry figures – fine small parts in the play – have some individuality and dignity about them. Even Hotspur’s magnificent nickname has become a bathetic pun:  ‘Said he young Harry Percy’s spur was cold?/Of Hotspur, ‘Coldspur?’’  The speakers of these lines is Hotspur’s father, Northumberland.  And the effect upon the drama of such desperate wordplay is as distressing as it is  jarring.  As Falstaff enlarges, in a kind of moral dropsy, other characters and values are dwindling to shadows of their former selves.

One way of mapping the decline is to notice how much of the play is written in prose.  Almost every scene in verse is followed immediately by a longer one in prose, full of topical humor, bawdy puns, sexual innuendo and braggadocio, and endless discussions of how much things cost.  The prose world is swallowing up the world of poetry, just as, in Falstaff’s own significantly chosen image, he himself is like a sow who has swallowed up all her litter but one.  The gender-crossing here – Falstaff as sow rather than boar – is a small note but, yet again, a significant one.  In Part Ithe most grandiloquent figure of heroic poetry was Hotspur, whose own distrust of courtly language and rhetoric was yet another sign of his idealism, if also of his naïveté.  The audience is forcefully reminded of Hotspur’s absence, and of the spirit he represented and continues to represent, by Lady Percy’s beautiful, evocative speech in act 2, a passage that takes explicit account of what is absent from this play:

    He was indeed the glass

Wherein the noble youth did dress themselves.

He had no legs that practiced not his gait;

And speaking thick, which nature made his blemish,

Became the accents of the valiant;

For those that could speak low and tardily

Would turn their own perfection to abuse

To seem like him.  So that in speech, in gait,

In diet, in affections of delight,

In military rules, humours of blood,

He was the mark and glass, copy and book,

That fashioned others…

A version of this same sentiment will turn up in Hamlet, again presented from the perspective of love, nostalgia and loss:  Ophelia’s memory of a Hamlet before his present melancholy – which is to say, before the play begins – as ‘[t]he glass of fashion and the mould of form.’  The glass, or mirror, as we have noted in connection with earlier plays like Richard III and Richard II, is the emblem or model for deportment and statecraft.  In the deposition scene in Richard II the King called for a looking glass and then shattered it, as a sign of his own disintegration and the loss of kingship.  In Henry V, the former Prince Hal will appear, transformed, as ‘the mirror of all Christian kings.’  But in Henry IV Part 2, with the death of Hotspur, the mirror of nobility, ‘the glass/Wherein the noble youth did dress themselves,’ is lost, and mourned.”


And finally, a slightly different take, no surprise, from Harold Bloom:

“Falstaffians, derided by joyless scholars as ‘sentimentalists,’ actually are ‘pataphysicians,’ knowing that Falstaff’s is the true science of imaginary solutions.  Alfred Jarry, author of Ubi Roi, conceived of the Passion as an Uphill Bicycle Race.  Henry IV, Part Two, is The Passion of Sir John Falstaff, who exuberantly surges on to his humiliation and destruction by the brutal hypocrite, the newly crowned Henry V.  if you interpret the play otherwise, doubtless you will have your reward, since you stand with the Lord Chief Justice as he berates and admonishes Falstaff, who gives back much better than he receives, and yet at least will be conveyed to the Fleet, where the Chief Justice, hearing the case, is bound to have the last word.  Shakespeare spares us the sadness of the hearing; perhaps we might venture that Shakespeare also spared himself, since nothing appropriate remains for Falstaff to experience, except for his beautiful death scene as reported by Mistress Quickly and his other survivors in Henry V.

Falstaff, still in his glory when first we see him in Henry IV, Part Two, memorably disputes his age with the Chief Justice:


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.

Chief Justice Shallow:

Do you set down your name in the scroll of youth, that are written old with the characters of age?  Have you not a moist eye, a dry hand, a yellow cheek, a white beard, a decreasing leg, an increasing belly?  Is not your voice broken, your wind short, your chin double, your wit single, and every part about you blasted with antiquity?  And will you yet call yourself young?  Fie, fie, fie, Sir John!


My lord, I was  born about three of the clock in the afternoon, with a white head, and something of a round belly.  For my voice, I have lost it with hallooing, and singing of anthems.  To approve my youth further, I will not, the truth is, I am only old in judgment and understanding; and he that will caper with me for a thousand marks, let him lend me the money, and have at him!

One could start with a good morning’s moral disapproval of Falstaff (very rueful if one is a fat man) and still not be charmed by ‘My lord, I was born about three of the clock in the afternoon, with a white beard, and something a round belly.’”







Our next reading:  Henry IV Part Two, Act Two

My next post:  Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning


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2 Responses to “I am not only witty in myself, but the cause that wit is in other men.”

  1. Mahood says:

    “I am not only witty in myself, but the cause that wit is in other men” – What a great line!

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