Study Guide

Henry IV Part 2 Weakness

By William Shakespeare

Weakness

RUMOR
This have I rumoured 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. (Induction.33-37)

When Rumour refers to the earl of Northumberland's castle as a "worm-eaten hold," the use of vivid imagery creates a sense of disease and decay that's associated with Northumberland's deception and betrayal. Northumberland has not only participated in efforts to overthrow the king (who was once his friend and ally), he also betrayed his own son when he phoned in sick instead of fighting at the battle at Shrewsbury in Part 1. So, when Rumour says the earl "lies crafty-sick," it implies that Northumberland has been faking his illness. (Lady Percy makes the same accusation later on in Act 2, Scene 3.) There's also a pun on "lies" at work here. It literally means that Northumberland has been laid up in bed and also emphasizes the point that he's a big old liar.

NORTHUMBERLAND
For this I shall have time enough to mourn.
In poison there is physic, and these news,
Having been well, that would have made me sick,
Being sick, have in some measure made me well.
And as the wretch, whose fever-weakened joints,
Like strengthless hinges, buckle under life,
Impatient of his fit, breaks like a fire
Out of his keeper's arms, even so my limbs,
Weakened with grief, being now enraged with
   grief,
Are thrice themselves. Hence therefore, thou
   nice crutch!              [He throws down his crutch.]
A scaly gauntlet now with joints of steel
Must glove this hand. (1.1.149-162)

When Northumberland learns two bits of terrible news (his son was killed in battle and the king's forces are on their way to Northumberland to arrest and/or kill him), he's suddenly feeling well enough to dispose of his "crutch" and get his battle on. (Funny how that happens. Too bad he wasn't inspired to fight sooner – his son might still be alive if he had.) Northumberland, who we have established is a big faker, indulges in a bit of crafty word play here as he insists that "in poison there is physic." In other words, the terrible news is like a "poison" to his system and makes him "sick" to hear it. The news has also left him feeling whoozy and weak in the knees. At the same time, he insists, this awful, sickening news has the effect of curing his (supposed) physical ailments (his "fever-weakened joints" and what not) because he's suddenly inspired to leap up and grab his weapon so he can fight the king.

MORTON
But now the Bishop
Turns insurrection to religion.
Supposed sincere and holy in his thoughts,
He's followed both with body and with mind,
And doth enlarge his rising with the blood
Of fair King Richard, scraped from Pomfret
   stones;
Derives from heaven his quarrel and his cause;
Tells them he doth bestride a bleeding land,
Gasping for life under great Bolingbroke;
And more and less do flock to follow him. (1.1.219-229)

According to Morton, the Archbishop of York has quite the rebel following. Everyone thinks he's "sincere and holy" so he's managed to get his followers riled up against King Henry IV, who is responsible for the death of the late King Richard II. What's interesting to us about this passage is the way York tells his followers that the country "bleeds" and "gasps" for breath under the current king. The commonwealth of England was often imagined as a "body" politic and the Archbishop of York uses the idea that England is an ailing and suffering body as part of his propaganda.

FALSTAFF
Sirrah, you giant, what says the doctor to my
water?
Page
He said, sir, the water itself was a good healthy
water, but, for the party that owed it, he might
have more diseases than he knew for. (1.2.1-5)

Now this is a way to open a scene. Here, Falstaff demands to know from his errand boy what the doctor had to say about his, Falstaff's, recent urine sample. Apparently, Falstaff has more "diseases" than the doctor has even heard of. We know that Falstaff is obese, drinks constantly, eats way too much, and also frequents the brothels so it's not so surprising that the guy's got health issues. But, we can't help but notice that there's a whole lot of talk about Falstaff's body in this play. He frequently complains that he's "old" and we're privy to all kinds of embarrassing information about the effects of his excessive lifestyle. Keep reading…

FALSTAFF
A
man can no more separate age and covetousness
than he can part young limbs and lechery; but the
gout galls the one, and the pox pinches the other,
and so both the degrees prevent my curses.—Boy!
[…]
I can get no remedy against this consumption
of the purse: borrowing only lingers and lingers
it out, but the disease is incurable.
[…]
A pox of this
gout! Or a gout of this pox, for the one or the other
plays the rogue with my great toe. 'Tis no matter if I
do halt. I have the wars for my color, and my
pension shall seem the more reasonable. A good wit
will make use of any thing. I will turn diseases to
commodity. (1.2.234-238; 242-244; 250-256)

Falstaff not only suffers from "gout" (a disease that causes inflammation of the joints and is associated with consuming alcohol and rich foods), he's also got a venereal disease (or two or three), which could explain some of his bodily discomfort. ("Venereal disease" is another way or saying "sexually transmitted disease.") Interestingly enough, Falstaff is also in serious debt and he likens his financial troubles to an "incurable" disease. Both debt and gout are problems that occur as the result of an excessive lifestyle. Falstaff eats, drinks, and spends way too much. His solution, to his money problems anyway, is to use his "good wit" – he plans to blame his ailments on his participation in the war so he can collect a wounded soldier's pension. Compare this passage to 1.3 below.

HASTINGS
I think we are a body strong enough,
Even as we are, to equal with the king.
LORD BARDOLPH
What, is the king but five-and-twenty thousand?
HASTINGS
To us no more, nay, not so much, Lord Bardolph,
For his divisions, as the times do brawl,
Are in three heads: one power against the French,
And one against Glendower; perforce a third
Must take up us. So is the unfirm king
In three divided, and his coffers sound
With hollow poverty and emptiness. (1.3.68-77)

Now this is interesting. Hastings makes a connection between bodily illness and monetary problems, which is similar to what we just heard Falstaff say (see 1.2 above). The comparison depends on the connection between the king's forces, a "body" that's divided or, has "three heads" (one army fights France, another fights against Glendower's men, and the third must deal with the rebels.) The king, therefore is "unfirm" (a word that denotes instability and illness and also recalls the king's physical sickness) in large part because his "coffers" are empty. We're left with a rather striking image of a sickly king that's plagued by "hollow poverty."

ARCHBISHOP
Let us on,
And publish the occasion of our arms.
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 Bolingbroke
Before he was what thou wouldst have him be.
And being now trimmed 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 lived, would have him die
Are now become enamoured on his grave.
Thou, that threw'st dust upon his goodly head
When through proud London he came sighing on
After th' admirèd heels of Bolingbroke,
Criest now 'O earth, yield us that king again,
And take thou this!' O thoughts of men accursed!
Past and to come seems best; things present
   worst. (1.3.89-114)

The rebel Archbishop of York suggests the entire kingdom is "sick" of King Henry and talks as though the commonwealth is a unified body that has become ill by feeding on the king (a metaphor for loving him too much). York complains that the same thing happened with the former king, Richard II, who the people loved at first but eventually "vomit[ed] up." Here, the idea of purging (throwing up) kings is associated with rebellion, the only way to get rid of a king.

PRINCE
But I tell thee,
my heart bleeds inwardly that my father is so sick;
and keeping such vile company as thou art hath in
reason taken from me all ostentation of sorrow. (2.2.45-48)

Prince Hal reminds us that his father, the king, is literally ill and even though the Prince's "heart bleeds" at the thought of it, he doesn't show it on the outside. Instead, he continues to keep "vile company" with the likes of Poins and Falstaff. Hals' response to the king's illness also alerts us to the fact that Henry's life and reign are coming to a close. Part of Hal's trajectory in the Henry IV Part 2 is to reconcile, once and for all, with his father, before the king dies. This is especially important for the well being of the country, which Hal will lead after his father's death.

KING
Then you perceive the body of our kingdom
How foul it is, what rank diseases grow,
And with what danger near the heart of it.
WARWICK
It is but as a body yet distempered,
Which to his former strength may be restored
With good advice and little medicine.
My Lord Northumberland will soon be cooled. (3.1.38-44)

Even King Henry IV agrees the kingdom is "rank" with "disease." Unlike York, however, Henry believes the country is enfeebled because of the rebel uprising, not because he's a lousy monarch. The cure, according to Henry, depends on quashing the rebellion, which will "restore" the country's "strength."

KING
'The time will come that foul sin, gathering head,
Shall break into corruption'—so went on,
Foretelling this same time's condition
And the division of our amity. (3.1.77-80)

Here, King Henry recalls King Richard II's prophesy. (Remember, King Richard II is the guy King Henry IV bumped off the throne back in the first play of the tetralogy, Richard II.) We're interested in the language that Henry quotes here. According to him, Richard foresaw that Henry's "sin" (deposing a king) would gather to a "head" and then "break into corruption." In other words, Richard predicted that Henry's sin would lead to civil rebellion. At the same time, the description makes the rebellion sound a lot like the way puss comes to a "head" and then oozes from a sore. So, even though King Henry has previously said that the commonwealth's diseased body is all the rebels' fault, this passage suggests that Henry may feel as though he is the cause of the country's "illness." After all, he's the one who sinned. Compare this passage to 3.1 above.