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Henry IV, Part 2 /

Reading Shakespeare’s Language: Henry IV, Part 2

By Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine
Editors of the Folger Shakespeare Library Editions

For many people today, reading Shakespeare’s language can be a problem—but it is a problem that can be solved. Those who have studied Latin (or even French or German or Spanish), and those who are used to reading poetry, will have little difficulty understanding the language of Shakespeare’s poetic drama. Others, though, need to develop the skills of untangling unusual sentence structures and of recognizing and understanding poetic compressions, omissions, and wordplay. And even those skilled in reading unusual sentence structures may have occasional trouble with Shakespeare’s words. More than four hundred years of “static”—caused by changes in language and in life—intervene between his speaking and our hearing. Most of his immense vocabulary is still in use, but a few of his words are no longer used, and many of his words now have meanings quite different from those they had in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In the theater, most of these difficulties are solved for us by actors who study the language and articulate it for us so that the essential meaning is heard—or, when combined with stage action, is at least felt. When we are reading on our own, we must do what each actor does: go over the lines (often with a dictionary close at hand) until the puzzles are solved and the lines yield up their poetry and the characters speak in words and phrases that are, suddenly, rewarding and wonderfully memorable.

From Hugh Alley, A caveat for the city of London . . . (1598).
From Hugh Alley, A caveat for the city of London . . . (1598).

Shakespeare’s Words

As you begin to read the opening scenes of a Shakespeare play, you may notice occasional unfamiliar words. Some are unfamiliar simply because we no longer use them. In the opening scenes of this play, for example, you will find the words forspent (worn out), hilding (good-for-nothing), outbreathed (out of breath), gan (began to), and vaward (vanguard). Words of this kind will become familiar the more of Shakespeare’s plays you read.

In Henry IV, Part 2, as in all of Shakespeare’s writing, more problematic are the words that are still in use but that now have different meanings. In the opening scenes of Henry IV, Part 2, for example, the word grief has the meaning of “grievance,” jealousies is used where we would say “suspicions,” orchard is used where we would say “garden,” and flood where we would say “ocean.” Such words, too, will become familiar as you continue to read Shakespeare’s language.

Some words are strange not because of the “static” introduced by changes in language over the past centuries but because these are words that Shakespeare is using to build a dramatic world that has its own space, time, and history. In Henry IV, Part 2, within the larger world of early-fifteenth-century England that the play creates, Shakespeare uses one set of words to construct the worlds of King Henry’s court and of the meetings at which his mighty rivals plot to unseat him from his throne. He uses a second set of words to construct the world of commoners—the hostess of the tavern, the sheriff ’s officers, the butcher, the “bona roba,” the “pantler,” the “vitlars,” the rural justices of the peace, the corporal, the “ancient,” and the captains. The world of King Henry and his noble allies and opponents is luxurious, with its “silken points,” “perfumed chambers,” and “canopies of costly state.” The exclusive privilege of enjoying such luxury is maintained through success in combat, which is idealized as “stiff-borne action” and “dole of blows,” in which “best-tempered courage” faces with “forehead bold and big” the “hideous god of war.” Commoners enjoy lesser pleasures: “small beer,” “sack” in a “parcel-gilt goblet” by a “seacoal fire,” or a “mess of vinegar” with a “good dish of prawns.” And those commoners who must “fill up the muster book” do not idealize war, nor are they idealized. According to Falstaff, Simon Shadow is “like to be a cold [rather than zealous] soldier,” and Francis Feeble will “be as valiant as the wrathful dove or most magnanimous mouse.” The exalted martial language of the play’s highborn characters is reproduced with a difference in the ranting of Falstaff ’s officer Pistol during a tavern brawl: “What, shall we have incision? Shall we imbrue? Then death rock me asleep, abridge my doleful days. Why then, let grievous, ghastly, gaping wounds untwind the Sisters Three.”

Shakespeare’s Sentences

In an English sentence, meaning is quite dependent on the place given each word. “The dog bit the boy” and “The boy bit the dog” mean very different things, even though the individual words are the same. Because English places such importance on the positions of words in sentences, on the way words are arranged, unusual arrangements can puzzle a reader. Shakespeare frequently shifts his sentences away from “normal” English arrangements—often to create the rhythm he seeks, sometimes to use a line’s poetic rhythm to emphasize a particular word, sometimes to give a character his or her own speech patterns or to allow the character to speak in a special way. When we attend a good performance of the play, the actors will have worked out the sentence structures and will articulate the sentences so that the meaning is clear. When reading the play, we need to do as the actor does: that is, when puzzled by a character’s speech, check to see if the words are being presented in an unusual sequence.

Shakespeare often, for example, rearranges subjects and verbs (e.g., instead of “He goes” we find “Goes he”). In Henry IV, Part 2, when Northumberland says “There am I till time and vantage crave my company” (2.3.70–71), he is using such a construction. Shakespeare also frequently places the object before the subject and verb (e.g., instead of “I hit him,” we might find “Him I hit”). Northumberland’s “This thou wouldst say” (1.1.87) is an example of such an inversion, as is Gower’s “The rest the paper tells” (2.1.141). The “normal” order would be “Thou wouldst say this” and “The paper tells the rest.” Sometimes Shakespeare inverts the entire normal order of subject-verb-adjective-object to confront us with object-adjective-verb-subject; an example is the Archbishop’s statement “An habitation giddy and unsure hath he” (1.3.93–94).

Inversions are not the only unusual sentence structures in Shakespeare’s language. Often in his sentences words that would normally appear together are separated from each other. Again, this is often done to create a particular rhythm or to stress a particular word. Take, for example, Rumor’s self-introduction in the play’s first lines: “I, from the orient to the drooping west, making the wind my post-horse, still unfold the acts commencèd on this ball of earth.” Here, the phrase “from the orient to the drooping west” and the phrase “making the wind my post-horse” and the adverb “still” all separate subject (“I”) from verb and object (“unfold the acts”). Or take Northumberland’s lines “Contention, like a horse full of high feeding, madly hath broke loose” (1.1.12–13). Here, the subject and verb “Contention hath broke loose” are separated by the phrase “like a horse full of high feeding” and by the adverb “madly.” In order to create for yourself sentences that seem more like the English of everyday speech, you may wish to rearrange the words, putting together the word clusters (“I unfold the acts . . .” or “Contention hath broke loose . . .”). You will usually find that the sentence will gain in clarity but will lose its rhythm or shift its emphasis.

Often in Henry IV, Part 2, rather than separating basic sentence elements, Shakespeare simply holds them back, delaying them until other material to which he wants to give greater emphasis has been presented. Prominent examples appear in Westmoreland’s formal address to the rebels led by the Archbishop:

                                                        If that rebellion

Came like itself, in base and abject routs,

Led on by bloody youth, guarded with rage,

And countenanced by boys and beggary—

I say, if damned commotion so appeared

In his true, native, and most proper shape,

You, reverend father, and these noble lords

Had not been here to dress the ugly form

Of base and bloody insurrection

With your fair honors. You, Lord Archbishop,

Whose see is by a civil peace maintained,

Whose beard the silver hand of peace hath touched,

Whose learning and good letters peace hath tutored,

Whose white investments figure innocence,

The dove and very blessèd spirit of peace,

Wherefore do you so ill translate yourself

Out of the speech of peace, that bears such grace,

Into the harsh and boist’rous tongue of war,

Turning your books to graves, your ink to blood,

Your pens to lances, and your tongue divine

To a loud trumpet and a point of war?


Westmoreland’s speech begins with five and a half lines of conditional clauses. The lengthy conditionals delay the appearance of the sentence’s subject and verb for so long that Westmoreland is made to reassert the “if ” at the beginning of the sentence’s fifth line (“I say if ”) so that the audience can keep track of the sentence’s structure until he gets to the subject and verb (“You . . . had not been here”). By not addressing the Archbishop directly in this sentence until after characterizing the nature of the Archbishop’s act of “rebellion” in the harshest terms, Westmoreland can insult the act without also insulting the Archbishop personally, thereby leaving some room for negotiation. Westmoreland’s next sentence is a question, but its structure does not become clear until again he has delivered five and a half lines of it. Only in his sixth line does he provide the subject (“you”) and verb (“do translate”) that make up the question “Wherefore [i.e., why] do you so ill translate yourself?” By delaying the question’s formation, Shakespeare can have Westmoreland first detail all the ways in which the Archbishop is a figure of peace, who can then be contrasted in the question itself to the warlike figure he has now become.

Finally, in many of Shakespeare’s plays, sentences are sometimes complicated not because of unusual structures or interruptions but because Shakespeare omits words and parts of words that English sentences normally require. (In conversation, we, too, often omit words. We say, “Heard from him yet?” and our hearer supplies the missing “Have you.”) Often Shakespeare too omits words in order to give dialogue a conversational flavor, as, for example, in the following informal exchange between Justice Shallow and Justice Silence, in which we have inserted in square brackets the words Shakespeare has omitted:

SHALLOW  And how doth my cousin your bedfellow? And [how doth] your fairest daughter and mine, my goddaughter Ellen?

SILENCE  Alas, [she is] a black ousel, cousin Shallow.


However, on other occasions in Henry IV, Part 2 Shakespeare’s omissions of words seem to increase the formality of expression in verse. In the following example, Northumberland, upon guessing that his son Hotspur has died in battle, presents himself in the most grandiose terms as suffering a loss equal to that of the mythological King Priam, whose subjects were destroyed when Greek enemies burned his city, Troy; and Northumberland compares the messenger bringing news of Hotspur’s death to the messenger who came to tell Priam of the fire (but was unable to speak). Again we add in square brackets the words that may be imagined to have been omitted:

Even such a man, so faint, so spiritless,

So dull, so dead in look, so woebegone,

Drew Priam’s curtain in the dead of night

And would have told him half his Troy was burnt;

But Priam found the fire ere he [found] his tongue,

And I [have correctly guessed at] my Percy’s death ere thou report’st it.


Through the omission of words from Northumberland’s speech, Shakespeare can bring the comparison between Northumberland’s plight and Priam’s to a powerfully compact close. By filling in the words that may be missing, we have not only indicated approximately what was omitted but also spoiled the rhythm of the verse and lessened its power.

Shakespearean Wordplay

Shakespeare plays with language so often and so variously that books are written on the topic. Here we will mention only two kinds of wordplay, puns and metaphors. Puns play on the multiple meanings of a single word or on the similarity of sound between words with different meanings. While puns can convey a speaker’s delight in wordplay, they can also have quite different tones. When, for example, a dying Henry IV predicts that after his death his successor will fill the kingdom with dissolutes attracted from the rest of Europe, the king’s bitter tone is in part conveyed in the pun that concludes the following lines:

Now, neighbor confines, purge you [i.e., yourselves] of your scum.

Have you a ruffian that will swear, drink, dance,

Revel the night, rob, murder, and commit

The oldest sins the newest kind of ways?

Be happy, he will trouble you no more.

England shall double gild his treble guilt.

England shall give him office, honor, might.


The king’s pun plays on the identical sounds of the words guilt and gilt (a thin layer of gold applied to the surface of an object), as the term gilt is called up by the verb “gild,” which means to apply gilt.

When Falstaff puns, his tone, in contrast to Henry IV’s, is delight in his own power over his recruits, on whose surnames he plays. In Falstaff ’s puns, the recruits’ names refer to the men themselves and at the same time mean something else. For example, when Falstaff announces to Rafe Mouldy “Mouldy, it is time you were spent” (3.2.121–22), Falstaff speaks to Mouldy as if he were food that should be used up because it is already covered with mould, but the joke has a dark undertone in that Falstaff expects Mouldy to be used up by being killed in battle. Falstaff also puns extravagantly on Simon Shadow’s name:

Thy mother’s son! Like enough, and thy father’s shadow. So the son of the female is the shadow of the male. It is often so, indeed, but much of the father’s substance.


These lines contain multiple wordplay on “shadow” as, for example, “portrait, image,” “a delusive semblance” (contrasted with “substance”), “a remnant” or “a form from which the substance has departed,” and “a small insignificant portion.”

A metaphor is a play on words in which one object or idea is expressed as if it were something else, something with which it shares common features. The first speech in Henry IV, Part 2, Rumor’s Induction to the play, is thick with metaphors, as the following brief excerpt indicates:

I, from the orient to the drooping west,

Making the wind my post-horse, still unfold

The acts commencèd on this ball of earth.

Upon my tongues continual slanders ride.


Rumor’s first metaphor makes the “wind” his “post-horse” (a fast horse kept at an inn for the use of travelers); the common feature of the wind and the horse is swiftness, with the wind being incomparably faster. He then moves to another metaphor, which shrinks the round “earth” into a “ball,” indicating how the speed of Rumor reduces the size of the planet to insignificance, while showing how the world is Rumor’s plaything. Finally, in the words “Upon my tongues continual slanders ride,” Rumor speaks in a metaphor that equates the slanderous tongues of Rumor with horses whose riders are “slanders.” The cumulative effect of these metaphors is to present the destructive power of Rumor as myriad false reports spread at the speed of the wind.

King Henry also uses metaphor at a critical moment in the play to instruct his son Thomas in the power the young man has to protect his relatives (“friends”) from Prince Hal and thereby to secure family unity:

                                                  Learn this, Thomas,

And thou shalt prove a shelter to thy friends,

A hoop of gold to bind thy brothers in,

That the united vessel of their blood,

Mingled with venom of suggestion

(As, force perforce, the age will pour it in),

Shall never leak, though it do work as strong

As aconitum or rash gunpowder.


First Henry briefly compares Thomas to a “shelter” but then fashions a second more complex metaphor in which Thomas becomes a gold ring that encircles and secures the integrity of a chalice containing the blood of the royal family. Henry imagines this ring (and Thomas’s influence over Prince Hal) to be so strong that it can prevent the royal blood from spilling no matter how violently that blood may be stirred by the operation of virulent poison (“aconitum”) or even of gunpowder.

Implied Stage Action

Finally, in reading Shakespeare’s plays we should always remember that what we are reading is a performance script. The dialogue is written to be spoken by actors who, at the same time, are moving, gesturing, picking up objects, weeping, shaking their fists. Some stage action is described in what are called “stage directions”; some is suggested within the dialogue itself. We must learn to be alert to such signals as we stage the play in imagination. Often the stage action is unambiguous. When, in Henry IV, Part 2, 1.1.159–60, Northumberland says “Hence therefore, thou nice crutch,” it seems clear that he accompanies the statement by throwing away his crutch. And when he says “And hence, thou sickly coif ” (162–63), it again seems clear that he takes from his head the kerchief in which the sick wrapped their heads in Shakespeare’s time.

Occasionally in Henry IV, Part 2, signals about stage action are not quite so clear. The scene in which Falstaff makes a selection of recruits offers both a challenge and an opportunity to reader and director alike. At some point in the scene, five potential recruits (Mouldy, Shadow, Wart, Feeble, and Bullcalf) enter and then one by one are called forward for Falstaff to inspect them. The earliest printed text of the play, the 1600 Quarto, offers no stage directions at all for the entrance of the recruits. In the 1623 Folio text of the play, stage directions call for the recruits to enter at the beginning of the scene, even though they take no part in the dialogue or action for over a hundred lines. In a production of the play, the danger of following the Folio in this case is that the comic look of most of the recruits may be largely wasted because an audience will have grown accustomed to their appearances before they become the object of the dialogue’s jokes. Because the Quarto provides no stage directions, if the reader or director chooses to depart from the Folio, then she or he will have to devise a staging from the clues provided in the dialogue. The major clue is Justice Shallow’s order “Let them appear as I call.” Perhaps, that order may signal the entrance of all the recruits to the rear of the stage as the action turns to the process of their selection; from there each can readily come forward as his name is called. Or perhaps, after Shallow’s general order, each recruit enters only when his name is called. We have in this case as elsewhere inserted stage directions at what seemed to us the most probable places, but these are ultimately matters that directors and actors—and readers in their imaginations—must decide.

It is immensely rewarding to work carefully with Shakespeare’s language so that the words, the sentences, the wordplay, and the implied stage action all become clear—as readers for the past four centuries have discovered. It may be more pleasurable to attend a good performance of a play—though not everyone has thought so. But the joy of being able to stage one of Shakespeare’s plays in one’s imagination, to return to passages that continue to yield further meanings (or further questions) the more one reads them—these are pleasures that, for many, rival (or at least augment) those of the performed text, and certainly make it worth considerable effort to “break the code” of Elizabethan poetic drama and let free the remarkable language that makes up a Shakespeare text.