Act I Scene 1
Henry IV part 2 begins where Henry IV, part 1 left off. The battle of Shrewsbury has just been fought between the forces of the King and those of the rebels, led by Hotspur, the son of the Earl of Northumberland. The King's army triumphed.
The personified figure of Rumour enters. Rumour is spreading rumors that the battle in fact went the other way. According to Rumour, Prince Henry, the King's son, was killed by Hotspur (the truth is the opposite). Rumour also spreads word that the King was killed in battle by Douglas, leader of the Scots.
Scene 1 opens in Northumberland's castle. Lord Bardolph arrives and Northumberland demands to know the news from the battle. Bardolph thinks the rebels have triumphed, and tells Northumberland that the King is mortally wounded, Prince Henry and other senior lords are dead, and that Prince John, also fighting on the king's side, fled the battle, along with Westmoreland and Stafford.
Bardolph admits that he wasn't at the battle; he just spoke to someone who had come from it.
Travers, Northumberland's servant, enters with quite different news that he has learned from someone else who was at Shrewsbury. He says that Hotspur, Northumberland's son, was killed. Bardolph scoffs at this, and says it is not true.
Then Morton enters. He has come direct from Shrewsbury, and confirms the bad news that Hotspur is dead. He saw with his own eyes Prince Henry kill Hotspur, after which the other rebels, dismayed at losing their leader, fled from the battlefield. Worcester and Douglas have been taken prisoner. The King has now sent an army under the command of Prince John of Lancaster and Westmoreland, to attack Northumberland.
Northumberland is grief-stricken at the news of the loss of his son and he whips himself up into a passionate, despairing, warlike mood. Bardolph and Morton try to persuade him not to lose his head, but to remain calm. Morton points out that when Northumberland first raised the rebel army, he knew there was a chance that his son would be killed. What has now happened is no more than could have been reasonably expected.
Morton also brings the news that the Archbishop of York has raised an army that will fight on the side of the rebels. This gives greater force and legitimacy to the rebels' cause, since the Archbishop invokes the support of heaven.
Northumberland recovers his equilibrium and says they must plan how best to counter the King's army.
This scene recalls what happened at the end of Henry IV, Part 1 and lays the ground for continuing civil war. Bearing in mind that Shakespeare's original audiences would have known about the result of the battle of Shrewsbury (Elizabethans knew their English history), Shakespeare found a way to make things interesting by introducing the figure of Rumour and conveying the confusing situation in Northumberland's castle. Northumberland is one of the rebels, but in Henry IV, Part 1 he sent word that he was sick and could not go to the decisive battle at Shrewsbury. This was a terrible let-down for the rebels, who debated about whether they should proceed without Northumberland (see Act 4, scene 1 of Henry IV, Part 1).
This scene is also a reminder, for a modern audience, of how different war was in the fifteenth century. There were no "embedded" reporters in the battle zones, transmitting stories instantly to a worldwide audience. Instead, news of the results of a battle could take days to reach all parties concerned, and in the meantime, rumors would spread like wildfire, as they do in this scene. It is not until nearly half-way through the scene that the truth comes out through Morton, the eye-witness.
Historically, the battle of Shrewsbury took place in July, 1403. Shakespeare condenses the time span of real events, since the war in which the Archbishop of York enters the fray on the side of the rebels took place two years later, in 1405.