At Warkworth castle, Lord Bardolph arrives and tells Northumberland that the rebels have won the Battle of Shrewsbury; Hotspur has slain Prince Hal; Douglas has killed the Blunts; Lancaster, Westmoreland, and Stafford have run away; and Falstaff has been taken prisoner. Bardolph has heard this news, he explains, from a well-bred gentleman he met on the road. At that moment, Northumberland’s servant Travers returns from his own search for news: he’s heard from a bloodied and harried gentleman that the rebels have been crushed at Shrewsbury. Bardolph tries to assure Northumberland that the man Travers got his news from was a dishonorable thief of a man who surely spoke lies.
Lord Bardolph’s insistence that his, rather than Travers’, account of the Battle of Shrewsbury is correct relies on an absurd presumption: that truth is more apt to be spoken from the mouths of the well-bred and grand than from the mouths of the lower-born and unkempt. As the audience well knows, the noble gentleman Lord Bardolph met was lying or mistaken. The bloody, messy state of the man Travers met on the road alludes to the grim and ugly violence of warfare.
Morton enters and Northumberland says he can tell just from Morton’s facial expression that tragedy has come to pass for “the whiteness in thy cheek is apter than thy tongue to tell they errand.” Northumberland assumes his son (Hotspur) and brother (Worcester) are dead. When Morton doesn’t immediately contradict Northumberland’s fears about Hotspur, Northumberland laments, “what a ready tongue suspicion hath! He that but fears the thing he would not know hath by instinct knowledge from others’ eyes that what he fear is chanced.” Still, he pleads with Morton to “tell thou an earl his divination lies, and I will take it as a sweet disgrace and make thee rich for doing me such wrong.”
Northumberland’s confidence that he can see the truth in Morton’s face introduces a recurring motif of the Lies theme whereby characters presume (sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly) that the body is able to depict more accurate images of the truth than the mouth is able to convey in words.
Morton finally conveys his news, though he apologizes for having to “force you to believe that which I would to God I had not seen.” Hotspur has been slain by Prince Hal, Douglas and Worcester have been captured, and the rebel troops are all disbanded. King Henry IV’s side is victorious and Lancaster and Westmoreland are currently leading troops towards Northumberland.
Telling the truth may be the “right” thing to do, but that doesn’t mean it’s pleasurable, for the teller or for the listener. Morton’s painful truth telling introduces another ongoing motif of the play: the difficulty of moral rectitude and the discomfort of doing the “right” thing.
Northumberland replies that “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.” He seethes that his “limbs, weakened with grief, being now enraged with grief, are thrice themselves” and resolves to wreak bloody havoc in revenge for his son’s death. Lord Bardolph and Morton coax Northumberland to restrain himself and keep his honor.
Morton reminds Northumberland that he knew the terrible odds Hotspur faced going into battle, that he’d been advised how dangerous the battle would be for his son, and that Northumberland had okayed the battle anyway. “[W]hat did this bold enterprise bring forth,” Morton asks, “More than that being which was like to be?”
Morton advises Northumberland not to lie to himself: Northumberland knew, Morton reminds him, that the odds against Hotspur were never good. His son’s death is just the fulfillment of what was always a likely outcome.
Morton informs Northumberland that the Archbishop of York is rallying more rebel troops against King Henry IV and that his troops will fight better than Hotspur’s, for Hotspur’s soldiers fought “with queasiness…as men drink potions,” since the “word ‘rebellion’ did divide the action of their bodies from their souls.” The Archbishop, by contrast, has convinced his troops to embrace rebellion as if it were “religion” and so his troops “[follow] both with body and with mind,” convinced that they must avenge King Richard and save the “bleeding land, gasping for life” under King Henry IV’s reign. Northumberland calls for everyone to begin preparing defenses and plotting revenge. All exit.
The Archbishop of York, a minor character in the previous play, will here emerge as one of the major actors in the struggle for King Henry IV’s throne. Morton distinguishes between Hotspur’s and the Archbishop’s soldiers as between diseased and healthy men: where Hotspur’s soldiers were “queasy” and drugged into combat, the Archbishop’s are strong and self-motivated. The description of the land as “bleeding” introduces the frequent motif of England as a diseased nation, with a suggestion that the sickness began when Henry Bolingbroke became Henry IV by deposing the “rightful” king Richard II.