Shakespearean Soundscapes: Music – Voices – Noises – Silence

“Rumour is a pipe”: Rumour, Fame and Sound in the Second Part of Henry IV

by Kai Wiegandt

The second part of Henry IV may be considered Shakespeare’s nearest approach to heroless, plotless drama.[1] Rather than an active hero, the play features a prince who is hardly onstage. The most significant difference between the first and the second part of Henry IV is the shift in Hal’s role from active hero to an object of public speculation, a shift to a character who exists only on the level of report and sound.[2] In the first part, Hal’s antagonist is Hotspur and chivalric success his objective. In the second part, by contrast, Hal’s objective is the restoration of his reputation; accordingly, his official antagonist is the Lord Chief Justice[3] as the representative of a more powerful judge, the so-called many-headed monster of the public. The ‘wild justice’ exerted by its tongues, voicing opinions and thereby exercising informal social control,[4] is powerful and precarious in its dynamics. For in 2 Henry IV, public opinion takes the form of rumour.[5] In the following, I will analyse its role in the play, which will include an elucidation of the way Shakespeare relates fame and sound to it.

I begin with the Induction spoken by a character called “Rumour [in a robe] painted full of tongues”:

Open your ears; for which of you will stop
The vent of hearing when loud Rumour speaks?
I from the orient to the drooping west,
Making the wind my post-horse, still unfold
The acts commencèd on this ball of earth.
[…] who but Rumour, who but only I,
Make fearful musters and prepared defence
Whiles the big year, swoll’n with some other griefs,
Is thought with child by the stern tyrant war,
And no such matter? Rumour is a pipe
Blown by surmises, Jealousy’s conjectures,
And of so easy and so plain a stop
That the blunt monster with uncounted heads,
The still-discordant wavering multitude,
Can play upon it. (Ind.1-20)[6]

Rumour’s intrigue follows: Hotspur allegedly slew Hal, and Henry IV is purportedly in his death-throes.

Rumour’s striking features known since antiquity are present in the Induction: the tongues Virgil speaks of in the Aeneid, personifications of passions reminiscent of Ovid’s House of Fame and the similarity to air and wind. However, his/her/its gender remains conspicuously obscure. Harry Berger has pointed out that on the one hand, the figure painted with tongues resembles classical Fama. On the other hand, Rumour rides on horseback, and the parade of phallic references between lines eight and fifteen suggests that the ear-stuffing Rumour possibly fathered “some other griefs” on the big year.[7] The reason for the obscurity of gender will become clear only near the end of the play when rumour’s dual nature is revealed.

Rumour describes himself in a way that recalls descriptions found in psychological and sociological accounts of rumour. Shakespeare’s Rumour points to the fact that he is “loud” and thereby directs his listeners’ attention to the sound rather than to the meaning of his utterances. Accordingly, he does not demand them to mark his words but to open their ears, as though it were sound or music coming from his lips; Rumour himself declares himself a “pipe”. Its sound is so irresistible that the ear must open itself to it, his first lines suggest. But whence comes the urge to open the ear, of rumour-mongering that suppresses checking of meaning, giving rumour the appearance of a non- or pre-verbal “pipe”? Psychoanalytically informed critics have interpreted rumour as society’s dream of the Other and thereby an expression of a collective unconscious. This confirms Rumour’s self-explanation in 2 Henry IV: Desire, fear and aggression are the unconscious forces giving rise to rumours; they are what Shakespeare calls „surmises, Jealousy’s conjectures”. So-called “pipe dreams” articulate wish fulfilment, “bogies” express fear, “wedge drivers” bring a person or a group into disrepute.[8]

In these aspects, the Induction strikes a note that resounds throughout the play. Already the first scene dramatises rumour and establishes it as the play’s background noise. Northumberland learns from Lord Bardolph that Hal is dead (cf. 1.2.16). Then Travers brings news that Northumberland’s son has been slain. He also remarks that he was overtaken by Bardolph because he was “better horsed” (1.2.35) – small wonder since rumour – fama volat – makes “the wind” his “post-horse” (Ind.4). Finally Morton, an eyewitness, appears. He will confirm the news that Hotspur has been slain, but before he can finish his news, Northumberland is compelled by fear and interrupts him:

                                   Why, he is dead.
See 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 feared is chanced. (1.2.83-87)

While the Induction has presented the spread, or sending, of rumour, Northumberland addresses the receiving end of the phenomenon, his error being that what he calls “instinct” is the unspoken fear that his son is dead.

In the first scene of act three, King Henry claims that the enemy’s army boasts 50,000 men, and Warwick doubts this, remarking that “Rumour doth double, like the voice and echo, / The numbers of the feared” (3.1.92-93). It is notable that both examples as well as Northumberland’s swerving present fear and rumour in a triangle with war, recalling the Induction’s mentioning of “stern tyrant war” (Ind.14). Indeed, it seems true that war is a prototypical rumour situation; already the ancient Greek equivalents of rumour, ossa and pheme, were associated with it.[9] Renaissance mythographers often made rumour the herald of Mars’s chariot of war, running before his horses, Terror and Fear, and his attendants, Impetuosity, Fury, and Violence.[10] The main reason for the linkage of rumour and war may be found in the fact that fame is won on the battlefield, and that the allegory of rumour is increasingly associated with fame in the Renaissance; but it may also lie in the fact that in war, fear and noise coincide, thereby tying psychological motivation and acoustic property of rumour.

Rumor and Mars
Rumour and Mars [11]

This is suggested by Warwick’s statement that rumour doubles numbers “like the voice and echo”. Tying in with rumour’s association with war, the formulation reminds modern readers of the fact that in Shakespeare’s time, the word rumour still retained some of its original Latin meaning of ‘noise’ and ‘social unrest’ and was used to describe the clamour and tumult of battle.[12] This acoustic dimension of rumour is not only inseparable from its psychological motivation but an effect of it: Rumour appears as sound because it plays on the pipe of fear and desire so recklessly, tempting ears to neglect inspection of meaning and often simply suppressing it. Rumour’s first line, if read literally, plays on this fact: “Open your ears” is a mock-imperative, for the ear is a sense that cannot shut itself off. That is, Rumour knowingly establishes a complementary relationship between rumour and ear: Where rumour must be heard, the ear must hear.

Since Shakespeare explicitly links noise to rumour, however, he goes beyond the concept of ‘sound’ and specifies what kind of noise suits rumour particularly well; and what kind could be more manipulative to the ear than music? The play’s many references to music suggest that each group of people has its own music like a fanfare announcing it. For each of them, the fanfare prematurely vents the accomplishment of its respectively pursued project, whether that be eternal carnival, successful rebellion, inheritance of the crown or peace of mind. That is, Shakespeare presents pipe dreams as different kinds of music. The disturbed king desires “sweetest melody” (3.1.14), even a “whisper” of drowsy “music” (4.3.135), and finally hears the singing of the summer bird of peace (cf. 4.3.91-93). Falstaff’s carnival-loving companions prefer “Sneak’s noise” (2.4.9) and the coarse hallooing and singing of anthems. The rebels are associated with trumpets and drums, the new king with ceremonial music and “merry bells” (4.3.239).

While this account testifies to the presence of rumour’s noise and music throughout the play, it is important to identify the characters primarily associated with it. While allegory disappears after the Induction, personification of rumour shifts to a character already heavy with personification of well-known types such as the miles gloriosus, the fool and the vice: Falstaff. In an aside creating the same intimacy between himself and the audience as the one Rumour created in the Induction, Falstaff declares: “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.” (4.2.16-18) On the one hand, the tongues refer to Falstaff’s gluttony, on the other hand to “Rumour [in a robe] painted full of tongues” from the Induction.

Associating Falstaff with rumour enables Shakespeare to dramatise a further dimension of rumour that is of high structural relevance to the play: its double nature in regard to reputation. Especially act two is full of scenes dealing with the latter. The Latin fama included both rumour and fame.[13] The only differentiation available was the one between fama mala and fama bona, often signified by a light and melodious and, respectively, a dark and harsh trumpet blown by Fama. Only after 1600, rumour and fame are separated from each other.[14] In this process, each of them is related to a gender: In contrast to the stereotypical correlation of gossip and femininity, the feminine now represents fame while noxious rumour is regarded male. Cesare Ripa’s illustration (1669) demonstrates this:

Rumor and Fama Chiara
Rumor and Fama Chiara[15]

Shakespeare has combined traits of both allegories: the tongues traditionally attributed to Fama, and the male sex and obvious aggression of Rumor, the new allegory.

Now the conspicuous indeterminacy of Rumour’s gender in the Induction makes sense. It is crucial since it prefigures a dialectic of rumour and fame structuring 2 Henry IV. Falstaff is the main figure in a fight of fame and rumour over Hal. Though he has earned fame illegally, he embraces both principles. In 1 Henry IV, Falstaff has snatched fame from Hal by claiming to have killed Hotspur. In act four, scene two of the second part, where Falstaff says he has “a whole school of tongues in this belly of mine, and not a tongue of them all speaks any other word but my name” (4.2.16-18), Falstaff leaves no doubts about his pretensions: He tells Prince John he wants to be “in the clear sky of fame” (4.2.45). Hal’s fear is not only that the rumours told about his merrymaking with Falstaff might damage his reputation but also that Falstaff’s name might surpass his own, that is, that rumour and fame are distributed in wrong order like in the first part of Henry IV.

The end of the play stages an expulsion of rumour dissolving the intermingling of fame and rumour endangering Hal’s rebirth as impeccable Henry V. This is a strained process, and only here does the fusion of the two concepts show its true strength. In the crucial third scene of act four, Henry IV is laboriously freed from the rumours about his son’s rotten nature. Hal is shown in the light of rumour only to appear in the light of fame the next moment, and only after much swerving between both poles does the old king forgive his son and allow him to take his crown and place.

This “settlement of parricidal succession”[16] between Hal and his father is designed to make Henry IV take ‘wildness’ into the grave, that is both his own sin of snatching the crown from Richard II and Hal’s bad reputation due to his criminal past. What could be more plausible than the assumption that rumour follows Henry IV into the grave, too? Hal, now calling himself Henry V,[17] suggests this after his father’s death (cf. 5.2.124-28). The clearest expression of his will to expel rumour is, of course, his rejection of Falstaff.

But just as personification is not discontinued in the play, rumour is not banished from it. Success at resolving the dissonance of rumour and fame remains partial. Anticipating the nationalist propaganda of Henry V, Prince John’s words conclude the last act with a reference to the conquering of France – mocking Henry IV’s invocation of peace – and to the music of fame; but they do not manage to drown out the noise of rumour:

I will lay odds that, ere this year expire,
We bear our civil swords and native fire
As far as France. I heard a bird so sing,
Whose music, to my thinking, pleased the King. (5.5.99-102)


[1]  Cf. Richard Abrams, “Rumor’s Reign in 2 Henry IV: The Scope of a Personification”, English Literary Renaissance 16:3 (1986), 467-95, p. 469.

[2]  Cf. Abrams (1986), p. 474.

[3]  Cf. Jean Howard, “The Second Part of Henry IV”, in William Shakespeare, The Norton Shakespeare, ed. by Stephen Greenblatt et al. (New York, London: Norton, 1997), 1293-1303, p. 1295.

[4]  Cf. Erving Goffman, Stigma: Über Techniken der Bewältigung beschädigter Identität,(Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1985), p. 91.

[5]  Due to the striking allegory of rumour at the beginning of the play, rumour has been discussed in a number of critical studies. The most important ones are Frederick Kiefer, “Rumor, Fame, and Slander in 2 Henry IV”, Allegorica: A Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Literature 20 (1999), 3-43; Harry Berger, “Sneak’s Noise or Rumor and Detextualization in 2 Henry IV”, in Harry Berger, Making Trifles of Terrors: Redistributing Complicities in Shakespeare, ed. by Peter Erickson, (Stanford: Stanford UP), 1997, 126-47; Abrams (1986); Richard Knowles, “Unquiet and the Double Plot of 2 Henry IV”, Shakespeare Studies 2 (1966), 133-40; and the sixth chapter of Sigurd Burckhardt, Shakespearean Meanings, (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1968).

[6]  Quotes from 2 Henry IV are taken from William Shakespeare, The Norton Shakespeare, ed. by Stephen Greenblatt et al. (New York, London: Norton, 1997).

[7]  Cf. Berger (1997), p. 132.

[8]  Cf. Ralph Rosnow, Gary A. Fine, Rumor and Gossip: The Social Psychology of Hearsay,(New York, Oxford, Amsterdam: Elsevier, 1976), p. 23.

[9]  Cf. Hans-Joachim Neubauer, Fama: Eine Geschichte des Gerüchts,(Berlin: Berlin Verlag, 1998), p. 29.

[10] Cf. Knowles (1966), p. 133.

[11] Image originally from Vincenzo Cartari, Images Deorum, tr. Antonio Verderius (Lyons, 1582), p. 264. The image is taken from Knowles (1966), p. 134.

[12] Cf. Knowles (1966), p. 133 and Abrams (1986), p. 468.

[13] Cf. Kiefer (1999), p. 5.

[14] Cf. Neubauer (1998), pp. 78-80.

[15] Images originally from Cesare Ripa, Iconologia, 3 vols. (Venice, 1669). The images are taken from Neubauer (1998), p. 96 and p. 97.

[16] Jonathan Crewe, “Reforming Prince Hal: The Sovereign Inheritor in 2 Henry IV”, Renaissance Drama 21 (1990), 225-42, p. 238.

[17] Goffman explains that a change of name is a common and effective means of dissociating oneself from one’s former (criminal, dishonourable) self. This suggests that although everybody knows that Henry V is the former HalH, the change of name supports a change in public opinion. It signifies a discontinuity in identity (cf. Goffman (1985), p. 117).


Anders als im ersten Teil von Henry IV tritt Hal im zweiten nicht als aktiver Held, sondern als Objekt von Gerüchten in Erscheinung. Bereits im Prolog des Rumor fasst Shakespeare das Gerücht als „Pfeife“, die durch unmittelbares Ansprechen von Wünschen oder Ängsten einer Prüfung der Wortbedeutung zuvorkommt und das Ausgesagte als nicht- bzw. vorsprachlich, nämlich akustisch erscheinen lässt. Das Gerücht kann angenehm oder unangenehm klingen. Entsprechend entfaltetdas Stückeine bis zuletzt unaufgelöste Dialektik von üblem Gerücht und Ruhm, die Hal in den je zugehörigen soundscapes präsentiert.