Bardolph’s Rosacea

Bardolph’s Rosacea

  [Fal.]  I make as good use of it as many a man doth of a Death's-head or a memento mori: I never see thy face but I think upon hell-fire and Dives that lived in purple; for there he is in his robes, burning, burning. If thou wert any way given to virtue, I would swear by thy face; my oath should be 'By this fire, that's God's angel:' but thou art altogether given over; and wert indeed, but for the light in thy face, the son of utter darkness. When thou rannest up Gadshill in the night to catch my horse, if I did not think thou hadst been an ignis fatuus or a ball of wildfire, there's no purchase in money. O, thou art a perpetual triumph, an everlasting bonfire-light! Thou hast saved me a thousand marks in links and torches, walking with thee in the night betwixt tavern and tavern: but the sack that thou hast drunk me would have bought me lights as good cheap at the dearest chandler's in Europe. I have maintained that salamander of yours with fire any time this two and thirty years.

1 Henry IV, 3.3.29-48

Falstaff’s friend Bardolph manages only one line in his first appearance: “What news?” We start by interpreting him with our eyes. It is Bardolph’s big, red nose that commands our attention. He has what modern physicians call rosacea, a skin disorder of the face that causes redness, inflammation, and rhinophyma, the pimply growths that enlarge, harden, and crack the nose. Is it possible an Elizabethan Bardolph wore “the artificiall Iewe of Maltas nose,” the one Edward Alleyn wore as Barabas in Marlowe’s play, only painted purple? If so, Bardolph would join a jolly gang of early English stage villains whose character was stigmatized with some theatrical appendage: the Devil, his Demons, the Vice, Cain, Judas, Herod, Barabas, Richard III, Aaron the Moor, Bottom, and perhaps even Falstaff (if he wore a fat suit). Shakespeare avoided a false nose for Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, however, and the naturalistic dramatic ontology of Shakespeare’s second tetralogy differs markedly from the supernatural dramatic ontology of his first tetralogy and even earlier English drama, a supernatural ontology necessary for stigma to operate as a God-given sign of evil.

Yet Bardolph invokes those enchanted worlds in his second appearance when he points to his proboscular nose and asks Prince Hal, “My lord, do you see these meteors? Do you behold these exhaltations…. What think you they portend?” Bardolph asks for a medieval, magical model of interpretation, one in which the abominations of nature, whether corporeal or astrological, are openings through which we see the realm of spirit, the human soul and the heavens above. But Hal dismisses Bardolph’s astrology as rubbish, joking that Bardolph’s nose signifies “hot livers and cold purses,” or choler and poverty, both effects of excessive drunkenness. Oblivious to Hal’s mockery, Bardolph affirms the humoral reading of his nose that sees it as a sign of bravery: “Choler, my lord, if rightly taken.” Hal scoffs, “No, if rightly taken, halter,” which puns Bardolph’s “choler” into the “collar” or “halter” that encircles a man’s neck on the gallows. Remarkably, as this pun illustrates, from the moment Shakespeare introduced Bardolph in 1 Henry IV, the playwright knew exactly how he would kill off the rogue in Henry V(by hanging him). Bardolph’s introduction effectively signifies his conclusion. In this magnificent moment, Bardolph’s physical abnormality, rosacea, is a figure for the villainy that causes it, drunkenness, but it is also a figure for the tragedy that will befall him, hanging. Indeed, Bardolph is executed for committing the very crime Shakespeare used to introduce the rogues, theft, a future Hal somehow sees written into Bardolph’s nose. Arguably, thievery is both an effect and a symptom of Bardolph’s alcoholism, not terribly unlike his rosacea. His defect and his death are different specifically dramatic ways of expressing what happens to the alcoholic, the defect a spectacle and the death a plot, while his bumbling words are the kind of speech caused by drunkenness. Malapropism, poverty, thievery, and lynching all appear here in Shakespeare’s most extensive portrait of an alcoholic, which is coordinated and communicated to audiences by what I have called the figure of stigma: abnormality, villainy, irony, tragicomedy. For Bardolph, the spectacle of abnormality implicates the other elements of his dramatic existence: the villainous character, the ironic speech, and the tragicomic plot, all of which originate in a common source, his alcoholism. Bardolph’s alcoholism causes his rosacea, and it causes his malapropism and execution as well. In the terms of the figure of stigma, villainy causes abnormality, and it causes irony and tragedy too; or, character causes spectacle, speech, and plot.


Rosacea in Early English Literature
Rosacea in Early English Ballads
Rosacea in Early English Medicine 


Draper, Charles L. “Falstaff’s Bardolph.” Neophilologus 33 (1949): 222-33.

Kahan, Jeffrey. “Bardolph and ‘Carry Coals’: A New Reading for Henry V 3.2.45.” ANQ: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes, and Reviews 14.3 (2001): 14-15.

Chernaik, Warren. “The Death of Bardolph: Branagh and Olivier Rewrite Henry V.” Shakespeare on Screen: The Henriad. Ed. Sarah Hatchuel and Nathalie Vienne-Guerrin. Rouen, FR: Publication Univ Rouen Havre, 2008. 157-68.

Hassan, Shahzeb, Taha Osman Mohammed, and Leonard J. Hoenig. "Bardolph's Rosacea: Skin Disorders that Define Personality in Shakespeare's Plays." Clinics in Dermatology 37.5 (2019): 600-603.

Balizet, Ariane M. "'Amend Thy Face:' Contagion and Disgust in the Henriad." Contagion and the Shakespearean Stage. Ed. Darryl Chalk and Mary Floyd-Wilson. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019. 127-45.