King. And wherefore should these good news make me sick?
Will Fortune never come with both hands full,
But write her fair words still in foulest terms?
She either gives a stomach and no food –
Such are the poor, in health; or else a feast
And takes away the stomach – such are the rich,
That have abundance and enjoy it not.
I should rejoice now at this happy news;
And now my sight fails, and my brain is giddy.
O me! come near me; now I am much ill.
Glou. Comfort, your Majesty!
Clar. O my royal father!
West. My sovereign lord, cheer up yourself, look up.
War. Be patient, Princes; you do know, these fits
Are with his Highness very ordinary.
Stand from him, give him air, he'll straight be well.
Clar. No, no, he cannot long hold out these pangs.
The incessant care and labor of his mind
Hath wrought the mure that should confine it in
So thin that life looks through and will break out.
Glou. The people fear me, for they do observe
Unfather'd heirs and loathly births of nature.
The seasons change their manners, as the year
Had found some months asleep and leapt them over.
Clar. The river hath thrice flowed, no ebb between,
And the old folk (time's doting chronicles)
Say it did so a little time before
That our great-grandsire, Edward, sick'd and died.
War. Speak lower, princes, for the King recovers.
Glou. This apoplexy will certain be his end.
2 Henry VI, 4.4.102-30
In 1405, Henry IV ordered the beheading of Richard Scrope, Archbishop of York, because of Scrope’s involvement with the Earl of Northumberland’s rebellion. At the moment of the execution, Henry’s chroniclers say, the King broke out in leprosy, inaugurating a chronic illness that would plague the remainder of his rule and ultimately kill him in 1413. Some early chroniclers said it was the hand of God reaching into English history to smite Henry for his sins against Scrope and Richard II before him, but Shakespeare’s sources, Hall and Holinshed, lessen Henry’s “leprosy” to “apoplexy,” swapping a medieval, theological reading of the disease for a modern, physiological account. Rather surprisingly, therefore, when Shakespeare went to write his second tetralogy, he encountered a situation reminiscent of writing the Richard III of the first tetralogy: a king whose bodily affliction had been stigmatized with meaning.
Shakespeare’s representations of stigma are about making our diseases, deformities, disabilities, differences, and the like signify our personal, social, and existential situations: they are about the actual making of that meaning, not the actual meaning itself but the making of it, its construction by characters who are situated in psycho-social relationships with stigma. Thus, in 2 Henry IV, Shakespeare did not symbolize Henry’s disease as much as he dramatized the ways we make sense of our afflictions – alternately theological or figural and medical or causal – actually offering us the conflicting interpretations of Henry’s illness before showing us the diseased King himself. First, Shakespeare gives us Falstaff’s causal reading, a pathology which cites Galen and attributes Henry’s apoplexy to stress. Second, Shakespeare has Richard Scrope himself articulate a figural reading, saying that Henry’s illness is the sign of a sick society, one that chose Henry over Richard II, and one that must bleed its disease out in the form of Northumberland’s rebellion. It is true that many in the dramatis personae of 2 Henry IV are diseased, not just the king, but also Falstaff, Northumberland, Bullcalf, and Mowbray. Moreover, when King Henry finally takes the stage, he himself conceives of Northumberland’s rebellion as a diseased corpus mysticum. When Henry’s sons squash Northumberland’s uprising, therefore, Prince John is certain the news will lighten his father’s heart, but in Shakespeare’s play it is this good news that actually triggers the apoplexy that eventually results in the king’s death. And again, Shakespeare emphasized the interpretation of disease over the disease itself. First, like Falstaff, one son (Thomas, Duke of Clarence) produces a medical reading, claiming that the king’s mental fatigue caused his apoplexy. Second, like Scrope, another son (Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester) produces a magical reading, listing the omens that have foretold the king’s death (a reading the first son, Thomas, then adopts). Both worldly and otherworldly, Shakespeare’s representation of stigma in the second tetralogy assumes the quality of “figural realism,” as it did in the first tetralogy, except that the first tetralogy leaned toward the figural, theological, metaphorical, magical, and medieval aspects of this mixed mode while the second leans toward the realistic, medical, metonymic, natural, and modern aspects. In the first tetralogy, naturalistic thinking breaks into an enchanted world; in the second, magical thinking hangs around in a disenchanted world. That is, with respect to stigma, Shakespeare – like the Fortune that King Henry laments – “will never come with both hands full.” With stigma, Shakespeare wrote his fair words still in foulest terms. He never gave us only the figural or only the realistic depiction of stigma; he wrote the fair words of the realistic reading in the foul terms of the figural reading. With Shakespeare, the realist reading retains even as it rejects the figural reading.
McNiven, Peter. “The Problem of Henry IV's Health, 1405-1413.” The English Historical Review100.397 (Oct., 1985): 747-72.
Reid, Pauline Ellen. "Giddy Lies the Head that Wears the Crown: Apoplexy and Political Spectacle in 2 Henry IV." Early Modern Literary Studies 19.1 (2016): https://extra.shu.ac.uk/emls/journal/index.php/emls/article/view/96.