(Before the main body of the play begins, we are greeted with a Prologue by Rumor. The actor who plays Rumor would be wearing a costume painted with tongues. Rumor is a semi-mythological personification of "gossip" and does not represent a "real" character in the play.)
Rumor introduces itself and tells us what its job is: from East to West, all across the world, it carries messages as fast as the wind. However, its messages are usually false and they often trick people into making bad mistakes. Rumor causes nations to get ready for war when no war is coming, and it makes people think that all is peaceful despite real danger and conspiracy. Since crowds are always quick to believe rumors and gossip, it never has any trouble doing its job.
Just now, Rumor is visiting a house in the north of England. This is the castle of the Earl of Northumberland, a powerful nobleman. Northumberland is part of a dangerous conspiracy to overthrow King Henry IV. The rebel army, led by Northumberland's son, young Hotspur, has just been defeated by the forces of the king. However, the gossip sweeping the countryside has the news backward. Rumor has come to tell Northumberland that his side has won and that his son, Hotspur, is still safe--both lies.
Rumor then disappears, and a messenger from the battle, Lord Bardolph, arrives at the Earl of Northumberland's house. Lord Bardolph has news from Shrewsbury, where the great battle is taking place. He tells Northumberland news that makes him very happy: King Henry has been wounded, his allies captured or killed, and the king's own son, Prince Hal, killed by Northumberland's son Hotspur. That means the rebels are victorious.
Then, however, another messenger arrives--Lord Bardolph's servant, Travers. Travers says he has even more recent news: the rebellion has lost and lost badly. Lord Bardolph does not believe him, but Travers is soon followed by a third messenger, Morton. Morton has very bad news indeed: the rebellion has lost, and Northumberland's son, Hotspur, has been killed by the king's son Prince Hal--not the other way around. When the rebel army saw that their leader Hotspur was dead, they turned and ran. Northumberland's brother and co-leader in the rebellion, the Earl of Worcester, has been taken prisoner by the king's forces, as has the Douglas, a Scottish leader who has been aiding the rebels.
Northumberland is heartbroken to learn this, and he vows to take a terrible revenge. Lord Bardolph and Morton calm him down, reminding him that he, his brother, and his son all knew the risks of war before they began.
Morton also reminds Northumberland that there are still some allies of the rebels who have not been defeated. The Archbishop of York, who did not fight at Shrewsbury, is mustering up forces to continue opposing King Henry. Northumberland agrees that this is worth paying attention to, and he says he will get a grip on himself. He sends letters to his allies in order to get things moving as quickly as possible.
The personification of "Rumor" that opens the play is partly derived from ancient Greek and Roman mythology and is partly a piece of folk wisdom. Rumor is very similar to "Fama," the goddess in charge of rumors in Virgil's classical Latin epic, The Aeneid. That character has many eyes, tongues, and ears, and tells both truth and lies.
Rumor's speech is a message with a moral: although crowds love rumors, gossip can be dangerous and misleading. This is what we see illustrated in the next scene, I.i. It is tragic to watch Northumberland being told that his side has won and that his son is safe, only to discover that the report is merely rumor and, in reality, his son is dead and his army has been defeated. Rumor says at the end of its speech: "From Rumor's tongues / They [the messengers] bring smooth comforts false, worse than true wrongs" (ll. 39-40). Here, Shakespeare is pointing out to us, through Rumor, that hearing false good news is worse than hearing the truth, even if the truth is bad. Shakespeare is also reminding us that it is people themselves--the crowd, or the "blunt monster with uncounted heads" (18)--who cause rumors to be passed along.
Shakespeare draws out the news of Hotspur's defeat and of the rebellion's loss, making Northumberland anticipate the news of his son's death before hearing it: he tells Morton that he is sure of "my Percy's death ere thou report'st it" (75). When Morton finally gives the blow-by-blow story of Hotspur's death at the hands of Prince Hal, it has a sad ring of finality. Morton says he saw Prince Hal's "swift sword beat down / The never-daunted Percy to the earth, / From whence with life he never more sprung up" (109-111). Because his spirit had "lent a fire" to his troops (112-113), his soldiers fled when he died. The speeches are filled with the images of death and loss and bodies sinking downward to the earth: words like "dull," "heavy," "dead," "faint," and "spiritless" are repeated many times, like hammer blows driving home hopelessness and grief.
Northumberland's reaction is a wild spasm of grief. He uses powerful language that seems to call down a curse upon his son's killers: "Now bind my brows with iron! . . . / Let heaven kiss earth! Now let not Nature's hand / Keep the wild flood confin'd! Let order die!" (150-154). His friends, however, calm him down by reminding him that raging against the world will do no good and that he and his allies have known all along the risk of their actions. As Morton says, "You cast th'event of war . . . / before you said/ 'Let us make head.' It was your presurmise / That in the dole of blows your son might drop" (166-169). That is, Northumberland knew the risks and knew he might lose Hotspur.
Morton's speech to Northumberland at the end of the scene, in which he lays out the details of the Archbishop of York's rebellion, brings up some important points about the events that come before the present play. Henry IV, Part 2 and the play that comes before it, Henry IV, Part 1, are both sequels to an even earlier play, Richard II. That play tells the story of how King Henry IV got his crown: he overthrew the previous ruler, Richard II, who was unpopular. Richard II was later murdered in prison. Morton tells us that the Archbishop stirs up his followers "with the blood / Of fair King Richard, scrap'd from Pomfret stones" (204-5). (Pomfret is the name of the castle in which Richard died.) The rebellion that has just lost the Battle of Shrewsbury has been using, and will continue to use, King Henry's murder of the former King Richard as one of its justifications.