At an inn yard in Rochester, beside the main highway about twenty-five miles outside of London, two carriers—middlemen who deliver goods from one merchant to another—are readying their horses to depart in the early-morning darkness. The stableboy is slow in coming out to help, and the carriers are annoyed. Gadshill, the highwayman friend of Falstaff and Harry, appears out of the darkness and asks the carriers if he may borrow a lantern. They are suspicious of Gadshill, however, and refuse.
As soon as the carriers have gone on their way, a chamberlain of the inn comes out to talk to Gadshill; he is Gadshill’s informer. He tells him that some very wealthy travelers are currently having their breakfast in the inn and will be on the road soon. Gadshill offers him a cut of the profits, which the chamberlain refuses. Gadshill then calls for his horse and rides off to set his ambush.
Waiting a few miles further along the highway, at Gad’s Hill, -Falstaff searches for his horse—Poins has secretly taken it from where it was tied and concealed it in the woods. Peto, Bardolph, and Harry, who is in on the joke, stand by. The fat Falstaff is very uncomfortable on foot and, puffing and panting, complains loudly. Harry soothes Falstaff by telling him he will look for his horse (which, of course, he does not intend to do).
Gadshill shows up to complete the party with the news that the wealthy travelers are approaching. Harry suggests that Falstaff, Peto, Bardolph, and Gadshill confront the travelers on the highway; Harry and Poins will then flank them on either side of the road to catch any who try to escape. The men put on their masks, and Poins and Harry disappear into hiding. The travelers appear, and Falstaff, Peto, Bardolph, and Gadshill rob them and tie them up.
As the four split up the gold, Poins and Harry, in their buckram disguises and new masks, charge the thieves and demand their money. The four flee in terror without putting up a fight—only Falstaff even tries to get in a blow or two. Laden with gold and mightily entertained, Poins and Harry go to their horses, laughing to think of how angry Falstaff will be when he finds out that they have gotten rid of his horse and that he will have to walk back to London.
1 Henry IV covers a wide range of terrain, both in terms of the literal geography of England and in terms of the classes of people in the play. Shakespeare interweaves high scenes, which feature noblemen engaging in debates about the nature of kingship or the strategies of war, with low scenes of commoners and criminals engaged in various petty plots. This combination was something fairly new for Shakespeare and for English drama as a whole, causing critics and readers alike to compare the play to Geoffrey Chaucer’s great Middle English work, The Canterbury Tales, written at the end of the fourteenth century.
Scenes i through iii of Act II offer good examples of this contrast. Here Shakespeare moves beyond his frequently used locale of the Boar’s Head Tavern to conjure up the front yards of cheap roadside inns and the highway ambushes of dangerous—if bungling and cowardly—robbers. The robbery scene, with its lawlessness and violence, offers a low parallel to the high rebellion of the Percys later in the play and thus acts as both a mirror and a subtle instance of foreshadowing, hinting at the rapid disintegration of stability and peace in England.
The carriers’ conversation (which, although lively, is almost unintelligible to contemporary readers without annotations) is an example of the sort of lower-class voice not usually found in the history plays of Shakespeare’s contemporaries. It also provides an example of the wide range of different dialects and modes of speech that Shakespeare presents throughout the play. These range from the noble language of the royal characters and the wittiness of -Falstaff to the foreign accents of Glyndwr and the Douglas and the uneducated but lively voices of the robbers and the tavern hostess. The sheer diversity of speech in 1 Henry IV suggests a preoccupation with the richness and multiplicity of the English language as it is manifested in various social and cultural forms.
The practical joke that Poins and Harry play on Falstaff, -Bardolph, Peto, and Gadshill, while amusing, further complicates the friendship between Harry and Falstaff. Harry seems to have no problem insulting Falstaff far more viciously than Falstaff ever insults him. Similarly, he doesn’t mind causing Falstaff discomfort, as when he and Poins steal his horse and force him to walk back to London. As Falstaff himself puts it, “Eight yards of uneven ground is threescore and ten [i.e., seventy] miles afoot with me, and the stony-hearted villains know it well enough” (II.ii.23–26). The ultimate point of the joke, moreover, is to humiliate Falstaff by catching him in the lie that Harry and Poins know he will tell about the affair. Harry’s attitude toward his friend and mentor is uneven: he often treats Falstaff affectionately, but he can also be sadistic. This ambivalence becomes increasingly important during this play and its sequel, 2 Henry IV.
The joke also raises questions about whether Harry can regain the all-important honor that he has lost by behaving badly—the same honor that Hotspur currently holds in the eyes of the populace and the king. This quest for honor becomes the central point of contention between Harry and his rival; as Shakespeare likes to make mirrors of important scenes and ideas, reflecting among the lowlifes what occurs among the nobility, a concern for honor shows up among the play’s lowlifes as well. Poins and Harry’s betrayal of the other highwaymen supports the old saying that there is no honor among thieves, an idea that Falstaff touches on when he says, “A plague upon’t when thieves cannot be true one to another!” (II.ii.25–26). Ironically, it is Harry—the crown prince himself—who is among the worst of the crew, not only participating in a robbery but also stabbing his friends in the back. This betrayal is done as a joke, but it is strangely at odds with Harry’s alleged goal of becoming the most honorable character of all, one worthy of being a king. The questions raised here eventually culminate in the full-scale assault that Shakespeare (in the voice of Falstaff) launches, in Act V, scene i, on the ideal of honor, which Harry and the other noblemen claim to follow.
I think it should have been called Sir Jack, First Part, as Falstaff towers over everybody else in King Henry IV, Part 1. See my blog on the play:
Most Shakespeare plays have a jester, who is able to perceive certain things better than the "noble" person. There are other elements that make Falstaff more interesting, such as the juxtaposition of "fortune," class, or perhaps simply initiative.