Henry IV, Part 1

William Shakespeare

Act II, scenes i–iii

Summary Act II, scenes i–iii

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.