King Henry IV, Part 1 By William Shakespeare Summary and Analysis Act II: Scene 1

Summary

Two carriers complain about the accommodations of the inn at Rochester as they prepare to drive their pack horses to the market in London. Gadshill, the professional thief to whom Poins had made reference, enters and asks to borrow their lantern, but the wary carriers refuse to lend it and leave. At Gadshill's call, the chamberlain, an informer, appears. He confirms what he told Gadshill earlier: A franklin (middle-class landowner) with three hundred marks in gold will be among the travelers soon to depart from the inn. Unlike the chamberlain, Gadshill has no fear of the hangman because he is joined in the robbery by Sir John and, to paraphrase his own words, persons of higher rank.

Analysis

The inn-yard setting is a little masterpiece of vivid writing. It is picturesque in the literal sense, evoking a memorable picture — the darkness of a winter's morning with Charles' Wain (the constellation of the Great Bear) visible over the chimney, and the flea-infested inn itself. The note of homely realism is enhanced by the reference to the death of Robin Ostler, his passing lamented by the lowly carriers, whose colloquial discourse provides an interesting contrast to that between Prince Hal and Falstaff. And all this has its place in a play, the theme of which is rebellion. The carriers are representative of a goodly proportion of the English people, going about their work in their unglamorous way. The quarrel between king and lords affects all Englishmen, including these carriers concerned about the comfort of their poor horses and getting their produce to market. Gadshill, appropriately named after a stretch of road notorious for robberies, and the unscrupulous chamberlain provide the contrast to the hard-working, honest subjects of the Crown. Gadshill's speech is larded with the argot of the Elizabethan underworld; consider, for example, the references to "foot land-rakers" (footpads) and "long-staff sixpenny strikers" (thieves who will bash a person on the head for a pittance). But more important is his reference to the exalted company who are to join him in the robbery; they are ones who

pray continually to their saint, the commonwealth;
or rather, not pray to her, but prey on her, for they
Ride up and down on her and make her their boots. (88-91)

His sardonic words unmistakably are applicable to the Percies with their plot against the commonwealth, represented by the king, just as they are to Falstaff and Prince Hal. One may well recall the words spoken by Henry IV at the beginning of this play. Speaking of the grave civil disturbances which have occurred in the commonwealth during the first year of his reign, he said:

No more shall trenching war channel her fields,
Nor bruise her flowerets with the armed hoofs
Of hostile paces. (I.i.7-9)

Again the thematic connection between main plot and subplot is made clear.

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