Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English

Henry IV, Part 1

Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University



In the early morning, two carriers and an ostler discuss horses, the recent death of another ostler named Robin, fleas, and their cargo. A thief named Gadshill tries to borrow a lantern and has learned that a franklin (a landowner) with money will be departing from the inn soon. Gadshill feels safe in that in his theft he will be accompanied by a knight, Sir John Falstaff, and other high-ranking fellows: “no foot land-rakers, no long-staff six-penny strikers, none of these mad mustachio purple-hu’d malt-worms…. they 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” (II.i.73-82). Mention of fern-seed, which to the superstitious conferred invisibility, prompts a chamberlain to note that Gadshill and his ilk are more beholden to the night for their “walking invisible” (II.i.89-90).


Poins has taken Falstaff’s horse and Falstaff complains to Hal, who claims to be running off to find Poins. Falstaff gripes about having to walk, insists to himself he has been bewitched into friendship with Hal, and keeps cursing Poins and Hal: “Hang thyself in thy own heir-apparent garters! If I be ta’en, I’ll peach for this. And [if] I have not ballads made on you all and sung to filthy tunes, let a cup of sack be my poison” (II.ii.43-46).

Gadshill, Bardolph, and Peto enter, Gadshill directing that they put on masks in preparation for the robbery. Hal and Poins will wait farther along, down the path, in case the victims escape. Gadshill says there are eight or ten travellers. Hal calls Falstaff “Sir John Paunch” and Falstaff admits he’s no “John of Gaunt,” Hal’s grandfather (II.ii.66-67). Hal and Poins leave.

Falstaff and the others commit the robbery, with Falstaff being unnecessarily vocal in the process, but in disguise Hal and Poins rob them in turn. Falstaff and the others run away. Hal and Poins have a laugh.

Ned Poins, almost an anagram of P. Sidnei (his spelling), may represent Philip Sidney after a reconciliation with Oxford some time after the famous tennis court incident (Ogburn and Ogburn 704). In any case, the Gad’s Hill robbery did take place historically, at Gad’s Hill and on May 20th too (as Famous Victories specifies), but in 1573, when two of Lord Burghley’s men were robbed by some of de Vere’s men and complained that de Vere himself was the instigator. There was no May 20th in the 14th year of Henry’s reign since he had died in March (Ogburn and Ogburn 77). Burghley’s complaint that his son-in-law was hanging out with “lewd servants” resembles the entire situation concerning Prince Hal (Farina 116).


Hotspur, ever the rage-aholic obsessive when it comes to politics and war, has a fit over a letter by someone declining the invitation to join the rebellion. Hotspur repeatedly interrupts his own reading in order to rail. Hotspur’s wife Kate, Lady Percy, much like Brutus’ wife Portia in Julius Caesar, is worried about his insomnia and preoccupation. Hotspur’s “spirit” is “at war” (II.iii.56). He all but ignores her, instead discussing horses with a servant: “That roan shall be my throne” (II.iii.70). Despite her objections, Kate gets nothing of explanation out of her husband, even when she threatens to break his little finger (II.iii.87f). This bit alludes to Queen Elizabeth, who indeed in a fit did break a finger of her cousin (Ogburn and Ogburn 722). Hotspur explains that because she’s a woman it’s best that she not be entrusted with his secret.


This is a scene “written almost entirely in prose, and one of the longest and most richly complex sustained stretches of dramatic action in all his works” (Wells 144). Prince Hal and Poins drive to distraction a tavern servant, Francis, by calling him back and forth. There may be a depiction of Francis Throgmorton here, of the treasonous plot against Elizabeth, a “drawer” of the plans for the invasion of England (Ogburn and Ogburn 719). While he has Falstaff and others wait at the door, Hal reflects on how savage Hotspur is. When Falstaff enters, he pretends outrage at rampant cowardice and needs a drink. He is peeved with Hal and Poins regarding their failure to back him up at the robbery. Falstaff makes a fool of himself, boasting about his exploits against the robbers, saying that he fought a dozen of them, then sixteen, then over fifty, and so on. Hal insults him, and Falstaff is indignant: “art thou mad? Is not the truth the truth?” (II.iv.229-230). Hal reveals the truth: the two of them scared off Falstaff and the others, with Falstaff showing the most cowardice. Falstaff immediately says he knew it was Hal and just could never do violence to the heir to the throne. He commends himself on his own instincts. Peto and Bardolph reveal to Hal that Falstaff hacked his own sword with a dagger.

News arrives of the northern revolt, and Hal will have to return to his father. But he seems uninterested, and he and Falstaff play-act at being, alternately, the King and Hal. First, Hal tells Falstaff, “Do thou stand for my father” (II.iv.376). In the role of Henry IV, Falstaff chides Hal and praises Falstaff, until Hal proposes a switch of roles, at which point Falstaff laments being, as it were, deposed (II.iv.435). Hal, in turn as his father, asks his son, played by Falstaff, about the villainous old man he hangs around with. Hal’s statements about Falstaff when he is playing his father are rather dark. Falstaff defends himself: “banish him not thy Harry’s company — banish plump Jack, and banish all the world” (II.iv.478-480). “I do, I will” (II.iv.481), comes Hal’s icy reply.

Falstaff’s style (esp. II.iv.398ff) is euphuistic: balanced sentences with contrasting contents in their parts, “exotic words and farfetched similes often drawn from nature” (Asimov 353-354). Hal’s response to Falstaff’s hope that he will not be banished — “I do, I will” (II.iv.481) — “is a grim portent of the climax of Falstaff’s life” (Asimov 354). “The language of the marriage ceremony here seems deliberately and ironically to signify an impending divorce” (Garber 337).

Bardolph announces the arrival of the sheriff and watch. Falstaff wants to continue the play-acting and defend himself some more, but Hal hides Falstaff behind an arras and says he’ll answer the charges. On behalf of the accusers, the sheriff searches for a fat man tracked to this tavern. Hal says if the fellow robbed the men, “He shall be answerable” (II.iv.522). When the sheriff leaves, Peto reports that Falstaff has fallen asleep. A search of his pockets reveals only a large bill for food and booze. Hal will make him lead foot troops against the rebels and will have the stolen money returned to the victims.

“The Gads Hill caper is another version of Hotspur’s rebellion, another kind of anarchy and robbery; both are the result of the failed kingship of Henry IV and his usurpation of the throne” (Garber 316).

As a couple students of mine pointed out, we get two references in this scene to “a thousand pound” (II.iv.61, II.iv.147) — each time pronounced as an arbitrary sum, but seemingly on the playwright’s mind, which makes sense in light of Oxford’s thousand pound annuity begun in 1586.