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  • Afterword
  • Tom Rutter (bio)

Towards the end of the second scene of Shakespeare’s 1 Henry IV, Ned Poins outlines to Falstaff and Prince Hal a plan for highway robbery:

tomorrow morning by four o’clock early, at Gads Hill, there arepilgrims going to Canterbury with rich offerings, and traders riding toLondon with fat purses. I have visors for you all; you have horses foryourselves. Gadshill lies to-night in Rochester. I have bespoke suppertomorrow night in Eastcheap. We may do it as secure as sleep. If youwill go, I will stuff your purses full of crowns; if you will not, tarry athome and be hanged.


Within the context of the play, the scheme represents a satirical parallel to the political machinations taking place at a higher social level, in which Henry Bolingbroke has appropriated a more significant “crown” from King Richard II in circumstances that look, to some, like theft: as Worcester accuses him, in response to Richard’s supposed death “You took occasion to be quickly wooed / To gripe the general sway into your hand” (5.1.56–57). At the same time, given the play’s late medieval setting, Poins’s reference to “pilgrims going to Canterbury” inevitably calls to mind Chaucer’s best-known work. The dates do not quite match: by the time of the battle of Bryn Glas, described by Worcester in the opening scene of 1 Henry IV, Chaucer had been dead for almost two years. But the invocation of Canterbury pilgrims—who include, for example, “a franklin in the Weald of Kent” (2.1.54–55)—nevertheless has a mildly uncanny effect, as if the characters of The Canterbury Tales have strolled out of Chaucer’s fiction and into Shakespeare’s history play.

This gentle allusion—or resonance, to use Lindsay Ann Reid and Rachel Stenner’s word—suggests some ways of thinking about the relationship between Chaucer and Shakespeare (and early modern drama more generally) that are relevant to, and explored by, the essays in this [End Page 404] collection. One such line of thought is based around the contrasting terms of cultural proximity and distance. In staging quasi-Chaucerian pilgrims, Shakespeare does something complicated with the chronological relationship between the Middle Ages and his own historical moment. On the one hand, he gives dramatic life to Chaucer’s characters by presenting them on the Elizabethan stage alongside the Eastcheap crew, who themselves seem to belong as much to the sixteenth century as to the early fifteenth (think of Falstaff ’s allusion to Cambyses, printed in 1569 (2.5.390), or Pistol’s quotations from Marlowe and others in the play’s sequel). On the other, he emphasizes the pastness of his play’s events through the introduction of literary-historical local color, an effect that is compounded by the destination of the pilgrims and the religious affiliation that it indicates. Some sixty years before 1 Henry IV, during the Henrician Reformation, celebration of the feast of Thomas Becket had been forbidden, his shrine at Canterbury Cathedral dismantled, its treasures confiscated, and his bones burned.2 The presence in the play of pilgrims going to Canterbury clearly communicates the pre-Reformation otherness of the world in which it is set.

Maybe this sense of otherness can be overstated: in proposing the robbery of the Canterbury pilgrims, Poins evinces an iconoclasm in which Falstaff and Prince Hal seem happy to participate, well in advance of the Reformation. But the act of robbery itself suggests a second concept pertinent to the essays collected above, namely that of appropriation: as the authors demonstrate, early modern writers, with varying degrees of explicitness, fidelity, and perhaps even awareness, exploited Chaucerian stories, idioms, and genres. They also mobilized Chaucer’s cultural authority. The Elizabethan view of him as pre-eminent in English poetry comes across powerfully in Emily Buffey’s survey of Inns of Court writers such as Barnabe Googe, who wrote that his “eloquence divine, / Hath paste ye poets al that came / of auncient Brutus lyne.”3 Accordingly—if somewhat fancifully—the plan in 1 Henry IV to steal the crowns from the Canterbury...