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Shakespeare and the Carriers


The carriers’ scene (2.1) of 1 Henry IV has long been dismissed by critics and is often cut in performance. This essay argues that the scene explores how an unholy alliance between career criminals and their high-ranking protectors preyed on a crucial infrastructure of early modern England: the network of carriers and carriers’ inns on which so much communication depended. It shows how the one surviving letter to William Shakespeare—from Richard Quiney at the Bell Inn in London’s Carter Lane—is part of a correspondence between London and Stratford-upon-Avon that was transacted by carrier. The carrier’s liminal status was exploited in Richard Tarlton’s creation of Dericke, the carrier in The Famous Victories of Henry V, a key source for Shakespeare’s play, and further developed in Sir John Old-castle. In the Gad’s Hill ambush, 1 Henry IV insists on the vulnerability of carriers and innkeepers to the custom of the realm, which made them legally liable for thefts of the property of their passengers and guests, a loophole exploited by Falstaff, Gadshill, and the corrupt chamberlain. The carriers’ scene provides an analysis of how “nobility and tranquillity” (1 Henry IV, 2.1.74–75) might be responsible for the fate of “revolted tapsters and ostlers trade-fallen” (4.2.28–29) as their paths cross on the London road.

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