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Honor in 1 Henry IV

Ceremonial breastplate, France, 1550-1575

Barbara Hodgdon writes in The First Part of Henry the Fourth: Texts and Contexts that honor is chief among the issues addressed in the play. Early in Act 1, King Henry speaks about his wish that somehow Hotspur were really his son and not Prince Hal. Henry refers to Hotspur as, “A son who is the theme of Honor’s tongue” (1.1.80). Hodgdon writes that “ … it is through Hal’s actions at Shrewsbury’s battle that he becomes like Hotspur, redeeming himself in his father’s eyes. As the epitome of a chivalric code of honor, Hotspur has been considered the play’s ‘true’ hero”.

In his "Director's Notes" for this production of 1 Henry IV, Paul Barnes observes that honor has different meanings for several of Shakespeare’s characters: Hotspur, Prince Hal, and Sir John Falstaff. For Hotspur, Barnes notes, honor is determined by how many men he can kill in battle and his willingness to die for a cause. Honor, for Prince Hal, is determining how many men he can save in battle. To Falstaff, honor means saving his own life to live another day.

In one of the best known passages about honor (5.2.131-42), Sir John Falstaff sizes up his situation on the battlefield when he says:

Honor pricks me on. Yea, but how if honor prick me off when I come on? How then? Can honor set to a leg? No. Or an arm? No. Or take away the grief of a wound? No. Honor hath no skill in surgery, then? No. What is honor? A word. What is in that word “honor”? What is that “honor”? Air. A trim reckoning. Who hath it? He that died o’Wednesday. Doth he feel it? No. Doth he hear it? No. ‘Tis insensible, then? Yea to the dead. But will [it] not live with the living? No. Why? Detraction will not suffer it. Therefore, I’ll none of it. Honor is a mere scutcheon. And so ends my catechism.

G. Blakemore Evans writes that Hotspur and Falstaff are one of several pairs of characters in the play who represent “complementary and constrasting” views. In this pair, Evans writes, Hotspur shows “excess of honor” while Falstaff shows “a total lack of it.”
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1 Henry IV Director's Notes

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