The Concept Of Honor In Henry Iv, Part One

2352 words - 9 pages


       Shakespeare’s talent as both a writer and a poet lead to his gift for character development, down to the last detail. Henry IV, Part One contains a variety of deep characters, two of which play key roles in the evolution of the concept of honor in the play. Falstaff and Hotspur symbolize opposing viewpoints concerning the main theme of the play – honor. At the time the play was written, honor was defined as “the special virtues which distinguish those of the nobility in the exercise of their vocation–gallantry in combat with a worthy foe, adherence to the accepted code of arms, and individual loyalty to friends, family, and comrades in arms” (Prior 14). Although honor is an important subject in the play, this is not to say that it can be found as an inherent quality in any of the characters. Where is the honor in peasants uprising against a usurper king whom they placed in office? The reader is invited to see honor through the eyes of either Falstaff or Hotspur. Hotspur’s pursuit of honor becomes obsessive to the point that he is blinded to everything that doesn’t pertain to his quest for honor. Falstaff holds the opposing viewpoint, concluding that honor is rejected due to its limitations on life and therefore must be seen as empty and valueless. To Hotspur, honor is more important than life itself, and his blind pursuit of honor ultimately drives him to his death. While he stands for images and ideals, Falstaff hacks at the meaning of honor until he has stripped it to almost nothing but a puff of air, a word. "Falstaff is vivid, physical, realistic– a slice of life" (Kantor 83).

The King complains that ‘riot and dishonor’ stain the brow of his son whereas Hotspur is the theme of honor’s tongue (Wells 141). Henry uses the successes in war of Hotspur, "Mars in swaddling clothes," as a rod for Prince Hal’s back (Wells 143), accusing his son of being unfit to inherit the crown. To many critics, Hotspur is immensely attractive and rather comical in his impulsive impetuosity–"he that kills some six or seven dozen Scots for breakfast, washes his hands, and says to his wife, ‘Fie upon this quiet life, I want work’" (2.5.102-6). Yet, this commitment to bright honor is a dangerous obsession preoccupying Hotspur so much that he is blind to all else. To Hotspur the more dangerous and perilous a situation, the more desire he has to throw himself helplessly into it. To him there are no consequences; he sees no danger. All Hotspur can see is the possibility of achieving great honors– "Doomsday is near, die all, die merrily" (4.1.134). Hotspur’s life is no more than a military commitment; he desires only to gain future glory, whether he wins or loses, lives or dies.

For Hotspur, who glorifies the honor to be gained in battle against worthy foes, the more hazardous the enterprise, the greater the chance of gaining honor (Prior 14). This concept of honor contrasts greatly with that of Falstaff, a battered old soldier long turned against the...

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