"Honor" in Henry Iv, Part I – Falstaff vs. Hotspur

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"Honor" In Henry IV, Part I – Falstaff vs. Hotspur
According to F. Scott Fitzgerald, "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function." Indeed, very few people have this quality, the playwright William Shakespeare being one of them. In many of his plays, "Henry IV, Part One" among them, Shakespeare juxtaposes different worldviews, ideologies, and even environments. His characters usually provide a clear example of a split among them in one of many perspectives. One of his characters in "Henry IV"—Falstaff—is first seen as an endearing, uproariously funny scoundrel and later reveals himself more of a lowlife with his view of honor—he seems to believe it when he says that honor is merely "air" and "a word." Henry Percy (a.k.a. Hotspur), another character in the same play, is a warmongering young noble who ends up wanting and leading an armed rebellion against the king (a.k.a. Henry). His view of honor—more regularly occurring in the world and more "correct" than Falstaff's by far—sets up the second major view of the idea of honor. With the two different ideologies, it is difficult to say what exactly Shakespeare wanted his audience to make of what "honor" really is, but perhaps he wanted his audience to see that the world is, in fact, a mixture of extremes. Thus, perhaps the correct view of honor is that it gains respect and gives those who have it a good name despite how they achieved it, only so long as the people of that age decide that to be what "honor" really is. A central concept surrounding Falstaff throughout the play is that of honor, even though he is never seen as honorable by the other characters and most of the audience. As we trace the use of "honor" Shakespeare uses the word to illuminate not only the character of Falstaff, but to shed light upon the concept of honor as it is interpreted by the prince (a.k.a. Hal) and others in the play. Right after being rejected by the prince, his old drinking friend, in asking to be protected in the battlefield, Falstaff makes a speech about honor and what he thinks of it, describing his point-of-view of the whole thing quite clearly: 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. Is it 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. (V, i)

Falstaff's view of honor, then, is that it cannot help people live; it is merely "a word"; and it does not stay even with the living. He tries to make a decision and start controlling this "honor" to his advantage, yet his own subjective view, then, is that "honor" merely passes by everyone, and those that grasp it get to have it for a flag for their funeral parade. While the readers very well know that Falstaff is not a brave man, he is, in a sense, more honorable than anyone else in the play. His truthfulness of saying what he thinks of honor gives Falstaff a huge lead over Hal and Hotspur and the like—they all take "honor"'s meaning for granted, like the audience, except for Falstaff who sticks by his words. Thus, this speech indicates not the man's subjective estimate of honor, but rather the extent to which the word and the concept have become meaningless to the majority of men. Falstaff is articulating, in essence, that in the fiercely competitive and bloody world of war, a world of the rapid crowning and dethroning of kings, the man who has "honor" will not live long; indeed, he that had honor "died o[n] Wednesday." When Falstaff happens upon Blunt's body in the battle, he gets the last laugh at Blunt, perhaps the most honorable man from the court: "Sir Walter Blunt: there's...
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