Honour in Henry IV

Topics: William Shakespeare, Henry IV of England, Henry V of England Pages: 5 (1701 words) Published: April 13, 2014


Question 10: Hotspur: “By Heaven, methinks it were an easy leap / To pluck bright honour from the pale-faced moon” (Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part One 1.3.201-2). Falstaff: “What is honour? A word. What is in that word honour? What is that honour? Air” (Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part One 5.1.133-4). Discuss.

In the late 1590s, English playwright William Shakespeare wrote Henry IV Part One, the second historical drama of his second tetralogy. Henry IV Part One tells the story of the reformation of Prince Harry of Wales, the future King of England, from carousing with criminals and disgracing his father to defeating a rebel uprising that threatens to bring down his father's regime. For Prince Harry, the virtue which allows him to escape his duality and transform into his true self is honour. Although honour is the main concept of the play, its definition is not constant and manifests itself differently amongst the various characters. King Henry IV, Hotspur, Falstaff and Prince Hal all concern themselves with honour, but illustrate different opinions of the virtue. Because of the conglomeration of perceptions, it is evident that honour cannot be defined by an exceeding standard, rather it is defined by the values and goals of the individual.

In the case of King Henry IV, honour is thought of as kingly excellence. He believes honour to be the legitimacy of the ruler and his capability to rule the nation justly. Because he obtained the throne illegitimately, Henry fears that his kingship is not honourable. As he has already brought illegitimacy to his crown, King Henry is concerned that his son will bring dishonour to the nation, seeing “riot and dishonour stain the brow of [his] young Harry” (Shakespeare I.I 85-86). The fear of dishonour troubles the king so greatly that he becomes envious of his enemy Northumberland for being the father of Henry Percy, or 'Hotspur' (I.I 78-79), claiming that Hotspur “is the theme of honour's tongue” (I.I 80). Hotspur is honourable in Henry's opinion because he is a perfect example of an honourable man as demonstrated by his courage and victory on the battlefield. Considering his illicit rise to power and the potential of his son disgracing the nation, it is apparent that his kingship represents the adverse of his interpretation of honour. It is not until Prince Hal's victories at the battle of Shrewsbury that King Henry IV is rewarded with piece of mind pertaining to the honour of his rule. This is also where Harry finishes his reformation and becomes honourable in his father's eyes: Stay, and breathe awhile / Thou hast redeem'd thy lost opinion, / And show'd thou mak'st some tender of my life, / In this fair rescue thou hast brought to me (V.IV 46-49).King Henry considers his son to have redeemed his “lost opinion” (V.IV 47) meaning he has recovered what it is to be honourable in terms of the beliefs of his father. The king also claims that Hal has brought him “fair rescue”, meaning that Hal's adherence to his father's wishes rescued the kingdom of illegitimacy and dishonour.

Hotspur is a hot-blooded young man who is fixated on honour and triumph. As King Henry IV suggests when naming Hotspur “the theme of honour's tongue” (I.I 80), both he and young Percy share similar ideas of honour bringing prestige. To Hotspur, however, honour is a self-righteous mean of achieving greatness and respect. Hotspur believes that he and his family have been disrespected by King Henry IV and that the only way of regaining his honour is to defeat the king in battle. After his confrontation with King Henry, Hotspur explains to his father and uncle that in order to redeem their “banished honours” (I.III 181) they must “revenge the jeering and disdained contempt / Of this proud king...” (I.III 183-183). Hotspur's perception of honour is furthered when he exclaims: "By Heaven, methinks it were an easy leap / To pluck bright honour from the pale-faced...


Cited: Shakespeare, William. Henry IV: Part One. New York: Oxford University Press Inc., 2008. Print.
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