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William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare is considered one of the best writers of history. All of his works are viewed as masterpieces, and have been studied and critiqued throughout the centuries following his death. Yet, a select number of his plays and sonnets seem to stand out from the rest. Henry IV Part 1 and 2 are among this select number. Written as part of the second series of Shakespeare’s history plays, which also include Richard II and Henry V, Henry IV Part 1 and 2 are considered to be the best of the group (Mandel 1).

The theme of honor is quite prevalent in Henry IV Part 1. Shakespeare uses three characters – Hotspur, Falstaff, and Prince Hal – to demonstrate how differently honor can be perceived. First is Hotspur, who has an obsessive commitment to honor. “The pursuit of the grand ideal consumes all his energy and shapes his every thought” (Mabillard 1). In other words, Hotspur is so focused on achieving the grand ideal of honor that everything else in his life is sacrificed to this unattainable goal.

Thus, while Hotspur may be “…the theme of honour’s tongue…”(I. i. 80) for King Henry IV, in the eyes of Prince Hal and others, Hotspur is viewed as a hotheaded young man (Mabillard 1). This is demonstrated in his rush for the battle of Shrewsbury, which will ultimately lead to his death. Despite not having enough troops, he refuses to delay the battle – his over-exaggerated sense of honor will not allow him to do so. Yet, there is a silver lining to Hotspur’s concept of honor: it is a genuine ideal, rather than one formed out of a desire for power.

In direct contrast to Hotspur is Falstaff, who has no use whatsoever for the concept of honor. His only concern is self-preservation; therefore, he has quite a bit of difficulty understanding why a person would place honor above everything else: “Yea, but how if honour / prick me off when I come on? how then? Can honour / set to a leg? No. Or an arm? No. Or take away the / grief of a wound? No. Honour hath no skill in surgery / then? No. What is honour? A word. What is that word / honour? Air…Therefore, / I’ll none of it.

Honour is a mere scutcheon…”[V. i. 130-134, 137] (Mabillard 3). In short, Falstaff views honor as a nuisance; yet, he still does not want others to view him as having no honor. This is quite hypocritical on the part of Falstaff, yet it is not unique – many people, both then and now, have hypocrisies that they maintain until their death. Finally, there is Prince Hal. His code of honor is a balance between the two extremes of Hotspur and Falstaff. He not only finds honor in associating with the likes of Falstaff, but also finds honor on the battlefield.

In associating with the commoners like Falstaff, Prince Hal demonstrates the fact that honor can be derived from the everyday experiences of the common folk of the kingdom. His ability to relate to them will serve him well when he becomes king: should he have to lead them in battle, they will willingly follow and support the cause. Another reason for his associating with the commoners is simple rebellion against the strictness of the code of honor held by Hotspur, which allows for no enjoyment in life (Mabillard 4).

Prince Hal realizes that one cannot live for honor alone. On the battlefield, Prince Hal demonstrates his honor through his valiant fighting on behalf of his father, as well as when he allows Falstaff to take the credit for killing Hotspur. Thus, like Hotspur, he is not concerned about personal gain. In the end, “Hal’s ability to see the importance of valor at the appropriate time, and the practicality in not perpetually pursuing honor is a combination of the best aspects of the views on honor embraced by Hotspur and Falstaff” (Mabillard 5).

Henry IV Part 2 continues with the theme of honor, but on a less intense scale. The honor that Prince Hal maintained in Part 1 carries through. However, there is a sense of hypocrisy. As Prince Hal, he saw the benefit of associating with Falstaff. He knew it would allow him to gain an understanding of the everyday life of the common folk of his realm. Yet, as King Henry V, he no longer has a use for Falstaff. Therefore, he severs that friendship with relative ease. Again, while this is hypocritical, there is honor to be found within it.

Prince Hal, now King Henry V, realizes that the time he had with Falstaff is now at an end. His focus is now to be a good and honorable king, one worthy of the respect and love of his subjects. He accomplishes this quite well. Ultimately, Shakespeare’s use of the concept of honor is done quite admirably. Through the use of three separate characters, as well as the interactions they have with one another, he successfully demonstrates that every individual has his own ideal of honor, and that it can go from one extreme to the other.

He also demonstrates that the ideal of honor itself is an admirable one to aspire to. Yet, one gets the sense that, though the characters are focused on attaining honor, the honor they demonstrate says more about who they are rather than about honor. However, the ultimate message is that one should find a balance between the two extremes, such as the balance seen within Prince Hal. This is the best form of honor in the mind of Shakespeare, for it is this type of honor that will allow a person to be the best person he (or she) can be.

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