Shakespeare’s King Henry IV

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Updated: Mar 28, 2022
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The idea of honor was born in the tenth century, most commonly known as the Elizabethan Era. It was nobel mean who earned their honor by battling in war and returning home alive. However, in King Henry IV, Shakespeare does not explicitly give the audience a definition as they are multiple characters who define honor differently or don’t believe it all together. This could explain that honor does not have a set definition but rather decided by a person’s values.

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Shakespeare presents three different ideas of honor in the play.

King Henry defines honor as the legitimacy of leadership and the well being of the nation. Henry though is troubled with his definition of honor because of how he came to the crown. King Henry rebelled against Richard II and took the crown. Since he committed this act, he believes he is an illegitimate act of leadership and questions his honor. His position as King though protects him from becoming dishonorable.

One way to view honor is to have earned it through war. Going to war earned men honor because of their fearlessness and passion they showed in war. The first time honor is mentioned in the play is about Hotspur and his fearlessness in war. King Henry defines Hotspur’s actions of a capturing prisoners and bring them back home to be sentenced as an honorable act. Hotspur is a ill-tempered, military minded young man. However, his obsession with honor might just mean he is obsessed with war. Since fighting for the honor of his king and his kingdom means adding another notch on his belt then by all means he is up for it.

Falstaff is raises a concern for his life once Prince Hal leaves. He admits to the audience that he does not believe in the idea of honor and admits it is rather foolish to think honor can be aanything but be a word.

“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.”

He brings up a rather interesting point by expressing that honor without people putting meaning behind it, is nothing but a word. Falstaff believes that people are dying for the mere concept of honor, an abstract idea with many interpretations that offers nothing concrete. He continues this pattern with questioning why these people are dying for this idea of “honor”. Honor is closely is associated with death and dying then Falstaff wants nothing to do it with it. I would argue that he honors his life and the lives of others above war. His opposition to the norm would cause an uproar and that is the reason why he waits to confront the idea after Prince Henry leaves. His views on losing your life in battle looks like cowardice, he refuses to fight for his life and takes credit for another man’s death. Falstaff assuming credit for the death of Hotspur says a lot to his character. As often as he opposes the killing another person in the name of honor, he shows us that he cares… even the smallest bit on what it does to his reputation. If a man like Falstaff can take down the most feared, Hotspur that must mean he worthy of honor.

As “easy” as honor might be to attain, it is even easier to lose it. Shakespeare shows just how easy it is to lose it as he shows up how King Henry watches the downfall of his son. Or at least the downfall that King Henry sees. Prince Hal has other means in his laziness and debauchery. Westmoreland agrees with King Henry:

“In faith, it is a conquest for a prince to boast of”

Prince Hal spends a lot of time playing around with his lowly friends.

“By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes; and like bright metal on sullen ground, my reformation, glitt’ring o’er my fault shall show more goodly and attract more eyes.”

Prince Hal shows us that he is faking it so that he may look more honorable when he does something good. He is on stage alone telling the audience because apart of him believes that what he is doing is dishonorable. His approach might be questionable but arguably a decent attempt as he saves his father from death in war.


“Stay, and breathe awhile.

Thou hast redeemed thy lost opinion

And showed thou mak’st some tender of my life,

In this fair rescue thou hast brought to me.”

In this sense, Prince Hal “redeemed” himself in the eyes of his father so it may have worked to pretended to be irresponsible and lazy to make this one act of saving his father life honorable. 

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Shakespeare’s King Henry IV. (2021, Nov 30). Retrieved from