Henry IV Part 1

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Themes and Colors
Appearances Theme Icon
Honor Theme Icon
The Right to be King Theme Icon
Language Theme Icon
Warfare Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Henry IV Part 1, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Honor Theme Icon

Throughout the play, characters pursue honor even while they also ask questions about the nature of honor and wonder about its value. Prince Hal’s trajectory through the play transforms him from a fun-loving teenager into a mature prince and is described in terms of honor: he goes from a position of dishonor at play’s start (where King Henry laments his recklessness and wishes he could embody the honor of young Hotspur) to a position of high honor at play’s end (where his father, along with everyone around him, praises his courage and nobility). Just as crucial to the play is Hotspur’s quest for (further) honor, which, insofar as it leads him to wage the Battle of Shrewsbury against King Henry, drives the entire plot action of the play. For Hotspur, this battle is the only honorable thing to do. In his mind, he has to wage war to protect his family’s honor and restore the esteemed position he feels the Percy clan deserves.

As to how one goes about acquiring honor, the play avoids committing to a single answer and provides different possible methods. One path to honor is by birth. Hotspur believes he deserves others’ respect because he was born a Percy, and Prince Hal secretly trusts his princely blood will protect him from the dishonor he immerses himself in at Boarshead Tavern. Another path to honor is by courageous acts, as Prince Hal describes wiping away his dishonor with bloodshed in battle, as Sir Walter Blunt dies bravely and nobly for the King, and as Prince John proves himself (to everyone’s surprise) to be a bold, honored warrior at the Battle of Shrewsbury. The play suggests that honor can also be won by noble speech when Prince Hal regains honor in his father’s eyes via articulate apologies and promises and when King Henry seems honorable to the audience as he mercifully seeks out peace with the rebels to spare his subjects’ bloodshed.

Yet Falstaff’s meditations on the nature of honor are so powerful, they call everyone else’s understanding into question. Reflecting on the prevailing belief that honor is a valuable quality worth risking one’s life to attain, Falstaff asks some serious questions about honor’s usefulness: “Can honor set a leg? no. Or an arm? no. Or take away the grief of a wound? No…What is honor? A word? What is in that word ‘honor’?…Air.” Indeed, his conclusions are hard to argue with and hauntingly imply that all the other characters’ earnest quests for honor may be nothing but a hollow enterprise.

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Honor Quotes in Henry IV Part 1

Below you will find the important quotes in Henry IV Part 1 related to the theme of Honor.
Act 1, Scene 1 Quotes

…thou mak’st me sad and mak’st me sin
In envy that my Lord Northumberland
Should be the father to so blest a son—
A son who is the theme of honour’s tongue,
Amongst a grove the very straightest plant,
Who is sweet Fortune’s minion and her pride—
Whilst I, by looking on the praise of him
See riot and dishnor stain the brow
Of my young Harry. O, that it could be proved
That some night-tripping fairy had exchanged
In cradle clothes our children where they lay,
And called mine Percy, his Plantagenet!

Related Characters: King Henry IV (speaker), Prince Hal (Henry, Prince of Wales), Hotspur (Henry Percy), Northumberland
Page Number: 1.1.77-88
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, King Henry IV criticizes his own child, who shares a first name with the child of Lord Northumberland: Henry. Half-seriously, half-jokingly, Henry IV wishes that his and Northumberland's children had been switched at birth: his own child is a disobedient youth, while Northumberland's child is proud and honorable.

Little does Henry IV that his child, Prince Hal, will grow up to be arguably the greatest of all English monarchs, Henry V. For now, though, Hal appears to be a disgrace to his family--he spends all his time goofing around and getting drunk. Henry IV is understandably upset that his child isn't a more accomplished leader, because he's thinking about his own legacy as a monarch; he needs a suitable male heir to ensure that his "line" will endure.


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Act 1, Scene 2 Quotes

So, when this loose behavior I throw off
And pay the debt I never promised,
By how much better than my word I am,
By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes;
And like bright metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation, glittering o’er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
I’ll so offend to make offence a skill,
Redeeming time when men think least I will.

Related Characters: Prince Hal (Henry, Prince of Wales) (speaker)
Page Number: 1.2.215-224
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Prince Hal first demonstrates his status as a devious, skillful politician. Contrary to his father's beliefs, Hal is fully aware of his dishonorable behavior. Hal chooses to behave so badly, he claims, because ultimately his bad behavior will make his future honor and ascendancy to the throne of England more impressive. Basically, Hal wants to tell the best "story." An obedient, loyal child is no fun. But a disobedient child who becomes a great king--now that's a good story.

It's possible to interpret Hal's words ironically, of course. Like so many spoiled rich kids who never amount to anything, Hal might just be telling himself that he'll turn a new leaf somewhere down the line, despite the fact that he has no real ability to do so--what he thinks is just an act may have become his real character.

Act 1, Scene 3 Quotes

With many holiday and lady terms
He questioned me; amongst the rest demanded
My prisoners in your majesty’s behalf.
I then, all smarting with my wounds being cold—
To be so pestered with a popinjay!—
Out of my grief and my impatience
Answered neglectingly, I know not what—
He should, or should not—for he made me mad
To see him shine so brisk, and smell so sweet,
And talk so like a waiting gentlewoman

So cowardly, and but for these vile guns
He would himself have been a soldier.

Related Characters: Hotspur (Henry Percy) (speaker), King Henry IV
Page Number: 1.3.47-66
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Henry IV tries to resolve a dispute with Hotspur, the young warrior for whom he has great respect. Hotspur has refused to turn over some prisoners of war to Henry IV. He explains that he's refused to turn them over because the messenger whom Henry IV sent to demand the prisoners was overly effeminate in his manner. Hotspur goes off, criticizing everything about the messenger.

The passage suggests that Hotspur isn't as great and honorable a leader as Henry IV has imagined: on the contrary, Hotspur is easily angered, and he allows his anger to cloud his judgment. Hotspur can't stand being around men who seem effeminate or cowardly--in other words, he's a great soldier but a pretty horrible diplomat. Hotspur is, as his name suggests, too hot-tempered to ever be much of a leader, except perhaps on the battlefield.

But shall it be that you, that set the crown
Upon the head of this forgetful man
And for his sake wear the detested blot
Of murderous subornation, shall it be,
That you a world of curses undergo,
Being the agents, or base second means,
The cords, the ladder, or the hangman rather?

Related Characters: Hotspur (Henry Percy) (speaker), King Henry IV, Northumberland
Page Number: 1.3.164-170
Explanation and Analysis:

Hotspur confirms his status as an uncontrollable "loose cannon." Hotspur has just had a tense argument with Henry IV, the king. Now alone with his father, Northumberland, Hotspur continues to criticize the king, faulting him for being "forgetful" (forgetting how Hotspur's family helped him gain the crown) and traitorous. Hotspur is old enough to know that Henry IV has risen to power by killing the former king, Richard II. Hotspur even faults his own father for allowing himself to be humiliatingly "subordinate" to such a monarch.

In short, Hotspur isn't much of a politician, let alone a rhetorician. His speech is full of elaborate mixed metaphors and angry declarations. Hotspur's behavior illustrates what Henry IV is up against: a nation of unruly citizens who don't trust their new king.

Act 2, Scene 4 Quotes

I am so good a proficient in one quarter of an hour, that I can drink with any tinker in his own language during my life. I tell thee, Ned, thou hast lost much honor, that thou wert not with me in this sweet action.

Related Characters: Prince Hal (Henry, Prince of Wales) (speaker)
Page Number: 2.4.17-21
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage is a great example of how Prince Hal's experiences as a drinker and "party animal" actually prepare him well for the monarchy. Hal spends a lot of time in taverns, but he uses this time as an opportunity to hone his skills as a politician, a negotiator, and a communicator. Hal has become so adept at making friends with strangers that he can bond with anyone over a beer in just 15 minutes.

From the perspective of Hal's father, Henry IV, Hal's behavior is disgraceful, a mark of how far from the monarchy he really is. And yet we can already tell that Hal is a better politician than his father--he knows how to get along with his subjects and use words and rhetoric to get what he wants. Another important aspect of this is that he's hanging out with commoners--the kind of people the king actually rules, and who make up the majority of the country, but who in a typical monarchy have little to no contact with the royal court. Thus Hal seems surprisingly egalitarian and openminded in his ruling strategy, however "dishonorable" it might seem to the nobility.

Why, hear ye, my masters: Was it for me to kill the heir-apparent? should I turn upon the true Prince? why, thou knowest I am as valiant as Hercules: but beware instinct; the lion will not touch the true Prince. Instinct is a great matter; I was now a coward on instinct. I shall think the better of myself and thee during my life; I for a valiant lion, and thou for a true prince.

Related Characters: Sir John Falstaff (speaker), Prince Hal (Henry, Prince of Wales)
Page Number: 2.4.279-286
Explanation and Analysis:

Here we meet Falstaff, who has just come from a skirmish with masked attackers--whom we know to be Prince Hal and his friends. Falstaff boasts about winning his encounter with the attackers, and offers various details about the skirmish. After Falstaff has bragged enough, Hal coolly reveals to Falstaff that he knows the truth: he was the one who attacked Falstaff. Surprisingly, Falstaff has no trouble recovering from his rhetorical setback: he backpedals and boasts about being perceptive enough to recognize Hal in disguise, and showing mercy to him because he recognized that he couldn't hurt the "true Prince."

Falstaff, is one of the most interesting characters in the play, famous for both his boorish comedy and his perceptive cynicism. Here he skillfully (if comically) "spins" his cowardice to look like discretion and intelligence, arguing that he's too honorable to touch Prince Hal. While some have interpreted Falstaff as a dishonorable, amoral character, it's difficult to deny Falstaff's charm--even when he's being a coward, Falstaff's gift for language entertains us. Moreover, Falstaff's deftness with language suggests that he's an important mentor for Prince Hal.

Act 3, Scene 1 Quotes

…you are too willful-blame;
And since your coming hither have done enough
To put him quite beside his patience.
You must needs learn, lord, to amend this fault:
Though sometimes it shows greatness, courage, blood—
And that’s the dearest grace it renders you,--
Yet oftentimes it doth present harsh rage,
Defect of manners, want of government,
Pride, haughtiness, opinion and disdain…

Related Characters: Earl of Worcester (speaker), Hotspur (Henry Percy)
Related Symbols: Blood
Page Number: 3.1.182-191
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the Earl of Worcester confirms what we already knew about Hotspur: his hot-headedness is getting in the way of the group's plan to start a rebellion. Hotspur finds it nearly impossible to control his own warlike instincts. While such instincts may be useful on the battlefield, the Earl acknowledges, they need to be controlled during peacetime. As a result of his hot-headedness, Hotspur has already alerted Henry IV to the possibility of another rebellion--something that Henry wouldn't have been aware of had Hotspur just controlled his temper.

In short, Worcester is trying to act as an informal mentor to Hotspur. Worcester wants Hotspur to be a great politician as well as a great warrior. If the rebellion is to be a success, then Hotspur will have to do a better job of masking his real ambitions and controlling his language.

Act 3, Scene 2 Quotes

…I will wear a garment all of blood
And stain my favour in a bloody mask,
Which, wash’d away, shall scour my shame with it.

Related Characters: Prince Hal (Henry, Prince of Wales) (speaker)
Related Symbols: Blood
Page Number: 3.2.140-142
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Hal meets with his long-suffering father, Henry IV. Henry angrily chastises his son for being reckless and drunken in public. He urges Hal to act more honorably, like a proper monarch.

Prince Hal, who's far smarter and more politically-minded than his father imagines, knows exactly what to tell the king. He promises to become a great warrior and defeat Hotspur, who is now leading a rebellion against the monarchy. Hal's speech, which emphasizes blood and carnage, is tailor-made to appeal to society's general idea of "honor" as being closely tied to success in battle. Just as he's planned all along, Hal is preparing to switch from lout to king overnight, pleasing his father and redeeming his reputation.

Act 4, Scene 3 Quotes

Disgraced me in my happy victories,
Sought to entrap me by intelligence,
Rated mine uncle from the council board,
In rage dismissed my father from the court,
Broke oath on oath, committed wrong on wrong,
And in conclusion drove us to seek out
This head of safety, and withal to pry
Into his title, the which we find
Too indirect for long continuance.

Related Characters: Hotspur (Henry Percy) (speaker), King Henry IV
Page Number: 4.3.104-112
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Hotspur responds to Henry IV's peace offerings. Instead of submitting to Henry IV's authority, as Henry had hoped, Hotspur reiterates his hatred for the king: he explains that Henry IV has always mistreated Hotspur and Hotspur's family, sneakily breaking his promises to them in order to ascend to the throne. Now, Hotspur aims to defeat Henry and claim the throne of England for himself.

Hotspur's response proves that it was perhaps a bad idea for Henry IV to offer Hotspur peace so late in the game. By this point in the text, Hotspur's mind is made up: he thinks he has to follow through with his plan to fight Henry to the death. Therefore, sending a messenger to offer truce accomplishes nothing. Furthermore, the peace messenger only makes Hotspur angrier, and sends the message that Henry IV is frightened and desperate. Hotspur takes an obvious pleasure in listing his "beefs" with Henry IV, and in fact puffs up his own courage and confidence in the very act of rejecting Henry's offer.

Act 5, Scene 1 Quotes

Well, ‘tis no matter; honour pricks me on. Yea, but how if honour prick me off when I come on? How then? Can honour set 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 in that word “honour”? What is that “honour”? Air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it? He that died o’Wednesday. Doth he feel it? No. Doth he hear it? No. ‘Tis 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. Honour is a mere scutcheon. And so ends my catechism.

Related Characters: Sir John Falstaff (speaker)
Page Number: 5.1.131-142
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Falstaff--who's about to go into battle on behalf of Prince Hal--criticizes the concept of honor. Falstaff has been pressured to fight because of the principle of honor (i.e., Falstaff's loyalty to Hal, and his confidence in his own abilities). And yet Falstaff doesn't see the point of honor at all. Honor is a meaningless concept because it compels men to go to battle, causes them to be injured, and then doesn't act as a "surgeon." In short, honor demands a lot of people, and doesn't give anything back. Furthermore, Falstaff sees honor as a mere "scutcheon"--an ornamented shield--essentially, a fancy word to cover up the harsh realities of greed, ambition, and violence.

Falstaff's speech seems pretty reasonable by modern standards: the old English code of honor (which compelled thousands of men to fight in silly wars and brutally lose their lives) doesn't hold much currency anymore. Of course, it's also important to note that Falstaff is really only criticizing the concept of honor because he's frightened of fighting. Falstaff is "wrong but right"--honor may be a sham, but Falstaff is still a hypocrite for boasting of his bravery and then fearing to fight.