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.
Honor Quotes in Henry IV Part 1
…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!
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
…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…
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.
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.