Like many of Shakespeare’s history plays, Henry IV Part 1 builds towards a critical, throne-determining battle at play’s end. Knowing the historical facts of the story, the audience already knows how this battle is going to turn out. Still, Shakespeare uses the circumstances leading up to the fighting and the conditions of the battlefield itself to offer deeper meditations on warfare, applicable to any battle at any point in history. Many of these meditations intertwine the theme of warfare with the theme of honor, and contemplate violence’s participation in each. Prince Hal describes the way he’ll go about accruing honor through war imagery: “When 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.” Yet the grotesque savagery of these images calls into question whether honor won by violent acts should really be considered noble. Indeed, Hal seems most noble when he mercifully releases the war prisoner Douglas at the end of the play out of respect for Douglas’ bravery. King Henry, by contrast, is admirably reluctant to go to war and keenly aware of what a horrific toll battle takes on human life. He continually attempts to persuade Hotspur and the rebels to negotiate peace. Yet, even as King Henry is trying to avoid war in England, he starts out the play with no qualms about fully supporting violent crusades in the Middle East. This hypocrisy suggests that King Henry’s compassion for human life may not extend beyond the borders of his own nation. Although, for the most part, characters appreciate and hope to preserve a peaceful England, the play also refers to the evils bred by long peacetime: widespread complacency and weak, cowardly men.
As in the theme of honor, Falstaff proves the most penetrating thinker in the play. His reflections on drafting soldiers are, as often with Falstaff, both superficially funny and devastatingly resonant: by drafting rich, fearful men, he amasses a wealth of pay-offs and ends up conscripting only the poor, beggarly Englishmen least fit to be soldiers. Brushing off Prince Hal’s appalled reaction to the quality of his troops, Falstaff reminds the prince that they’re just “food for powder, food for powder; they’ll fill a pit as well as better:…mortal men, mortal men.” Indeed, his description of what it means to be a soldier is painfully apt—most soldiers’ only role is to add one more faceless body to a human wall of defense. Though select individuals end up honored warriors, the majority of men die on the field. Indeed, as Falstaff notes later, only three of the men he conscripts survive the Battle of Shrewsbury.
Warfare Quotes in Henry IV Part 1
No more the thirsty entrance of this soil
Shall daub her lips with her own children’s blood;
No more shall trenching war channel her fields,
Nor bruise her flowerets with the armed hoofs
Of hostile places...
The edge of war, like an ill-sheathed knife,
No more shall cut his master.
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.
Thy spirit within thee hath been so at war,
And thus hath so bestirr’d thee in thy sleep,
That beads of sweat have stood upon thy brow,
Like bubbles in a late-disturbed stream;
And in thy face strange motions have appear’d
Such as we see when men restrain their breath
On some great sudden hest. O, what portents are these?
Some heavy business hath my lord in hand,
And I must know it, else he loves me not.
…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…
…the King hath sent to know
The nature of your griefs; and whereupon
You conjure them from the breast of civil peace
Such bold hostility, teaching his duteous land
Audacious cruelty. If that the King
Have any way your good deserts forgot,
Which he confesseth to be manifold,
He bids you name your griefs; and with all speed
You shall have your desires with interest,
And pardon absolute for yourself and these
Herein misled by your suggestion.
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.
Arm, arm with speed: and, fellows, soldiers, friends,
Better consider what you have to do
Than I, that have not well the gift of tongue,
Can lift your blood up with persuasion.
Ill-spirited Worcester, did not we send grace,
Pardon, and terms of love to all of you?
And wouldst thou turn our offers contrary,
Misuse the tenor of thy kinsman’s trust?
Three knights upon our party slain today,
A noble earl, and many a creature else
Had been alive this hour,
If like a Christian thou hadst truly borne
Betwixt our armies true intelligence.