In Henry IV Part 1, the play juxtaposes different views, ideologies and characters to analyze the concept of honor in a series of parallels and contrasts. Similarity lies between Hotspur and Prince Hal due to their responsibility to their country, England; a parallel is set up between King Henry and Falstaff, while both acquire a father image to Prince Hal, the parenting and belief in honor drastically differs from one another; opposition is establish between Hotspur and Falstaff, when Hotspur ends up being obsessive with pursuit of honor and Falstaff sees honor as emptiness. However, the definition of honor becomes ambiguous when the value of honor changes with the appearance and progress of each character. Therefore, the characters Hotspur, Falstaff, King Henry IV, and Prince Hal each present their own understandings of honor which present their personalities and consciousness, and in comparing and contrasting each of their interpretation of honor, the character’s morality can be better understood. Instead of advocating an absolute representation of honor, I believe that the play seeks to demonstrate the process of developing the theme and language of honor in each character, whether an improvement, a fallback or a mix of complexity is left for the audience to decide.
As a young nobleman and a successful leader in battles, Hotspur values and pursue honor as the highest virtue. The play first uses King Henry to bring out the image of Hotspur, when he praises him as “[A] son who is the theme of Honor’s tongue” (1.1 80) and wishes Hotspur his son in exchange for Hal, Prince of Wales (1.1 89). The concept of honor would be associate with honest, loyalty and an obedient follower, however, despite the impression of Hotspur as a courageous war hero, the play then slowly reveals his shortcomings and dishonorable behavior. From Hotspur defending Mortimer against King Henry accusing him of a traitor and “[A]n if the devil come and roar for them, I will not send them” (1.3 27-28), refusing to turn in the prisoners, the play molds Hotspur as a man with principle and dignity, but then his character immediately shifts to debasing King Henry, “[B]ut I will lift the downtrod Mortimer as high as in the air as this unthankful king, as this ingrate and cankered Bolingbroke” (1.3 137-140), and even proposes the thought of rebellion against King Henry, “yet time serves wherein you may redeem your banished honors and restore yourselves into the good thoughts of the world again, revenge the jeering and disdained contempt of this proud king” (1.3 184-188). The fickle loyalty in his King now becomes apparent when Hotspur could no longer fulfilled his desire from the King. “[S]end danger from the east unto the west, so honor cross it from the north to south, and let them grapple. O, the blood more stirs to rouse a lion than to start a hare” (1.3 201-203) and “[D]ooms day is near. Die all, die merrily” both shows the valiant action from Hotspur and his faith in dying on a battle field a glorious honor, nevertheless, his seemingly belief in honor acts merely for his self-centered motivation. Due to his addiction to honor, no matter who is the sovereign, Hotspur only cares about his personal accomplishments and appears to be irresponsible for reciprocate loyalty when battle emerges.
As a mirror image to Hotspur, Falstaff embodies an audacious character who lives life willfully, with disobedience and rebellion. Falstaff celebrates everything in opposite to Hotspur: he provokes theft and disorder, and moreover, his dismissal of honor. “What is honor? A word. What is in that word honor? What is that “honor”? Air. A trim reckoning…Therefore I’ll none of it. Honor is a mere scutcheon. And so ends my catechism” (5.2 135-142), as Falstaff mocks the concept of honor and instead believes in being alive as the most fundamental element of life, “I like not such grinning honor as Sir Walter hath. Give me life, which, if I can save, so: if not, honor comes unlooked for, and there’s an end” (5.4 62-65). At first glance, Falstaff represents a leisurely lifestyle where he could be honest to himself and only pursues what he enjoys, not following orders from anyone; in a way, being careless and chastise the glory from battle, the power and virtue of a nobleman that relate to honor, demonstrates Falstaff’s own interpretation of “honor”. Yet whether honor solely means a meaningless word to Falstaff and whether he has always been true to himself throughout the play remain unclear and dubious, while he seems to seek honor under different circumstances. “There’s neither honesty, manhood, nor good fellowship in thee, nor thou cam’st not of the blood royal, if thou darest not stand for ten shillings” (1.2 145-148) illustrates a perplexed encouragement to Hal, since the perfunctory Falstaff starts to mention the virtue in honor; from the exaggeration of “I am a rogue if I were not a half-sword with a dozen of them two hours together. I have ‘scaped by miracle” (2.4 170-172), the mind of Falstaff implies that he hopes his role could show importance and be respected as a contributor. In addition, Falstaff also tries to pretend he killed Hotspur as a hero, expressing: “I grant you, I was down and out of breath, and so was he, but we rose both at an instant and fought a long hour by Shrewsbury clock” (5.4 149-151). Both Hotspur and Falstaff win the honor of being themselves, while Hotspur shows idealism but a traitor with no loyalty, on the other hand, Falstaff’s self-indulgence and his manipulation of pretending careless for honor and reputation, make him unreliable.
On the contrary to the straightforwardness and impetuosity from Hotspur and Falstaff, Hal seems to be more implicit and often holds back his true thoughts. In the lines from Hal, “[Y]et herein will I imitate the sun, who doth permit the base contagious clouds to smother up his beauty from the world, that, when he please again to be himself, being wanted, he may be more wondered at by breaking through the foul and ugly mists of vapors that did seem to strangle him” (1.2 204-210), he exploits his friends as “the base contagious clouds” to manifest the his well-behaved self when he decides to show his better side and act as a king. At first his words may seem as another joke when Hal participates in the discussion of robbery, yet he still shows some consciousness by denying Falstaff, “I’ll be no longer guilty of this sin” (2.4 251). The sin could simply mean Falstaff talking nonsense or it could be indicating the misbehavior of Hal, and that now he realizes the need to take action upon his behavior. In the mock acting of him as the King and Falstaff as the Prince, Hal then further asserts his determination by “I do. I will.” (2.4 499), implying he would take the responsibility of a ruler. Furthermore, a turning point that leads to the awakening of Hal occurs in his conversation with King Henry. “I shall hereafter, my thrice gracious lord, be more myself” (3.2 94-95) shows his arising sense of honor and duty which could have been belied by his past appearance; and “I will die a hundred thousand deaths ere break the smallest parcel of this vow” (3.2 163-164) reassures his promise of governing England. I believe multiple forces through the play shape the personality of Hal: his connection to Falstaff, the expectation from his father King Henry, and the comparison and battle between him and Hotspur. These forces then act as an influence on realization of royal blood in Hal, allowing him to gain the knowledge of honor and become a sophisticated heir.
The play Henry IV Part 1 exposes the definition of honor from each character through their reaction and ability to handle different situations. Whether the characters are defeated, motivated, or created from honor, each one have them has their own interpretation that explains their consciousness and reasoning behind their actions. Hotspur, overly obsessive and missing loyalty, and Falstaff, conflicting to his own statements, reflect an inconsistent concept of honor while Prince Hal appears to be capable of grasping the of honor as a whole while he learns from the mistakes of others and his character establish a progression through the play. The path to honor is entangled with perplexity of various phases of personal morality, however, I believe the play does not incline to either preference of the honor representation by the characters, but merely serves as a method for the readers to consider what may be the vital element in the concept and formation of honor.