Henry IV Part 1
How we cite our 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 to 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. (5.1.4)
We've already seen that Falstaff's behavior (during the robbery at Gads Hill) is the antithesis of courage. Here, just before he marches into battle, the old knight discusses the concept of "honour" in his famous "catechism" (this just means his speech is delivered in the form of a question and answer session). Falstaff says "honour" is nothing but "air." It can't heal battle wounds ("set to a leg" or perform a "surgery") and those who pay for "honour" with their lives can't even enjoy it because they're dead.
While it's tempting to simply judge Falstaff's cowardice and sometimes disgraceful behavior, we should think about why Shakespeare puts this speech in Falstaff's mouth. Unlike other characters (such as Hotspur, King Henry, and Hal), Falstaff refuses to elevate the concept of honor (which, as we've seen, seems to come out of the violence of warfare) to anything other than a mere "word." So, what are we to make of this? Is he right? Does Falstaff offer a refreshing reality check for anyone caught up in, say, Hotspur's definition of honor? Or, is Falstaff merely making the excuses of a coward? Think about this carefully and then you decide. Go on, Shakespeare wants you to.
I will redeem all this on Percy's head
And in the closing of some glorious day
Be bold to tell you that I am your son;
When I will wear a garment all of blood
And stain my favours in a bloody mask,
Which, wash'd away, shall scour my shame with it:
And that shall be the day, whene'er it lights,
That this same child of honour and renown,
This gallant Hotspur, this all-praised knight,
And your unthought-of Harry chance to meet. (3.2.3)
After King Henry scolds the prince for his shameful behavior (carousing with commoners, stealing, etc.), Hal promises to redeem himself by defeating Hotspur in battle. Hal's insistence that he'll "wear a garment all of blood" and "stain" his facial features ("favours") in a "bloody mask" is an absolutely stunning and vivid image of a bloodied warrior, isn't it?
What interests us most about this passage is Hal's notion that his "shame" and dishonor will be "scour[ed]" and "wash'd away" along with the blood of battle when all is said and done. We notice that Hal's language seems to echo his father's earlier remarks about the Prince's "dishonour" being like a physical "stain" on the prince's "brow" (see 1.1.3 above.)
Of course, Hal's remarks also make his plans for the redemption of his honor sound a lot like a baptism. Here, water is replaced by blood in what Hal imagines to be a kind of holy rite. By killing Hotspur (and being soaked in his blood), Hal will achieve a kind of spiritual or moral purification or, rebirth. In other words, bloodshed will wash away Hal's dishonor and shame, making the prince a new man.
Want to think about this idea some more? You might compare Hal's notion of redemption to King Henry's belief that waging a holy war in Jerusalem will redeem his past sins. (Check out our discussion of Henry's opening speech in Act 1, Scene 1 in "Quotes" for "Warfare.")
For every honour sitting on his helm,
Would they were multitudes, and on my head
My shames redoubled!
for the time will come,
That I shall make this northern youth exchange
His glorious deeds for my indignities.
Percy is but my factor, good my lord,
To engross up glorious deeds on my behalf;
And I will call him to so strict account,
That he shall render every glory up,
Yea, even the slightest worship of his time,
Or I will tear the reckoning from his heart. (3.2.3)
Here, Hal acknowledges that Hotspur has gathered up "multitudes" of "honour" in battle, while Hal has accumulated nothing but "shame." But, Hal insists that when he defeats Hotspur in battle, he will take every bit of Hotspur's accrued honor, forcing his enemy to "exchange his glorious deeds" for the prince's "indignities."
Hal's notion that one can take (by force) honor from another man is pretty remarkable. Let's face it, it's not like honor is a physical thing that can be stolen or exchanged, but that's exactly how honor is portrayed by many of the play's noble characters. (Recall our previous discussion of Henry's remarks at 1.1.3, above.) Hal speaks as though it's been his plan all along to let Hotspur do all the work, acting as a kind of agent ("factor") who gathers up and accumulates honor on behalf of the prince. Compare this passage to 5.4.3 below.