KING The Earl of Douglas is discomfited; Ten thousand bold Scots, two-and-twenty knights, Balked in their own blood, did Sir Walter see On Holmedon's plains. Of prisoners Hotspur took Mordake, the Earl of Fife and eldest son To beaten Douglas, and the Earl of Athol, Of Murray, Angus, and Menteith. And is not this an honorable spoil? A gallant prize? Ha, cousin, is it not? (1.1.67-75)
The first time we hear the term "honour" in the play, it's associated with young Hotspur's courage on the battlefield. We're particularly interested in the way the phrase "honourable spoil" seems to hold two distinct but related meanings. First, according to King Henry, Hotspur's actions (the courageous defeat and capture of prisoners) are "honourable." Second, the prisoners are an "honourable spoil," or, a "gallant prize" because they're high ranking nobles who will likely bring a hefty ransom. This, in turn, makes Hotspur's actions all the more "honourable."
Why are we making a big deal out of this? In the passages that follow, we'll see how some other characters in the play think of honor as a physical or tangible thing (instead of an abstract concept or idea) that can be literally taken from other men. Honor, we also notice, tends to apply exclusively to men of noble blood.
WESTMORELAND In faith, it is a conquest for a prince to boast of. KING Yea, there 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 Honor's tongue, […] Whilst I, by looking on the praise of him, See riot and dishonor stain the brow Of my young Harry. (1.1.76-80; 83-85)
This passage is significant for several reasons. First, when Westmoreland and Henry suggest that Hotspur's martial prowess makes him seem more like a "prince" than the king's own son (who stands to inherit the throne by lineal succession), the play establishes Hotspur as the antithesis of Prince Hal, who spends his time carousing with degenerates while Hotspur makes a name for himself as a war hero. This establishes Hotspur's character as a foil to Prince Hal, which raises the following question: what is it, exactly, that makes one cut out to be a good monarch?
For King Henry, courage and leadership on the battlefield not only make Hotspur the very definition of honor ("the theme of honour's tongue"), but also make the young man fit to rule the country. This is not surprising, especially in light of the fact that Henry, backed by an army in the play Richard II, seized the crown from King Richard (as opposed to inheriting the throne according to English custom). We talk about this more in "Quotes" on "Power."
We also want to point out the way King Henry talks about "dishonour" as though it is a tangible thing. Here, he speaks as though it is a physical "stain" marking the prince's "brow." We'll want to keep an eye on this concept.
Tip: This is a great passage for anyone interested in the theme of "Family."
HOTSPUR And shall it in more shame be further spoken That you are fooled, discarded, and shook off By him for whom these shames ye underwent? No, yet time serves wherein you may redeem Your banished honors and restore yourselves Into the good thoughts of the world again, (1.3.181-186)
Here, Hotspur suggests the Percys' rebellion against the king is a matter of family "honour." Hotspur feels his family has been disrespected and deceived by King Henry, who the Percys helped to overthrow King Richard II. It's not clear, however, what matters more to Hotspur – righting a wrong for the sake of doing the right thing or, righting a wrong so his family's reputation might be "restored."
HOTSPUR By heaven, methinks it were an easy leap To pluck bright honor from the pale-faced moon, Or dive into the bottom of the deep, Where fathom line could never touch the ground, And pluck up drowned honor by the locks, So he that doth redeem her thence might wear Without corrival, all her dignities. (1.3.206-212)
When Hotspur personifies "honour" as a "drowned" damsel in distress, he sounds more like a chivalric knight than a man plotting a rebellion against the king. Note: "personification" is just when a non-human thing (like honor) is talked about as though it's human. In this case, Hotspur suggests he can grab "honour" by "her" hair ("locks") and rescue her from the bottom of the ocean ("the deep"). See what we mean when we say he sounds more like a chivalric knight than a rebel? He also sounds a bit like a treasure hunter, one who's more interested in the prize than the principles behind the action.
While Hotspur's attitude and valiant deeds earn him accolades from the king (the very man Hotspur seeks to overthrow) and others, his overconfidence is problematic. His tendency to equate honourable action with impossible tasks (like "plucking" honor from the moon or the depths of the ocean) gets him into trouble on more than one occasion. One could say that Hotspur's overconfidence plays a large role in his downfall – he later ignores the advice and warnings of his peers, believes he can defeat the king's army without his father and Glendower, and rushes headlong into battle. Compare this passage to 4.1 below.
HOTSPUR You strain too far. I rather of his absence make this use: It lends a luster and more great opinion, A larger dare to our great enterprise Than if the earl were here, for men must think If we without his help can make a head To push against a kingdom, with his help We shall o'erturn it topsy-turvy down. Yet all goes well; yet all our joints are whole. (4.1.79-87)
When Hotspur learns his father is (supposedly) too ill to join the rebel army, Hotspur refuses to postpone the impending battle. But why? Hotspur thinks that winning a seemingly impossible victory will give the entire "enterprise" a kind of "luster," which makes victory sound more like a shiny trophy than anything else. Note the way this passage recalls Hotspur's earlier speech about "plucking bright honour" from the moon (1.3 above). For Hotspur, a successful rebellion against the king would be all the more brilliant and glorious because of its degree of difficulty. (So, what happened to the principle of the rebellion? And, what about the outnumbered rebel soldiers who are bound to lose their lives?) We know, of course, that Hotspur's decision to move ahead without Northumberland is one of his fatal errors.
FALSTAFF By the Lord, I knew you as well as he that made you. Why, hear you, 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. (2.4.278-286)
Falstaff's insistence that he was a "coward on instinct" during the second robbery at Gads Hill speaks to his remarkable (and hilarious) ability to think on his feet, don't you think? For our discussion of "Principles," however, Falstaff's antics (his lack of courage at Gads Hill and his fabrication of a preposterous story about what really happened), establish his character as the antithesis of honor. Falstaff's behavior here also anticipates the way he'll perform during the battle at Shrewsbury (playing dead and then stabbing Hotspur's corpse after Hal has killed young Percy). This passage also looks forward to Falstaff's famous speech about the meaninglessness of "honour" in Act 5, Scene 1.
FALSTAFF […] Well, 'tis no matter. Honor pricks me on. Yea, but how if honor prick me off when I come on? How then? Can honor set to a leg? No. Or an arm? No. Or take away the grief of a wound? No. Honor hath no skill in surgery, then? No. What is honor? A word. What is in that word 'honor'? What is that 'honor'? 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. Honor is a mere scutcheon. And so ends my catechism. (5.1.130-142)
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.
PRINCE 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 favors in a bloody mask, Which, washed away, shall scour my shame with it. And that shall be the day, whene'er it lights, That this same child of honor and renown, This gallant Hotspur, this all-praisèd knight, And your unthought-of Harry chance to meet. (3.2.137-146)
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 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.")
PRINCE For every honor 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. (3.2.147-157)
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, 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 below.
HOTSPUR Nor shall it, Harry, for the hour is come To end the one of us, and would to God Thy name in arms were now as great as mine. PRINCE I'll make it greater ere I part from thee, And all the budding honors on thy crest I'll crop, to make a garland for my head. (5.4.69-74)
When Prince Hal encounters Hotspur on the field of battle he says he's going to take the ribbons ("budding honors") from Hotspur's helmet ("crest") and make a garland out of them to wear on his own head. This symbolic threat echoes Hal's earlier promise to take away all of Hotspur's accumulated "honour" by defeating him in man-to-man combat, a promise he makes good on.
HOTSPUR I better brook the loss of brittle life Than those proud titles thou hast won of me. (5.4.79-80)
Hotspur's obsession with honor is constant until the very end. More than his own life, Hotspur seems to value the honor ("those proud titles") Hal has taken from him by defeating him in battle. What do you make of this? Is young Percy to be admired for his ideals? Prince Hal and King Henry seem to think so. Yet, we've also seen how Falstaff raises objections to this way of thinking. Is Hotspur merely a foolish young man, or laudable model of honor?
KING Stay and breathe awhile. Thou hast redeemed thy lost opinion And showed thou mak'st some tender of my life, In this fair rescue thou hast brought to me. (5.4.47-50)
According to King Henry, Prince Hal redeems himself in battle when he saves his father from Douglas (this passage occurs just before Hal defeats Hotspur). The king's words seem to be in keeping with other notions of honor, which associate the term with courage on the battlefield. Yet, here, honor also seems to be closely related to family loyalty and filial obedience. When the king says he's happy to see that Prince Hal values the life of his father enough to risk his own neck in battle, we're reminded of Henry's paranoia about whether or not his son would be happier if the old man were dead and he, Prince Hal, were king. (See quotes for "Power" and "Family" for more on this.)