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The ambiguities of honour are revealed through three directly contrasting concepts of honour, which are demonstrated in the characters of Hotspur, Hal and Falstaff. Of the major protagonists Hotspur gains honour through physical deeds and titles, opposing Hal who obtains it through moral value. Juxtaposing both is the loveable yet corrupt Falstaff, who humorously displays honour as "a mere scutcheon", an outward trapping hiding the true emptiness within, like the drapery at a funeral. Honour fickly morphs to each individual's values and beliefs, Helen Morris noting "Shakespeare leaves it to the audience to decide which valuation to accept".
Shakespeare's late 1590s audience held honour with great regard, boiling over with national pride after having won the 1588 Spanish Armada. Mores notes that England "had defeated the greatest and wealthiest power in Europe"; he further goes on explain how this had produced for the 16th Century audience a greater interest in English history. Hence it is unsurprising Shakespeare wrote a chronology of 6 plays dedicated to their kings.
Shakespeare, furthermore, includes several historical inaccuracies throughout the play. Lowers points out that "Shakespeare made Hotspur the young contemporary of Prince Hal, although the rebel leader was actually somewhat older then Henry IV". However for dramatic purposes Hal and Hotspur are shown to be the same age; in reality they were 23 years apart. Perhaps intended for theatrical purposes or one may consider that hotheadedness and valiant, physical concepts of honour are associated with youth. On top of this the length of the play is a shortening of actual historical accounts and the mention toward a Crusade to Jerusalem "chase these pagans in those holy fields" actually took place after the rebellion. However these were added merely for audience entertainment rather than precisely detailed history analysis. Perhaps Shakespeare had political motives and thus portrays characters with bias; the latter was dangerous in the 16th Century, hence why foreign settings were often popular. Nevertheless, despite intentions, the play's inaccuracies ultimately give a heightened sense of drama and contrast to the audience.
Hotspur is the epitome of honour, "the theme of honour's tongue", warmly noted by Henry IV. His name is a good indication of his nature, for he is indeed 'hot headed', bold, battle loving, courageous and brave; reminding Henry IV for his earlier self. Hotspur's honour is highlighted by a juxtaposition with Hal, who is an embarrassment, residing in the shadows as a lazy fool who hangs around with drunkards. Ashamed to be of Harry's kin the King observes that "riot and dishonour stain the brow / Of my young Harry" setting him as a lazy, self indulgent coward. This starkly contrasts the end of the play when Hal will eventually surpass Hotspur seeing the great value of his brave, heroic qualities. However, surprisingly, we never see Hal participate in truly immoral activity, the accusations posed are unjust. In contrast Hotspur's portrayal as hot headed and battle loving is consistent, being both his greatest strength and tragic flaw.
Temperamental Hotspur desires glory and military greatness, "He that doth redeem her thence might wear / Without corrival all her dignities" implying it is a thing to strive for, to fight and win through sheer bravery. His speech reflects his personality and desire for glory and is designed to incite his father and uncle, appealing to their 'honour', in the context of family pride suggesting their reputation may be redeemed and "banished honours" restored. Conversely Shakespeare reveals Hotspur's egocentricity through this. Personifying honour as a woman we see his pursuit for glory as he chases ideals. His concept of honour is directly linked to courage and reputation, "out upon this half fac'd fellowship!" revealing his wish to harbour honour's glory. To the contemporary audience, most likely, this was seen as selfish and vile trait; such narcissism is condemning toward Hotspur whose vain honour is portrayed in abundant flaw.
After all, as a man of action, he is driven by his primeval need of honour; he must "sink or swim" an indication he will strive to the death to obtain the latter. His opinion is extremely black and white showing his simplicity of mind which is easily manipulated by his uncle Worchester. However as Mosely notes "his concept of honour, however glamorous, is sterile" and "grows out of anger, of hurt pride". Hotspur's speech reflects a raw personality, without tact, that desires glory, a view that would have been shared by Shakespeare's contemporary audience. He grieves the loss of "those proud titles" more than the loss of "brittle life". Hal's valiant defeat of Hotspur, displaying he is not intimidated, highlights the latter's passionate feeling about his intense reputation. Nevertheless Hotspur's concept of honour is portrayed to the contemporary audience as narrow minded, based almost exclusively on physical courage and reputation whilst Hal's is much wider ranging and moral.
The humility of death contrasts Hotspur's vigour and passion in life whilst Hal responds with passivity to death, thus displays the latter's noble tribute.
"When a body did contain a spirit
A kingdom for it was too small a bound
But now two paces of the vilest earth
Is room enough" [V. Iv. 88 - 91]
Hal's honour is portrayed by his lack of gloating over achievement, seeing Hotspur's virtue whilst separating from the rebellion. Yet it is further still a comic irony his reaction to Falstaff's pragmatic death, lightening the mood. A traditional closure, with orders restoration, marks the play's end yet unusually there is a sense of incompleteness for Henry IV Part 2 to answer. Hal however has carried generosity to the end, describing his opponents as Noble Scot" and "noble Percy" thus acknowledging their merits, admiring their honour, and commitment amongst enemies.
Falstaff's speech on honour is likely an antidote to Hotspur's values. He notes how honour should "prick" or spur him on but he would rather reject Hotspur's idealism for practicality and self preservation. Shakespeare uses rhetorical questions to show honour as having little practical value, convincing himself it cannot "stake away the grief of a wound". His cynical view follows a logical pattern as he argues it "a word" and little more than "air". Falstaff comments "I like not such grinning honour as Sir Walter hath" implying his inability to act alike due to his instinct for self preservation; he sees life and honour as opposites and therefore will not seek it less it comes unlooked for. Falstaff's concept of honour is juxtaposed with Hotspur's, providing a clear counterbalance to Hotspur's restless pursuit of honour at any cost. Shakespeare awakens the audience to the complexity of the subject, providing the contemporary audience with arguably a balance in views on what honour truly is. Falstaff is almost a comic hero, defying law and order, putting life above honour, and public reputation. As for his attempt to gain honour, it is an amusing irony due to the total dishonourable behaviour it involves. Falstaff has no true sense of honour, unlike other encounters; his logic labels a living coward better than a dead hero.
Hal lies between Hotspur and Falstaff, being brave but not reckless. The latter two presented to highlight Hal's strength and well founded honour. Scene three, beginning in Media Res, contains Hal's pledge to "redeem all this on Percy's head" thus we see a link with physical courage. Reputation is both lost and won. Here he vows to win Hotspur's honour, obtaining it through death, whilst acknowledging his virtues and showing respect for his opponent. The oxymoronic phrase "valiant rebel of that name" shows the acknowledgment of Hotspur's courage and virtue.
Both Hal and his catalyst Hotspur regard each other in different light. "Two stars keep not
their motion in one sphere" shows Hal's new found sense of dignity and understanding of why they cannot co-exist whilst acknowledging and not underestimating the skill Hotspur harnesses. Whilst Hal begins as an echo of Richard III he eventually surpasses all expectations, seeing the value of Hotspur's brave and courageous qualities. In contrast the latter lacking principle ruthlessly undervalues Hal "sword-and-buckler Prince of Wales" the dismissive remark implying Hal is a common playboy, without honour. It sets an ominous mood; he would be more than happy to see him dead. However this lack of humility and admiration unties to become Hotspur's downfall. Ultimately he lacks the courtesy and honesty, which Hal owns, to see his opponent in clear sight.
Hal's plan, written in soliloquy, with the simile to become "like the sun", revealed from behind the clouds to be appreciated all the more, shows his tact, worldly cynicism and political genius, whilst hinting egocentricity. However the cost is a compromise to his honour and morality; Hal's cunning Machiavellian strategy lacks honesty despite retaining his private, inner integrity. Perhaps he regards honour not as a title to obtain but a truth at heart to hold. Hal's honour to the audience is less exciting or dramatic and this missing courageous value must be learnt from his pantomimic and fiery arch nemesis. Possibly Shakespeare's choice to cause Hotspur's death, by Hal, is purposely so to emphasise the belief in the divine right of kings (i.e. to revolt against the King is sacrilegious, implying a revolt against God, due to his being chosen by the latter) and thus Hal is aware of public responsibility.
However Shakespeare does not only explore honour through the protagonist. Blunt's honour, like Hotspur and Henry IV, is related to physical courage "What honour doth thou seek / Upon my head?" this idea is contained in the strategy to defend Henry IV with many "marching in his coats". However when Hotspur reveals the truth to Douglas it is seen as foolish; "fool go with thy soul".
The majority of characters make some kind of moral statement on honour whether it be physical, principle or cynical. Shakespeare draws the audience toward Hal for the truth; despite this they would have emotionally been more inclined to Hotspur's brute vigorous way of thinking whilst Falstaff would lie as the clear favourite. The play itself became so popular Mabillard noted "After the restoration of the king in 1660, Henry IV Part 1 was one of the first plays to be staged". Nevertheless it would have broadened the ambiguity of honour and called to question many commonly accepted views and beliefs.