The Theme of Honor’s Tongue:
An Analysis of the Theme of Honor in Henry IV, Part One
In his play Henry IV, Part One, Shakespeare conveys the various themes by a stylistic method involving alternatively depicting the two extremes of society. The nobility is compared to the commoners, and the effect is one of two distinct classes operating at parallel levels but contrasting each other all the same. The disparity is specifically apparent in the theme of honor. Honor is a broad word that encompasses various definitions and varies from person to person. Thus, it is no surprise that the main characters also perceive honor in their own specific ways. However, the key aspect of the variability lies within the aforementioned distinction of class. The concept of honor for the nobility contrasts deeply with that of the common folk and it is this contrast that needs to be explored in order to understand more fully the broader themes of the play.
At the aristocratic level, honor has a particularly large influence on the views, behaviors, and actions of the noblemen. It is evident that the leaders of high society, the king and his peers, consider honor to be necessary to maintain the status they have or to achieve a status that they de
"Tis insensible, then Yea, to the dead. Therefore, he concludes that honor is worthless, "a mere scutcheon," and wants nothing to do with it. He states that honor is useless when one is wounded because it has "no skill in surgery," and in fact, being merely a word, honor is nothing but "air. In effect, this balancing act that Hal encompasses is conceivably what opens the door for him to become the great King Henry V in the next two plays in Shakespeare"tms sequence. Thus far, the large contrast between the two extremes of society, the nobility (represented by the king and Hotspur) and the lower class (represented by Falstaff), has been depicted. He believes that the king is two-faced and that he has enlisted Hotspur"tms support, along with that of Northumberland and Worcester, and is now ungrateful for it. It could even be ventured that Shakespeare combines these features in order to endorse the sense of honor and leadership that Hal portrays by presenting it as a median between the two opposite ends expressed by the nobility versus Falstaff. 145-146) Consequently, by killing Hotspur, Hotspur"tms honor becomes his own. Later in the same speech he says, "And like bright metal on a sullen ground, my reformation, glitt"tmring o"tmer my fault, shall show more goodly and attract more eyes than that which hath no foil to set it off. In Act One, Scene Two, the audience witnesses Hal"tms declaration that his dissolute lifestyle is actually an act:I know you all, and will awhile uphold the unyoked humor of your idleness; yet 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 the more wondered at by breaking through the foul and ugly mists of vapors that did seem to strangle him. The play begins with the king"tms bold call for a crusade:Those opposed eyes, which, like the meteors of a troubled heaven, all of one nature, of one substance bred, did lately meet in the intestine shock and furious close of civil butchery, shall now, in mutual well-beseeming ranks, march all one way and be no more opposed against acquaintance, kindred, and allies"As far as the sepulchre of Christ,--whose soldier now, under whose blessed cross we are impressed and engaged to fight, forthwith a power of English shall we levy, whose arms were molded in their mother"tms womb to chase these pagans in those holy fields over whose acres walked those blessed feet which fourteen hundred years ago were nailed for our advantage on the bitter cross.