Indeed, the notion of honour in King Henry IV is portrayed through multiple characters within the play. It is understood that Falstaff and hotspur’s interpretations of honour act as a character foil to validate Hal’s modern and compassionate form of honour, although, in Shakespeare’s world of deceit and blind ambition, he suggests that extreme forms of honour without the ability to adapt to the climate around them will ultimately fail. Falstaff proclaims that honour itself is just “a word” – “air”; this brings forth the audiences capacity to validate what he says and ultimately contextualize with him which further brings forth the question “what is honour?” Falstaff delivers this diatribe against honour during the battle at Shrewsbury, just before the climax of the play. Linking honour to violence, Falstaff, who is about to go into battle, says that honour “pricks him on” to fight, meaning that honour motivates him; he then asks what he will do if honour “pricks him off,” that is, kills or injures him. He says that honour is useless when one is wounded: it cannot set an arm or a leg, or take away the “grief of a wound,” and it has “no skill in surgery.”
In fact, being merely a word, honour is nothing but thin air—that is, the breath that one exhales in saying a word. He says that the only people who have honour are the dead, and it does them no good, for they cannot feel or hear it. Furthermore, honour doesn’t “live with the living” because honour is gained through death. Falstaff therefore concludes that honour is worthless, “a mere scutcheon,” and that he wants nothing to do with it. Henceforth it is realized that the polar opposite of Falstaff is Hotspur, who’s concept of honour comes in the form of praise from the king himself, declaring Hotspur to be “the theme of honour’s tongue”. Indeed, Hotspur is committed to honour. The pursuit of this grand ideal consumes all his energy and shapes his every thought. But throughout the course of the play we see that this obligation to honour is detrimental and obsessive. The king’s words about Hotspur’s form of honour remain true, but the irony of those words becomes increasingly apparent as the audience begins to see how irrational Hotspur’s concept of honour is. The moments Hotspur shares with his wife, Lady Percy, illustrate clearly his excessive passion for honour.
His preoccupation with his chivalric duties has made him unable to think of or discuss anything other than “sallies and retires, of trenches, tents, of palisades and frontiers”. It is henceforth seen that Hotspur’s cult like quest for honour clouds his judgment and allows him to be manipulated by others which ultimately disallows the success of his almost egotistically fuelled up rise against the King. The way Hotspur totally disregards Lady Percy’s concern exemplifies how honour to him is seen as a cult like notion. Instead of Hotspur acknowledging her concern, he begins to speak to a servant that has just passed by about more pressing military matters, although, when he does finally acknowledge her, it is only to tell her that “this is no world to play mammets and to tilt with lips”. Hotspur’s belief that everyone must have “bloody noses and crack’d crowns” is highly favoured by King Henry. He gloats that “thrice Hotspur, Mars in swaddling-clothes” had “discomfited great Douglas”, thus portraying how King Henry condones Hotspur’s lust for honour. Through the actions of King Henry, it is evident that he is keen to repair his image of a dishonourable King.
The neglect and slander shown to Hal is due to him being a “stain on the brow” because he adding to the burden and dishonour of Henry’s kingship. Accordingly, the King admires Hotspur as “the theme on honour’s tongue” and wished his son would possess the same characteristics, even giving mention to the fact that he wished Hotspur and Hal where “exchanged in cradle” so he could call “Percy” his son instead of Hal. Hence it shows that the King’s quest to regain his honour is being denatured by his frivolous son. Contrastingly, King Henry’s dishonour is vividly portrayed within act 5 scene 2 when the rebels are giving the audience insight into why he cannot be trusted, Worcester insists to Vernon that his “nephew must not know” of the Kings “kind offer” due to the fact he believes Henry cannot be trusted and that, while hotspur may be forgiven on grounds of youth, the King would “suspect” Worcester and Vernon “and find a time to punish this offence in other faults”.
Henceforth, Henry does prove himself and his honour in act 5 scene 4 as he suggests that his sons prance Hal and Lancaster “withdraw” from the fighting, which shows his bravery in a battle situation. Additionally, Douglas is seen to almost kill the King, until the Prince slays him, this not only shows the Kings bravery, engaging in a one on one fight, but also depicts the reunification between father and son. Henry thus proclaims that Hal “hast redeemed thy lost opinion”, cementing their newly found appreciation of one another. Prince Hal thinks of honour as something that related to virtuous behaviour: he works on redeeming his own image by striving to achieve honour through his behaviour. Hal is aware he needs to change, he can no longer partake in his “loose behaviour” and must “throw [it] off”. Through his previous bad behaviour, he will attempt to restabilise his image via “pay[ing] back the debt [he] never promised”. Hal knows that there is great honour and virtue in being understood and respected by the poor people in the tavern. He realizes that his ability to relate to the men while he is their drinking buddy will enable the men to relate to Hal better if the time comes when he must lead them into battle.
Furthermore, Hal can maintain a rapport with the Boar’s Head crowd without lowering his own definite and innate honourable standards by participating in any criminal activity. He proclaims to Falstaff, ‘Who, I rob? I a thief? Not I, by my faith.’ Hal’s fraternizing with Falstaff and his companions is also a reaction to Hotspur’s strict, pointless code of honour. Hal finds the rigid, honour-bound universe of Hotspur deplorable and destructive I am not yet of Percy’s mind, the Hotspur of the North; he that kills me some six or seven dozen of Scots at a breakfast, washes his hands, and says to his wife, ‘Fie upon this quiet life! I want work.’ Instead of searching for people to challenge to duels or engaging in fights that end in certain death, Hal looks for honour in another way, through his association with Falstaff.
When Hal finally does ‘pay the debt he never promised’ and discards his seemingly dishonourable facade to let his true, virtuous self show, he will be a more admired and therefore more successful ruler, and he will not have used Hotspur’s code of honour to achieve his goal. Although Hotspur’s obsession with honour and Falstaff’s apparent lack of honour deserve examination for their own sake, it becomes evident that their primary function in the play is to show how Prince Hal balances the two extremes and creates his own complex concept of honour which enables him to become the perfect example of a valiant man. Thus, Falstaff’s damned view of honour can be perceived by many to be more than a “word” or “air”, but indeed, something worth fighting and dying for.